Many conservatives weren’t happy with the release of the Senate CIA torture report. They described its release as reckless endangerment at worst, an attempt to distract from the House’s Jonathan Gruber hearings at best.
But it was fitting to question Gruber and publicize some of the uglier interrogation practices the same day. Both events illustrated the role deceit has played in two of the federal government’s biggest undertakings of the past few years—the remaking of our healthcare system at home and the War on Terror abroad. Both congressional inquiries were attempts, however partisan and imperfect, to arrive at some level of transparency and accountability.
Since when do Republicans believe a congressional investigation is automatically discredited because one party participated while the other stonewalled in defense of a president? Not since Barack Obama has been in office, at least. And John McCain—lest we forget, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee—defended the report’s release by saying “the truth is a hard pill to swallow” but “the American people are entitled to it.”
Fighting terrorism is a tough business, and people who would commit heinous acts certainly cannot be treated with kid gloves. Nevertheless, many of the methods described in the report fit generally accepted definitions of torture. Evidence that “enhanced interrogation” actually enhanced national security is scant.
McCain, typically viewed by the most hawkish Republicans as the barometer of foreign-policy wisdom, concluded the tactics “not only failed their purpose—to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies—but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.”
Defending this kind of government behavior may be a habit many conservatives have fallen into, but it does not reflect an authentically conservative habit of mind. Imagine a liberal defense of Gruber on the grounds that health care is, like fighting terrorism, a life-and-death matter. Indeed, if history is any guide, cancer and heart disease are far likelier killers than even the most ruthless terrorist cells.
You don’t have to imagine such defenses, in fact. They’re made routinely. Republican opposition to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion has been equated to killing, since health coverage saves lives.
The conservative response would be that the morality, legality, and efficacy of policies aimed at increasing health coverage matter, and the benefits must be weighed against the costs, even if all our allies have single payer.
That same reasoning should apply to dealing with terrorism, even if all our enemies torture.
Foreign and defense policy is replete with Grubers (see Robert McNamara) who hatch ill-conceived schemes and think they are much smarter than the taxpayers footing the bill. And it is not as if Republican administrations never employ such people in domestic policy. After all, before Jonathan Gruber himself was called the architect of President Obama’s healthcare law, he was known as the architect of Mitt Romney’s in Massachusetts.
Yes, a limited government’s paramount function is protecting the country from enemies who would harm the citizens it serves. In the United States, national defense has a far clearer constitutional sanction than much of the federal social welfare state.
But the case for limited government is weakened when those making it ignore or defend torture, testicle-crushing, and waterboarding, complaining only about big government when someone proposes spending taxpayer dollars to help people. And I say that as someone who has written a book arguing that seemingly benign and compassionate government spending can curtail individual freedom.
It is difficult to take someone seriously who thinks the imprisonment of human beings in cages and the behavior of government agents with guns have less impact on personal freedom than the capital-gains tax rate. That is one reason it is so easy for many to dismiss arguments against programs like Obamacare as being motivated purely by economic self-interest.
Some of the same people who wanted to shine a light on the White House’s Obamacare machinations wanted to hide the torture report for the benefit of a previous administration.
Refusing to apply the same scrutiny to more sweeping government powers as insurance regulations isn’t conservatism. It’s what Jonathan Gruber might call stupidity.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?