Time's Michael Grunwald Wants Big Government To Save Him From Scary Freedom


Michael Grunwald

It takes backbone to pen an essay that condemns defenders of personal freedom on both the right and the left and explicitly calls for the government to "tread on me" in the name of hoped-for safety — a backbone like aging celery, flopping rubber-like and forgotten at the back of the refrigerator. Over at Time, Michael Grunwald (that's his mug at the right) has just that floppy backbone, and he makes no bones, not even the softest sort, about his deference to authority in all things. "Go ahead, quote the Ben Franklin line about those who would sacrifice some liberty for security deserving neither," he taunts. He wants his soothing promises of security. There's no doubt that he speaks for many Americans in these urban-lockdown days, and those of us who care about liberty should probably be prepared to not only battle the security freaks in the political arena, but to make it clear that enacting their Big Brotherish vision into law won't be the same thing as getting us to live by their rules.

Writes Grunwald in "Tread on Me: The Case for Freedom From Terrorist Bombings, School Shootings and Exploding Factories":

I guess you could call me a statist. I'm not sure we need public financing for our symphonies or our farmers or our mortgages—history will also recall my Stand With Rand on the great laser-pointing controversy of 2011—but we do need Big Government to attack the big collective action problems of the modern world. Our rights are not inviolate. Just as the First Amendment doesn't let us shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, the Second Amendment shouldn't let us have assault weapons designed for mass slaughter. And if the authorities decided it was vital to ask Tsarnaev about his alleged murder of innocents before reminding him of his Fifth Amendment rights to lawyer up, I won't second-guess their call. The civil liberties purists of the ACLU are just as extreme as the gun purists of the NRA, or the anti-regulatory purists in business groups like the Club for Growth.

As you can see, Grunwald knows what he wants, and he wants it good and hard. He has no time for those who "just want government to leave us alone." Says he:

But while the Stand With Rand worldview is quite consistent—against gun restrictions, traffic-light cameras, drone strikes, anti-discrimination laws, anti-pollution laws, and other Big Brother intrusions into our private lives—it's wrong. And most of us know it's wrong, which is why we celebrate our first responders, our soldiers, our law enforcers. They're from the government and they're here to help.

Nothing thrills Grunwald more than first responders throwing their living bodies between his quivering self and "an Elvis impersonator trying to poison the president." Well … even if that Elvis impersonator turns out to have been wrongly fingered and probably framed by somebody gaming the oh-so protective security state.

Grunwald isn't ignorant of America's history and even thinks our "skepticism of authority is a healthy tradition. But we're pretty free." He seems to think, in fact, that we're too free. But his conception of "free" might strike a few of us as just a bit … constrained.

I could argue about how free we really are or the degree to which that freedom is eroding, but that's not relevant here. Fundamentally, Grunwald really is the guy Benjamin Franklin warned you about. At his core, he's fearful of the dangers of the world — all of the dangers except those posed by the people he would deputize to keep him safe. Anybody who says he is "inclined to stand with the public servants keeping us safe, even when the al Qaeda operative they ice in Yemen is an American citizen," lives on the other side of a philosophical divide that can't be bridged by examples of abuses and atrocities.

By contrast, those of us who value liberty: libertarians, civil libertarians, Tea Party conservatives, or whatever, may squabble among ourselves about the details, but we emphasize liberty as the highest political good. Those of us of a more existential bent even see liberty as necessary for giving value to life — living without it is pointless. Maybe we're more risk-tolerant than the Grunwalds of the world, or maybe we just recognize that the watchmen appointed to keep us safe pose new risks of their own.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Grunwalds can only get their way if they not only win all the policy battles, but then can also get the rest of us to submit. By contrast, while those of us who value liberty would prefer to win the policy battles to maximize our freedom in a hassle-free way, we can also carve out incremental victories by refusing to go along, defying laws, blinding surveillance cameras and otherwise keeping the world from being the well-scrubbed, submissive security state. When I say that I'm teaching my son to break the law, I'm not joking.

Grunwald may dismiss Franklin's warning about the tradeoff between liberty and security, but I think a good rejoinder to him comes from the rather more fiery Samuel Adams:

If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.

The Michael Grunwalds of the world need to understand not only that we think they're as wrong as they think we are, but that, with our Bitcoin and our 3D printers and our creative accounting and our backyard gardens and our overall attitude, we're going to preserve our freedom, no matter what. And that means they'll never have the controlled world of which they dream.