I’ve just finished reading Judge Richard Posner’s new book, Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency (Oxford, 2006). The book is a slender volume, with a remarkable feat for a law professor — absolutely no footnotes or endnotes or citations of any sort save a short bibliography at the end.
Before I began reading Posner’s book, I was surprised that some reviewers, such as Dahlia Lithwick, praised the book as measured and balanced:
In his new book, “Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency,” Posner approaches the wartime civil liberties problem in precisely the manner the Bush administration will not: with a dispassionate weighing of what is won against what is forsaken each time the government engages in data mining, indefinite detentions or the suppression of free speech.
I do not share Lithwick’s enthusiasm. Posner’s book struck me as a very broad defense of the Bush Administration’s policies (with a few exceptions) and as advocating a balancing between civil liberties and national security in which national security will nearly always win out. Posner is masterful in his rhetoric, though, and manages to sound judicious and measured even though the implications of what he is arguing often are rather extreme.
Posner begins by arguing for a “living Constitution,” which means that the Constitution should not be rigidly interpreted but should evolve with the times. In this respect, he agrees with Justice Brennan and other liberal jurists. Some reviewers, such as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times attacked Posner’s living Constitution argument:
This willingness to bend the Constitution reflects Judge Posner’s archly pragmatic approach to the law and his penchant for eschewing larger principles in favor of utilitarian, cost-benefit analysis. Efficiency, market dynamics and short-term consequences are what concern Judge Posner, not enduring values or legal precedents.
One result is a depressing relativism in which there are no higher ideals and no absolute rights worth protecting. . . .
I agree with Posner on the point about the living Constitution. Posner’s point is that like it or not, the Constitution is already a living Constitution: “So much of the constitutional text is vague or obsolete that a great deal of judicial patchwork is required for the Constitution to remain serviceable more than two centuries after it was written.” (p. 19). The problem with Posner’s arguments, however, is not in his embracing of pragmatism, balancing, and an evolving Constitution but in the way he goes about his balancing.
Posner argues for judicial restraint because “when in doubt about the actual or likely consequences of a measure, the pragmatic, empiricist judge will be inclined to give the other branches of government their head.” (p. 27). Why? It is not self-evident at all that the executive branch has made the most wise decisions on national security throughout history. More importantly, it is not clear why the executive branch is better at balancing civil liberties and national security. If anything, it seems to me that the executive branch might weigh national security too much.
Posner argues that the threat of terrorism is very grave: “The research that I have been conducting for the past several years on catastrophic risks, international terrorism, and national security intelligence has persuaded me that we live in a time of grave and increasing danger, comparable to what the nation faced at the outset of World War II.” (p. 3). Really? As I’ve argued before, perhaps the dangers of terrorism are being weighed too heavily. Regardless of whether I’m wrong or right, Posner does little to question and analyze the dangers of terrorism, which he largely assumes.
Posner makes a straw man out of civil libertarians, who he claims “are reluctant to acknowledge that national emergencies in general, or the threat of modern terrorism in particular, justify any curtailment of the civil liberties that were accepted on the eve of the emergency.” (p. 41). Why not take on the more nuanced civil libertarians, who don’t have such an absolutist view? Most civil libertarians are not absolutists but are arguing that certain programs that curtail civil liberties do not provide sufficient benefits in addressing the risk of terrorism (which they don’t assess at such a grave level as Posner does) to justify the costs. They are just engaging in a different cost-benefit analysis, but Posner seems to paint anybody who doesn’t engage in his particular cost-benefit analysis as unpragmatic and absolutist.