The Libertarian lessons of 'Bridge of Spies'

By Dan King  Whitehall Times

The first half of Steven Spielberg’s new movie “Bridge of Spies” has some resoundingly libertarian messages overarching the plot.

Overtly, the movie shows how the Cold War began the erosion of Americans’ fourth amendment rights, leading to the current state of warrantless wiretapping and data mining. The seeds that have grown into the National Security Agency, the National Defense Authorization Act and the Patriot Act, were all planted during the Cold War.

Paranoia and the faulty assumption of state-produced safety have always been and always will be the strongest way for the state to grow its power. Simply put, people like to feel safe, even if that means their basic rights and liberties are eroded in the process.

“Bridge of Spies” perfectly illustrates how Cold War paranoia led to the destruction of liberty.

Accused Russian spy Rudolph Abel is detained forcefully and without a warrant for his alleged role as a spy. His detention is repeatedly supported by the judge under the simple assumption that he is a Russian spy. On several instances Abel’s attorney, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) questions the constitutionality of the detention of Abel. However, the judge and other government officials are hasty to disregard the assumption of “innocent until proven guilty,” are unable to provide a warrant for Abel’s arrest and simply throw the fourth amendment by the wayside.

Certainly there is some Hollywood exaggeration in the movie, but it is based on true stories and it correctly illustrates what happens when the state destroys individuality for the sake of conformity, acceptance of the status quo and “safety,” as was the case during Cold War McCarthyism and as continues to be the case in War on Terror fearmongering. 

However, perhaps more covert than the movie’s criticism of Cold War paranoia and the erosion of civil liberties, is its criticism of an interventionist foreign policy.

As part of Cold War paranoia, American foreign policy becomes interventionist and deploys spies and the well-documented arms race. Francis Gary Powers is sent in an airplane to spy on the Soviet Union and while in the air, he is shot down by a Soviet missile.

His time in Soviet occupation details both the individual physical toll and the national economic toll of interventionist foreign policy. Powers is repeatedly tortured, as Soviet officials attempt to gain information from him about the American side of the arms race. As for the economic toll, the federal government employs Donovan to negotiate a swap to bring Powers back to America.

Prior to Powers’ flight being shot down, we are shown the massive arsenal of state-of-the-art spying cameras and planes, which presumably cost millions of dollars. Not to mention, much of the heaviest pieces of the planes are scrapped to allow the planes the ability to carry the massive spying cameras, thus illustrating government waste.

Another subtle libertarian moment in the movie shows the human toll and impracticality of the Berlin Wall, which is a relevant issue in the era of Donald Trump wanting a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Ben Carson wanting to use drones on immigrants and Scott Walker suggesting an additional wall between the U.S. and Canada, to go along with the Mexican one.

American student Frederic Pryor is able to walk directly across the border, despite the attempts to build the wall, showing that not only is restricting immigration a bad idea economically, it’s also impossible to do.

Although the movie ultimately leaves its spectators sympathizing with a potential Communist spy, it does do a very good job of illustrating how Cold War paranoia has led to many of the modern problems we see.

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