“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 […]
Many people do not seem to mind the government peeping into their “metadata” or even into their emails, Internet habits, or phone calls. Mark Reid, the city manager of Bluffdale, Utah, where a large NSA data center is being built, doesn’t worry: “If someone reads my emails,”he says, “they’ll be pretty bored.”
He should think twice.
Other people might not have as boring a life as his. They may have legitimate reasons to keep prying eyes out. But even if their lives are boring, the Mark Reids of the world should still endeavor to keep them private.
The first reason why private information should remain private is that the state — the whole apparatus of government, all branches, all levels — has an incentive to use your information against you. There, as elsewhere, incentives matter.
But how do these incentives work? Assume that the state is nice and is entirely devoted to the welfare of its citizens. Similar to how parents are biologically driven to take care of their children. In this case, we can imagine any surveillance the angelic state carries out and any information it gathers will be used for the welfare of the people.
Obama implicitly adopts this angelic model of government. He’s not the only one in the political class who feels this way. On Aug. 10, Obama proposed a minor, cosmetic reform of the NSA’s surveillance. Heclaimedthat it is important for “the American people to have confidence” in the intelligence community. The message is: Trust the state.
We have good reasons to reject the angelic model of the state. “If men were angels,”wrote James Madison, “no government would be necessary.” He immediately added: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” A brief survey of today’s politicians will make it pretty clear that the state is not made of angels. Just meet some politicians and bureaucrats.
When we talk about the state’s incentives, we are referring to the incentives of these individuals. Public choice analysis is a field of economics that over the last half century has studied how these incentives work. To summarize, the incentives of government bureaucrats are to increase the sizes of their bureaus, because that’s how they get higher pay, better perks, and a greater sense of accomplishment. At the same time, politicians have the incentives to increase their power in order to satisfy the interests groups whose support they need to get elected or remain in power.
If we adopt this alternative model of the state instead of the angelic model, then we can understand why state power grows if not constrained from the outside. The American ideal — as in classical liberalism, or libertarianism, in the Western tradition — was to reinforce these constraints.
Lack of information is a useful constraint on government action. The less the state knows about individuals and their associations (including their business corporations), the less it is able to enforce its laws and regulations that are detrimental to liberty and prosperity.
Just imagine what would happen if, for example, official ID papers (Social Security numbers, passports, and driver’s licenses) did not exist. Imagine how difficult and costly it would be to enforce confiscatory taxation, financial regulations, gun controls, or travel bans (such as those for Edward Snowden). What would happen if the government did not have all the financial information listed corporations are forced to provide “regulators”? It would be much more difficult to enforce the current confiscatory corporate tax rates.
Some information in the hands of government is justifiable, but not the mass of data it now amasses. Without wholesale and continuous surveillance, murder and outright fraud could still be punished. Indeed, they were before the government knew so much about the activities of individuals and businesses.
With less tracking information, enforcement would be more costly, of course, but this is what we want if we don’t trust nonangelic governments. If laws and regulations were more costly to enforce, there would be fewer of them. The state would have to specialize in certain missions, focusing more on the protection of persons and property
If, on the other hand, information constraints on the state are weakened, the cost of enforcing laws and regulations will drop, and we’ll get more state power. This trend has been going on for several decades. Information about financial institutions and their customers has made possible monstrosities like money laundering and civil forfeiture laws. Surveillance of health made the eugenics movement possible in 30 states. InNorth Carolina alone, 7,600 individuals were sterilized from 1929-74. Government ID papers have made checkpoints more productive and less costly.
Saying that some government activities have to be more costly is the same as saying they should be constrained. ID verifications must be more expensive so that government agents carry them out in only exceptional circumstances, when it is really worth it. It is only by constraining the state that we can preserve liberty. If you don’t want random police checks, don’t make them easy to do.
The problem is the same with DNA databases. James Watson, winner of a Nobel Prize for his work on the structure of DNA, argues for compulsory DNA fingerprinting.He claims that it would only “take away from our liberty to commit crime.” The problem is that it would also make it easier for the state to enforce unacceptable laws, both current and future.
Decrease the cost of enforcing laws and regulations and you will get more of them. If the state knew more about the dull lives of all the Mark Reids of the world, it would be able to enforce this dullness more easily on more people.
There is a second reason why private information must stay private. It is simply that you may well be breaking criminal laws without knowing it. There are so many new and complicated laws that many people are not convicted felons only because the government does not know which paper crimes they have committed.
Some surveillance of suspected terrorists is necessary. But on Sept. 10, 2001, the U.S. government already had more surveillance power and information than is compatible with a free society.
The main problem with the surveillance state is not what it knows, but what it is does with what it knows. What it does with its mountain of information is control people ever more tightly. If you think you have nothing to hide and let the state look into your life, you’ll soon find out that you do have much to hide.