“Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.” — Oscar WildeIn the wacky world of American politics, if you as an employer have a religious objection to paying for your employees’ contraceptives, it is you who is contemptuous of religious freedom.As the New York Times editorial board lectured a judge who thinks otherwise, “the […]
Socialism is the big lie of the 20th century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, socialism may […]
Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a worldwide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I […]
I opened a new bottle of probiotics this morning, and it had one of those circular seals on the top. You know, the one that reads, “Sealed for your protection.”And that seal got me thinking… how much protection do we need? How much security is enough?How much homogenization, pasteurization, disinfection, national security, etc…. do we […]
Last spring, Barack Obama told the graduating class of Ohio State University:“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems… They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because […]
In the Huffington Post last week, Glenn Greenwald, Slate contributor Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim had an investigative piece reporting that the NSA had been tracking the online porn-viewing habits of several Muslim leaders whom it viewed as radicals. A top-secret document shows that the agency was considering exposing these firebrands’ Internet dalliances as a […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
A few months ago at a demonstration against the president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a Canadian citizen made the following claim: “We don’t have guns, we are not Americans, we are civilized.” A few days before, in early July, a train of the company had run away and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing […]
From the Tongue-In-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that her committee will hold a “major review into all intelligence-collection programs.” This surprising declaration followed the revelation, through documents leaked by government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been listening to the […]
From the Tongue-in-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. – The complex negotiations aimed at bringing a long-term solution to the federal government’s expenditure and debt problem have produced an unconventional proposal. “Although the solution only focuses on a tiny fraction of government expenditures,” declared President Barack Obama, “it is a step in the right […]
I’ve just spent a harrowing weekend reflecting on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that came out in January 1776 and turned the public toward seeking independence from Britain. I say harrowing because the distance between the ideals found in this pamphlet and those of today’s America is so vast as to be nearly unrecognizable.The […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
Want to know just how invasive the state is going to get in the United States?Well, take a look across the pond.In terms of the large, invasive state, we English are way ahead of you guys. We’re a good 50 or more years further down the road to serfdom.Nineteenth-century Britain was about as glorious a […]
A tense drama unfolded this week with the virtual shutdown of vital government agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many other such federal agencies. Without them, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the republic.Even if fewer […]
Three months after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.’ mass surveillance program, “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to […]
A sixth-grader has been suspended for drawing an inappropriate picture. The drawing did not include any gun, but showed a checkpoint backed up by a SWAT team carrying flower pots while an unarmed drone hovered above.The suspended girl, whose name is kept secret at the request of her family, said she “just wanted to draw […]
The second part of this two-part article reveals an untold part of the story about how they were stopped last time. And shows how, if not again stopped, how it could lead to a fundamental loss of civil rights and freedom on the Internet.The offending legislation was barreling down the track, seemingly — even in […]
Two years ago, Hollywood, no kidding, masterminded a plot to, in effect, steal the Internet (by criminalizing certain conduct, booby trapping the Web in ways that few non-mega-corporations could cope with). There are signs, as perceptively flagged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the perps are back at it. We should care.This two-part article reveals […]
It has now been nearly two centuries since French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and compared American democracy to the French variety. The Martian asked his Earth correspondent to redo the comparison.The typical Frenchman thinks that Paris is the center of the universe, life without a baguette is not worth living, France is […]
I was at the Canadian border, headed toward the freedom that exists a few feet beyond the last security check. I was gently waved down a side corridor.Ninety minutes later, I was let go, but not before something truly alarming happened. I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government captured a mirrored version of my smartphone […]
Fort Meade, MD – The United States, the least unfree country on Earth, is fighting a major invasion of the Blueshirts.The most visible Blueshirts constitute a 50,000-plus army that occupies all the airports in America. Recognizable by their blue shirts and their inquisitive eyes and hands, they search and humiliate all Americans trying to leave […]
Sometimes, the news of the day causes me to say, “Huh?” The New York Times revelations last month about NSA programs and activities to enhance the agency’s ability to spy on ordinary citizens prompts today’s “Huh?” Who knew that our every phone call, Internet post and tweet is being recorded by the government?I have operated […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Oh, how the media love a good strike. Look at these fast-food workers and peasants standing up to the owners of capital! They aren’t going to take the oppression anymore. The suits in the boardrooms had better shape up and stop hoarding all that money. They need to give it up to the men and […]
Like all great historical ideas, the project of licensing journalists so that they may benefit from the First Amendment was born in a very modest place. In fact, it began in the most modest of all places: the brain of Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator from California.The new law, which was just adopted by Congress and […]
The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the […]
Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force […]
Why has America, a nation known for rugged individualism, descended so quickly into submission and a police state?
In 1831, the French political theorist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville received a commission to examine the prison system in America. His personal purpose, however, was to examine the character of a new America to which many Frenchmen looked as a model. After turning in his official report on prisons, De Tocqueville published his more personal findings: a pivotal work entitled Democracy in America (two volumes: 1835 and 1840).
The primary purpose of Democracy was to explore the American political system but it also commented upon the character of civil society. De Tocqueville wrote, “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” Unlike status-conscious Europeans, Americans shook hands with each other as though there were no social distinctions. De Tocqueville was amazed by town meetings at which everyone unabashedly voiced their opinions and objections. America was not a nation of bowed heads.
Scroll forward about two centuries to 9/11 and the creation of a a bowed America. But 9/11 cannot explain the rapidity and ease with which a police state arose in the “land of the free.” The terrorist attacks were not the cause but the tipping point in a long process that has worked quietly in America’s political background. For many years, institutions designed to protect individual rights have been eroded. These are institutions such as courts that respect due process or schools that teach critical thinking.
These institutions form a powerful barrier that shields liberty by restraining government. Over time, however, they became hollowed-out shells…or worse. They became tools of government intrusion and living mockeries of their former selves, from courts that blithely enforce unconstitutional laws to a public school system that teaches conformity. When the two planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11, it was not merely the buildings that shattered but the last remnants of freedom-oriented institutions as well.
Most Americans did not seem to notice at first. Perhaps many had lived with liberty so long that they took it for granted that America was the freest nation in the world; it always had been; it always would be; it is innate within the American character. They missed a fundamental truth that is obvious to anyone in a totalitarian state. Namely, the continuation of both liberty and personal safety rests upon invisible institutions like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Only when the institutions disappear does it become obvious that their presence means the difference between speaking with impunity and being shot as a dissident.
America’s freedom did not spring from characteristics innate within the American soul. Ask yourself a question: Why would a child born in Wisconsin be more naturally inclined to liberty than one born in Mexico City or the Ukraine? There is no genetic explanation. It was the institutions of America that were largely responsible for its freedoms; the institutions helped to shape the character of Americans by encouraging them to value peaceful exchange and productivity. Why? Because they were able to reap the rewards of civil society and hard work. This is what De Tocqueville saw – the character of a free and equal people who felt at liberty to look others in the eye and to speak their mind. This is what amazed De Tocqueville – a society of free men.
What is an institution?
An institution is any stable and widely-accepted mechanism for achieving social and political goals. Traditional institutions of society include the family, court systems, the free market, and churches. Institutions generally evolve over time to reflect the history and dynamics of a culture. For example, the institution of common law evolved on a grassroots level to meet the demand for justice by average people. Equally, the institutions of money and the market arose to satisfy human need and desire for goods.
As those needs and desires change, so do the institutions. Sometimes the change occurs due to conscious human design. Trial by a jury of one’s peers, for example, was a procedure consciously designed to maximize the justice of verdicts. This court procedure weathered the test of time well enough to now be viewed as a cornerstone of Western jurisprudence. When institutions are responsive and grassroots in nature, they become such a natural part of human progress that they change in a spontaneous manner, as in the continuing evolution of language. Like the free market, they strongly encourage peaceful interaction because that is what benefits the vast majority of people.
The political system is the institution upon which libertarians focus. They commonly observe that politics ‘institutionalizes corruption’; political structures and procedures encourage bad results like the personal malfeasance of elected figures. A large reason for the corruption is that the political system is not responsive, not grassroots. As a static institution, it serves the embedded interests of an elite class rather than the dynamic ones of the average person. (The elite class consists of politicians and those with political pull.) What libertarians call ‘corruption’ is what the elites call ‘profit’. They have consciously sculpted the institution to increase their profits through such procedures as non-transparency.
In a sense, the embedded corruption of politics is good news for libertarians because it spotlights a basic truth about institutions. They can promote liberty or statism depending upon their structure, procedures and the embedded incentives. The Founding Fathers knew this. For example, they attempted to limit the government by constructing a tripartite system of checks and balances designed to prevent the centralization of power. The Bill of Rights created incentives toward liberty by laying down societal ground rules to be upheld by the Supreme Court. (Whether the best intentions of the Founding Fathers were doomed to defeat by the inherent nature of politics is debatable.)
The specific structures and procedures of any institution will determine the results it produces. As long as the procedures are followed, the motives of those participating in the institution are irrelevant. Elsewhere, I offered the example of a man who works in a candy factory with the intention of producing canned tuna. As long as he follows the workplace rules and procedures, however, he will produce candy. A police officer may want to promote libertarian justice but as long as he enforces the laws of a totalitarian state, he will produce injustice.
Equally, as long as everyone respects the rules of the free market, it will function as a mechanism of peace and prosperity even if some of its participants are ill intentioned human beings. You may buy goods from a man whom you would never allow into your home; he can detest your religion or skin color even as money peacefully changes hands. As long as the rules of the free market are observed, freedom itself is served.
The burning question now becomes: how do we construct institutions that encourage liberty?
There are two answers on how to construct freedom-oriented institutions. The first: do not to construct them at all. Allow them to evolve through the spontaneous interaction of individuals pursuing their own self-interest. This is how free markets function, families are created, free speech rings out… Many institutions require merely to be unobstructed.
But other institutions require some design beyond the “anything that is peaceful” rule. For example, a court system requires procedures of justice such as “innocent until proven guilty.” And, so, the second answer to designing institutions is: do so in as minimal a manner as possible and only to promote individual rights.
America’s rugged individualism has been called the ‘soul’ of its character. America needs its soul back.