James Madison on liberty and the GPS

We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.

James Madison 1780s

The author of that quote was, perhaps one of the most statesman-like and forward thinking of the group of men that we call the ‘Founding Fathers’.  I believe this to be self-evident when you assess his herculean efforts at crafting our Constitution.  And still more so when you take into account his authorship of most of the Federalist Papers, which was his effort to garner grass-roots support to get the Constitution ratified by the individual states.  I assume that everyone in the country has already read the constitution (right?) but I’m not suggesting that anyone rush out a grab a paperback copy of the Federalist Papers. Believe me, that book is a difficult read.  The ‘Papers’ were largely written as a sort of “pre-rebuttal” in anticipation of the volleys that would inevitably be hurled by the anti-federalists. Pressed into this role of deflecting arguments before they were argued, he was forced to look into all the dark alleys of our Constitution and seal them off from criticism even before they could be criticized.

The result – a man that became as forward thinking as any man has ever been.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can state with some degree of certainty that the author of that quote never owned a car, or a cell phone, a laptop, or a GPS, not even a lightbulb! He never sent an email, saved his documents in the cloud, flew to London in 4 hours, or learned how to program his DVR.  I can also state with some certainty that he knew in some ways that future generations of Americans would be different than him, would want different things, would need different things, and would face new challenges.  And one thing for sure – they would not wear those god-awful tight knee pants.  But here’s where it gets interesting.  Instead of crafting a document that said, flat out, NO to this list and YES to that, he crafted a document that allowed for the future.  Allowed for the “future” – during a time when no one was quite sure that America would even make it into the following year, let alone centuries to come.  Remember that all of the European powers were perched on the beach, mouths open, waiting for America to go dashing towards the ocean like newborn baby turtles!

By now you must be asking what’s up with the quote.  And why that quote, which doesn’t even make it into the list of top 10 Madison quotes.  Here’s why;

This week the superior court overturned the conviction of a big-time drug dealer.  He got collared with about 80 lbs of drugs and around $850,000 in cash.  This, I assume, equates to a serious stash – certainly enough to bring a conviction.  Enough cash to make the Federal Government jealous too.  Initially the police had a hard time getting enough evidence to arrest this guy, until they put a GPS tracking device on his car. And then Whammo.  Evidence, Stash, Conviction.  The citizens of Gotham City were safe once again from this evildoer.  There was, however, one little glitch. The superior court overturned the conviction because the police hadn’t gotten a warrant to place the GPS device on his car. But wait, you say, that’s a travesty, do they even need a warrant to do that?  Well, no one knows.  Being the staunch ConservoLiberCentrist that I am, my first reaction was to side with the people that say the police don’t need a warrant.  Their argument goes something like this – if you are walking down the street in plain view, and a policeman could see you commit a crime like stealing a pocketbook, then they don’t need a warrant to arrest you and take that lady’s pocketbook back to her. Ok, sounds reasonable enough, my car is in plain view when I’m driving it (except for that one time when the lady crashed into me and said that she didn’t see me). So I’m going to side with the “no warrant necessary” crowd.

Then suddenly the other side of my CLC leanings kicks in.  Hey you just hold on one small minute – they couldn’t search my basement or harddrive or the trunk of my car without a warrant. So maybe putting that GPS device under the fender is similar to that?  Now I’m starting to think like a real card-carrying ConservoLiberCentrist, eh!  Just a while ago I said that nobody knows whether the police need a warrant or not.  And nobody does know – except for one person – James Madison.  He absolutely knows!  This is the big tie-in to the quote. He knew then, and we should know by now, that Liberty isn’t usually erased in one giant gulp, but gets gradually eroded. No one will complain too much about some criminal’s rights – because he’s a criminal right?  So off go some of our Liberties (his and yours and mine) in tiny, unnoticeable, painless pieces.  Madison is telling us in his well crafted style that we should be alarmed when pieces of our liberties get “experimented” with.   So, the guy that never even saw a lightbulb, knows that a GPS on a criminal’s car can easily lead to a GPS on my car, and then a GPS on Grandma’s car.  Just a little at a time, and it even seems like a good reason today.   This all adds up to me coming down on the side of “needing a warrant”, because even if it means a couple of extra bad guys don’t go to jail, it also means that a couple of million good guys don’t go either!  Let’s all pitch in a buy James Madison an MP3 player.

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