“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 […]
Time was tight and people were rushing to catch flights. This particular terminal in Miami was usually fast, everyone knew, but for some reason, the TSA was seriously understaffed. What do they care whether people spend 90 minutes waiting in the checkpoint? They have no stake in the profitability of the airlines and no real concern for the well-being of the customer.
So there we all stood, being blasted with Orwellian messages like, “If you see something, say something.” Time marched on and the line was not moving. Most people around me were scheduled to fly out in 45 minutes. Then 30 minutes. Then 15 minutes. You could feel the anxiety and sense the rising frustration of the growing crowd.
As the agent checking boarding passes was finally in view, everyone around me witnessed a striking thing. A person reached across the line and offered $20 to a person three people away from the checkpoint. A deal was made, and this guy suddenly moved in front in line. He had a jutting jaw, dark sunglasses and bulging muscles — a perfectly hateable picture of arrogance. The rest of us were pushed back by one person.
All 50 or so people who saw this transaction were outraged. The grumbling began immediately, and then rose in volume until people were becoming alarmingly vocal about it. One person demanded a share in the payment. Another said that he would have charged more if asked. Another said that there was no amount of money he would have accepted.
Oddly, and probably unjustly, all the anger was directed toward the guy who paid, and not, as one might expect, the person who accepted the payment. He was immediately ratted out. A TSA agent intervened and let him through anyway. What happened afterward I will get to in a moment, but let’s first explore the ethics and economics of this transaction.
With nothing to do but stand there, I posed the following questions on Facebook from my digital device. Do you “own” your place in line? What if someone pays the person in front of you to cut in, thereby pushing you back one step? Are you owed some portion of the revenue? But then should the payment taker have to ask permission from everyone behind him before making the transaction?
A lively debate ensued (100-plus posts!). Some said the price should have been higher. Some thought it was a perfectly legitimate transaction. Some said that because we own our place in line, this amounted to theft. But in what sense do we own a place in line? I was trying to understand the source of what seemed like the legitimate outrage and how that accords with our intuitive sense of justice.
Some people said that the whole issue should be decided by the line owner. This is true enough, but impractical. The TSA was the owner, and it posted no rules concerning this issue. That’s also the case with most lines in the private sector, too. People need to draw on some sense of etiquette and manners, but from what ethical principle are these derived?
Everyone’s thoughts here were interesting.
But it was economist Robert Murphy who posted what I found to be the clearest thoughts (which is not to take away from others who added interesting insights along the way).
In Murphy’s view, the payment was just a distraction. You are not permitted to let anyone cut in line, even at zero price. The issue of justice here had nothing to do with payment. Even if you are feeling generous toward someone who is in a special rush, you are bound to stay in the line. This is because your actions affect the well-being of everyone else in a very tangible way.
Nor is ownership as such the issue. People who are lined up are adhering to a social convention of “first come, first served.” The outrage stems from the perception that the rule has been broken. Even if it makes no difference in terms of the time spent in line and whether or not there is money involved, if people value their place in the line — the longer and slower the line, the higher the value — these values must be respected.
This seems right to me. And note that the sense of violation that comes from observing a cutting-in is independent of political outlook. It just didn’t matter one bit whether the people were left or right or free market or socialist or fascist or communist. Everyone has a sense of justice associated with the “first come, first served” idea of allocation of scarce services in this context.
For example, it would have made no sense for a communist to propose that we all institute communism in TSA services. What would this even mean? The service of having your boarding pass checked is a scarce good. With only one agent, only one person can be checked at a time. It defies the laws of reality to propose common ownership under these conditions.
But so it is with the whole of the material world. Scarcity is a fact of life. Scarce goods must be allocated somehow. It contributes nothing to say that they should be owned by all. Scarce goods can be allocated through violence or through the peaceful means of trade and exchange. The case for a free market can be boiled down to this proposition.
In other words, if the people in this line considered their reaction carefully, they would eventually have to conclude that their intuition has deeper implications. Every tax, every regulation, every state intervention amounts to a forced “cutting in line.” This is because every intervention is an act that overrules our personal value scales of what we would like to do with our lives and property. The government is jumping in front of our personal sense of priorities and asserting the government’s own priorities as a replacement, thereby pushing our own preference further back in the line.
Government is not only a robber and thief, but also a violator of our own intuitive standards of taste and manners. Most people do not know this because what government does is largely invisible to our daily lives and spending activity. Were government’s actions on display as aggressively as this line cutter at the TSA, we would see a revolution in short order.
There is a ending to this story. After the jutting-jawed jerk got through the line, the TSA took vengeance, much to the delight of the crowd. They had him take off his hat, coat and shirt, and search his bags with faux interest, one item at a time, strewing out his personal belongs for all to see. The crowds behind him in line passed by and jeered with delight.
I found myself feeling sorry for him and somewhat sickened by this whole display, which had nothing to do with security and everything to do with vengeance. After all, he only offered the money; it was the guy who let him cut in the line who caused all the problems. But when government is involved, the injustice rarely stops with one act.
The events in this TSA line were a microcosmic illustration of the partnership between despotism and mob rule.