Drones in America: A Battle Of Limited Government and Civil Liberties

Last week Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster highlighted concerns over the domestic use of drones.

Paul wanted to know if the president believes that he has the authority to kill an American non-combatant who is not posing an imminent threat on American soil with a drone. The filibuster not only highlighted the fact that libertarian-leaning Republicans are among the very few legislators on Capitol Hill who care about civil liberties, it also made the executive use of drones part of a national discussion. While the unaccountable and secretive use of drones by the executive branch is a policy that civil liberty activists should continue to monitor the issues raised by the use of drones by allows for not only a renewed discussion of civil liberties, it also allows for discussion on state rights and the legitimacy of federal institutions like the FAA.

Some state legislators have introduced legislation that aims to restrict the use of drones. In February, Charlottesville, Va., passed the nation's first anti-drone law. Berkeley, Calif., could have also seen a similar ban imposed, but the city council rejected the ban, with one councilor arguing that while that drones could potentially be useful to infringe on citizens’ liberties they could also be used to assist police with man hunts and to assist rescue workers during disasters.

No one doubts that drones, like many other tools, have many valuable potential uses, as Jerry Brito from the Mercatus Center recently pointed out. The concern is that without proper rules those in power can abuse them and infringe on our civil liberties. Thankfully, it looks like across the country local legislators are seeking to restrict the use of drones. Over time it should not be surprising if we see different drone policies passed. 

However, it remains to be seen how the federal government will react to some of these relatively new laws. If the federal government’s record on state rights regarding the drug war is anything to go by we should expect some if not all of the drone regulations passed by state governments to be sidestepped or ignored. This is particularly important given that U.S. customs is already patrolling the U.S. border with drones. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, many of the restrictions passed by local governments are largely symbolic thanks to the FAA’s regulatory powers.

In February 2012 Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which requires the FAA to organize a framework for drones to be integrated into national airspace by 2015. Al Jazeera recently reported that not only does the FAA predict that there will be tens of thousands of drones in American airspace in the coming decades, but it has already given hundreds of drone licenses to police, universities, and other organizations.

In the coming months and years we should expect there to be more discussions on the use of drones, especially when being used by government officials. Given how concerned citizens and local legislators seem to be about drones those who believe in civil liberties and limited government should not forget that the drone debate concerns not only civil liberties, it also concerns the role of the government.