Our parent site, Econlib, now has a sister site, The Online Library of Liberty, a library of classic works. You can browse Books and Essays.

Among the writers whose work is presented and discussed is Thomas Hobbes, who offered a contractual theory of a state as a way of protecting ourselves from the “war of all against all.” My latest essay tries to follow in that tradition.

The Constitution can be viewed as an attempt to balance two risks. One is the risk that the government will be too weak to protect individual liberty and property. The opposite risk is that the government watchdog will turn on its master, becoming the people’s oppressor rather than their protector.

Today’s surveillance technologies pose an analogous problem. If left unused, they could leave our country vulnerable to mass murder, blackmail and defeat. However, if we casually turn surveillance powers over to existing government agencies, such as the FBI, the risk of abuse is unacceptably high.

I doubt that Butler Shaffer would agree with my approach. He writes with scorn about what he calls

the most pervasive of utopian schemes: constitutional democracy. Most Westerners have an unquestioning attachment to the belief that political power can be limited by the scribbling of words on parchment! Most of us have been conditioned in the myth that a so-called “separation of powers” among the various branches of government will generate a competition assuring that governmental authority will not be exceeded. Students of law and political science become rhapsodic over the writings of 18th and 19th century philosophers who were the architects of such air castles!

For Discussion. Is Constitutional democracy a solution to a trade-off, or a utopian scheme?