There are many idealistic progressives who've remained opposed to the National Security Agency's data mining programs regardless of who is in the White House. (We can't surrender our freedom for safety, you know!) It's only a shame that these same people have such little reverence for constitutional liberties in other areas of public life.
Really, it's worse than that. Consider the central case of the left these days: "Unfettered" freedom is a tragedy—decadent, unfair and un-American. So if, as liberals like to argue, it's a moral imperative for Americans to scale back personal liberty to build a cleaner, fairer and healthier world, shouldn't we be willing to do the same to protect the nation from terrorists? Why one and not the other? If Washington can shield you from the vagaries of economic life, why can't it do the same with terrorists?
Soon after news of the NSA's data mining and PRISM programs hit the news, we learned that there are Democrats with an uncanny ability to be malleable, apathetic and partisan in the face of an intrusive state. In January 2006, when George W. Bush was president, Pew Research Center asked Democrats how they felt about the NSA's surveillance programs. Thirty-seven percent labeled the spying "acceptable," and 61 percent said they were unacceptable. The reverse is true today, as 64 percent of Democrats believe that Barack Obama's surveillance programs are acceptable and 34 percent say they're not.
We could see this as an instance of mass hypocrisy if we assumed that the response is driven by a concern for the snooping itself rather than the administration in charge of the snooping. But it's likelier that folks on the left tend to be idealistic about presidents and less concerned about inquisitive NSA agents. (No, Republicans aren't innocent by any stretch. But it's fair to say that they've become more ideologically consistent in their skepticism of state power. This position is now popularly defined as fanaticism.)
Even those Democrats who claim to have a special reverence for privacy regularly support policy that undermines it. If this affection for privacy were unwavering, would they be demanding that we expand government-run background checks on firearms? Would they advocate legislation that forces Americans to ask the Internal Revenue Service for permission to assemble and partake in the political process? Government should be transparent, but shouldn't citizens be free to support politicians without registering with government? And really, how could someone who claims to value privacy support a law such as the individual mandate, which coerces every American citizen to report the status of his health insurance to the IRS?
And why is privacy a more critical liberty than economic freedom—or any other freedoms regularly pooh-poohed by progressives? Overregulating trade and markets can be more consequential to the freedom of an average person than any data mining program. Just ask a small-business owner.
Let's face it. Most of the concern about these NSA programs is likely driven by an antipathy toward the war on terror rather than a concern about the corroding of constitutional protections. And though I agree with progressives that we've lost too many liberties in this effort, it's a shame they don't believe we're deserving of similar liberty elsewhere in our lives.
H.L. Mencken wasn't exactly right when he wrote, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Let's concede that not all alarms are imaginary. Sometimes we are faced with genuine choice between more freedom and more safety. And as it stands, progressives almost always take the path of more safety. Why should it be different this time?