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The Rise & Fall of Institutions: Commentary on Edward Snowden by Oliver DeMille

Edward SnowdenWe are living through a major transition in America, and the Edward Snowden case illustrates just how significant it is.

As recently as 1991, the American people were proud of their country, and highly impressed with their government institutions and leaders.

The people looked up to the White House after what many considered a successful operation in Kuwait and Iraq, and most Americans felt a sense of accomplishment from winning the Cold War.

Europe and even Russia seemed committed to following the “American way,” and as the lone superpower the United States appeared poised to promote the American Dream around the globe. Washington D.C. and most federal institutions were considered successful and dedicated to freedom, prosperity and peace.

Fast Forward

Fast forward twenty-two years and we seem to be living in an entirely different epoch.

The mood of partisan cooperation that was riding high after 9/11 is long gone. People expect the White House, regardless of party, to lie to them about everything from missing weapons of mass destruction to IRS targeting of political groups to spying on them.

This loss of faith in institutions extends to business and beyond. Many conservatives no longer trust Wall Street, Congress, the CIA or FBI, and many liberals no longer believe in the agendas of the Court, the White House, Hollywood, or even the ability of the media to make things right.

Institutions everywhere are under siege. Support for organized religion is down from 65% in 1973 to 48% today (Gallup, June 2013), and the popularity of government institutions has plummeted. The Presidency now only has 36% approval and the Court has a mere 33%. Only a third of the nation’s citizens favor their top leaders.

Approval rates for big business, public schools, TV news and newspapers are even lower; Congress is the lowest of all at only 10%. People don’t even feel they can trust Internet providers, search engines, social media platforms, or phone companies.

They still use the services of companies and various government agencies, but they don’t trust them. Many people trust the political parties least of all, and pretty much nobody trusts big banks or Madison Avenue.

Even Main Street institutions are losing support, as people’s mistrust of city hall, big box retailers and local “Obama-care health providers” grows.

This is surprising, because institution building has been one of America’s top national agendas since its inception. Why this change in the American psyche? Institutions used to be part of our national DNA; now we are turning against them in droves.

Bad News, Bad News

Is this trend good or bad for America and the future of freedom? The answer is, simply, good.

For too many years a lot of people gave almost blind support to institutions—based on public relations, historical legacies, and above all, their massive size. “An organization that big must be doing good things, right?”

It turns out the answer to this question is, “Actually, no.”

In the emerging transparency of the information age, more people are demanding that institutions genuinely earn their trust and loyalty. As a result, most institutions are losing support, but a few are proving their worth.

The U.S. military is popular (76% approval, Gallup, June 2013), and so is small business (65%). Strongly polarizing institutions like the National Rifle Association and the ACLU have a lot of loyal supporters.

In short, it’s not that Americans dislike institutions per se, we just don’t buy the corporate-politico spin anymore. In the age of the Internet, we see through much it almost immediately. And when we do connect with occasional institutions that really do fill our needs, we give these rare organizations a higher level of loyalty.

That’s a good thing. The question is whether government can ever win its way back onto the positive column.

The answer to this is seriously in doubt. Such a government would have to genuinely care more about the people than itself. It would have to see freedom as a higher goal than security — though both are of course essential.

Such a government, however else it responds to a person like Edward Snowden, would celebrate the fact that he told the truth about an immoral secret government program that threatens everything America once stood for.

Is Snowden a Lawbreaker?

Some people will say that Snowden broke the law. Yes, he did.

So did Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and the rest of the founders.

They broke the law because it was bad law. They committed treason against the British government because it was an institution they could no longer support, one that put its own interests ahead of freedom and its people.

They broke the law, as they proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, because it was the right thing to do.

When the law commands us to do immoral things, as Gandhi and Thomas More and Copernicus and Moses and Jesus Christ and others showed us, it is bad law.

Of course the American founders stood up against such laws. Of course they demanded that the government change and return to its true moral purpose.

As Frederic Bastiat taught, when a government forces its citizens to choose between morality and legality, the government itself is breaking the most important laws.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that modern America isn’t a good example of freedom because too many Americans choose what is legal over what is right. That’s a guaranteed way to ruin a nation.

We applaud the soldiers who stood up to Hitler’s orders and refused to torture or kill people, even though these actions broke the law of the land and the chain of command.

In fact, America led the push in the post-war Nazi trials to convict men who did terrible things even though not doing them would have broken the law.

We told the courts that following the law is no excuse for doing the wrong things.

Law is extremely important to freedom – even sacred, in fact.

And, as the founders taught, doing the right thing is always the truly lawful choice. Any other view is ignorant of what “law” really is.

If law is merely power, not based on what is moral and right, then it is a bad thing. Period.

Caesar and Caligula had laws too. So did Saddam Hussein, Stalin and Mao.

Together their agents tortured, raped, butchered and buried millions in mass graves — all in the name of “law.”

Bastiat famously said that, “Destruction is not profit.” Likewise, immorality is not law, no matter what government supports it or enforces it.

When the government puts its laws above morals, of course the people lose faith in institutions. What else should they do?

I have no idea whether or not Edward Snowden did what he did for the right reasons, but how can any person who loves freedom not feel sick about the things he showed us about our own government?

When our government breaks the moral law in the name of security — then pretends to have the moral high ground as it pillories the whistleblower as the villain — that’s when we should be the most concerned.

In all of history, that is the single greatest danger sign. That’s when freedom is most deeply under attack.

And that is what is happening right now.


Image Oliver DeMille is the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd. He is the NY Times Bestselling co-author of LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through Leadership Education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.


  1. amanda fox says


  2. Jennifer Golden says

    “Frederic Bastiat taught, when a government forces its citizens to choose between morality and legality, the government itself is breaking the most important laws.” AMEN!!! THANK YOU Oliver for this article and all you are doing for freedom!!!

  3. Scott Buchanan says

    Wise words Oliver. It takes a brave man to speak out against the injustice, immorality, and the problems of an increasingly controlling and watchful government. I stand by what you say 100%. We need more American citizens like you that know their country and it’s true principles that made it great. Thank you for all you do.

  4. Swimming against the current a la Chris Brady’s ‘Corn, Closing & Competition’.
    Nice post, Oliver. When I first heard of Snowden’s actions, my gut told me it was a good thing.

  5. well said simple truths we should already be aware of

  6. Hunting.Targ says

    In other words; the American people distrust their government because they believe that their government is doing bad things. GOOD. As a matter of definition, anything the government does can be construed to be legal, because, in a humanist view, government is the final arbiter of legality.
    UNLESS there is a higher tier of authority than government. If human law is the highest authority than anything any government says, does, or authorizes to be done is ‘right’. Of course, some would disagree. Historical figures such as Esther, St. Paul, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and the protesters of Tianamen Square seem to have had the idea that government is ‘not always right.’ So did the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
    I think that, to a limited degree, distrust of large institutions is healthy. It is part of the freedom mentality.

  7. Psalm 62 one truth that has never changed

  8. Jonathon Montgomery says

    I have long been concerned about the very programs that Edward Snowden has been so effective in bringing to the attention of the world. It’s not like any of this has really been all that secret. We know that there has been a LOT of post 9/11 activity on the security front, yet few seemed to be concerned.

    I listen to my own father who really seems to be a great barometer of what the press is feeding us, and I hear nothing but good about the massive NSA Datacenter here in Utah. He even suggests that I should go to work for them. Yet the obvious intent of this facility makes me sick.

    Thank you Oliver for this inspired article.

  9. Thank you again, Oliver!
    I think of the Nuremberg trials where they realized there was a higher law.

  10. James L Habermehl says

    Not to mention that in addition to breaking some laws regarding the release of some information that may satisfy some noble rationale, he *also* *after* *that* broke some laws regarding the release of some information that had NOTHING to do with PRISM and collection against Americans. Regardless of what he brought to light regarding potential abuses of the 4th amendment, he *also* revealed to foreign countries specific information about how we collect intelligence information from them–which has NOTHING to do with Americans’ rights to be secure in our persons, papers, and effects, and to be protected from unwarranted search and seizure. Regarding all of that, he is NOT a hero, but is a criminal. Oh, and also regarding that, he is NOT like Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Madison, and the rest of the Founding Fathers… but he IS like Benedict Arnold.

  11. Bob Landry says

    Snowden may think he has good reasons for doing what he did. The government may indeed be overstepping it’s bounds. Unfortunately, the way he did what he did was absolutely wrong. He gave foreign governments information that he did not own. He stole it and gave it away and is still using it to get his way. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. He could have protested in many ways. To Congress, to the press (fax an article to 100 small town newspapers), it will get attention. Walk up and down the Washington Mall, with a sign declaring the misdeeds of the government. Gather with likeminded people and make a plan to protest. But leave this in the hands of the American people, NOT the Chinese, Russians, Venezuelans, Bolivians… Our forefathers stood on our soil, proclaimed clearly and loudly that the government was wrong and stood up against it. They did not go to a foreign unfriendly government and conspire against the people of our land. They bound themselves together and openly declared the wrongs of the government. Snowden was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to KEEP secrets, not sell them!

  12. How do we determine right and wrong behavior?
    Does the end justify the means, ever?
    Do the political laws alone determine this?
    Is there a higher law?
    This all reminds me of WikiLeaks a few years ago. A great movie I saw 2 nights ago was East! About “eco-terrorists” that are infiltrated by an FBI agent. Is that right? Is a renegade government and judicial system right? and what is the right way of stopping them?

  13. Mark Harrison says

    I think Mr Habermehl and Mr Landry are not totally awake to the sad state of affairs within our once great country. They believe that somehow, Mr. Snowden would have a safe place to tell his story within the United States.
    The “lame stream” media is no longer an open forum where true ideas and issues are debated and truth is allowed flourish. Our government has been overtaken by forces with a very dark and sinister agenda. This does not mean Republican or Democrat; left or right; black or white.
    The world our forefathers knew was very different from the world today in many ways.
    If these gentlemen truly believe that the controlling forces work in ignorance of their counterparts’ agendas, then I see why we have reached the precarious position we as a country are in.
    I suggest to all freedom lovers that they heed the call of true freedom. This involves the ability to discern fact from fiction. There is nothing in this world which is not flawed, particularly governmental bodies.
    ” Those who would trade essential freedom for temporary security deserve neither security or liberty.”
    Benjamin Franklin

  14. Wes Bartkowiak says

    Benjamin Franklin, one of our forefathers, did go to France to ask for support in the war against Britian on American soil.

  15. David Fidler says

    I’ve been troubled over this issue for some time trying to express my thoughts and feelings on it. Thank you Oliver for effectively putting into words what I’ve felt in my heart.

    As one who’s held the highest possible security rating and having been exposed to “secrets” of our government I am more than confident in saying that the vast majority serves no purpose in being classified. The only “logical” explanation that was given to me years ago by an individual responsible for maintaining classified information was to “protect” the public from the information, or in other words it’s not classified because we don’t want out enemies to know about it (most already do know about it all) but rather to keep the American public from knowing about it.

    My experience and observation after over 3 decades of military service is that we are better off with the public informed and educated to everything out government is doing. When this happens security improves, lives are saved, prosperity increases; the opposite is true when secrets are kept.

  16. Raymond Abernathy says

    Law is extremely important to freedom – even sacred, in fact.

    And, as the founders taught, doing the right thing is always the truly lawful choice. Any other view is ignorant of what “law” really is.

    The problem is when men are left to determine the “right thing”. Men in our Government thought it to be right to invade our privacy for security sake. Mr. Snowden that it was right to expose the spying, and risk American lives. The founders that it was right to establish a nation that served as a beacon of freedom to the world and at the same time thought it was right to enslave my ancestors. Doing the right thing is in fact the only lawful choice, and without the direction of the only wise God men will be constantly challenged to choose the “right” things. God’s law is sacred and He is to be lifted up, not you, me, or the founders…

  17. Nicely written Oliver. Regardless of whether Edward Snowden was right or wrong, there are many lessons to be learned from this incident (as with Wikileaks). For one, Cybersecurity is increasingly becoming an insider problem, an area that many organizations have ignored or under-invested. Second, I am concerned that in all of the debate we take for granted that our institutions cannot be trusted. Where is the effort on repairing the trusted status of our institutions, which we need to work effectively?


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