The Daily Reckoning

You need not suspect the motives of those responsible for NSA surveillance to detest what they are doing. In fact, we may have more to fear from spies acting out of patriotic zeal than those acting out of power lust or economic interest: Zealots are more likely to eschew restraints that might compromise their righteous cause.

For the sake of argument, we may assume that from President Obama on down, government officials sincerely believe that gathering Americans’ telephone and Internet data is vital to the people’s security. Does that make government spying OK?

No, it doesn’t.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” Although often attributed to George Washington, that famous quotation was probably was not uttered by him. Nevertheless, its value lies in what it says, not in who said it.

At best, government represents a risk to the people it rules. Even under a tightly written Constitution and popular vigilance — both of which are easier to imagine than to achieve — government officials will always have the incentive and opportunity to push the limits and loosen the constraints.

But if their purpose is to protect us, why worry?

It doesn’t take much imagination to answer to this question. A purported cure can be worse than the disease. Who would accept the placement of a surveillance camera in every home as a way of preventing crime? By the same token, gathering data on everyone without probable cause in order to locate possible terrorists should be abhorrent to people who prize their freedom and privacy.

Since we’re assuming pure motives, we’ll ignore the specter of deliberate abuse. In our hypothetical case, no one would use the information in a way not intended to promote the general welfare. Pure motives, however, do not rule out error. So the danger remains that innocent people could have their lives seriously disrupted — or worse — by a zealous agent of government who sees an ominous pattern in someone’s data where none in fact exists.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that human beings are more likely to see order in randomness than vice versa. As a result, a blameless individual could have his life turned upside down by a bureaucrat who goes the extra mile to ensure that no terrorist act occurs on his watch. Think of the turmoil created for those falsely accused of the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Games and of sending anthrax letters after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The odds of such an error for any particular individual may be slight, but they are big enough if you put yourself into the picture.

However, that is not the only reason to reject even a well-intentioned surveillance state.

Julian Sanchez, who specializes in technology and civil liberties, points out that a person who has nothing to hide from government officials — if such a person actually exists — would still not have a good reason to tolerate NSA surveillance, because the general awareness that government routinely spies on us has an insidious effect on society:

“Even when it isn’t abused… the very presence of that spy machine affects us and poisons us… It’s slow and subtle, but surveillance societies inexorably train us for helplessness, anxiety and compliance. Maybe they’ll never look at your call logs, read your emails, or listen in on your intimate conversations. You’ll just live with the knowledge that they always could — and if you ever had anything worth hiding, there would be nowhere left to hide it.”

Is that the kind of society we want, one in which we assume a government official is looking over our shoulders?

Because government is force — “a dangerous servant and a fearful master” — it must be watched closely, even — especially — when it does something you like. But eternal vigilance is hard to achieve. People outside the system are busy with their lives, and politicians generally can’t be expected to play watchdog to other politicians.

Therefore, at the least, we need institutional constraints and transparency: No secret warrants. No secret courts. No secret expansive interpretations of laws and constitutional prohibitions.

– Sheldon Richman
Original article posted on Laissez Faire Today

You May Also Like:


Automated License Plate Readers Threaten Our Privacy

The Daily Reckoning

Law enforcement agencies are using sophisticated cameras to scan and record the license plates of millions of cars.

The Daily Reckoning

It's hard to believe that more than ten years have gone by since we began writing The Daily Reckoning out of a Paris office back in July of 1999?

Since then, a lot has changed. We have seen the dot com boom and bust... a massive expansion of credit...real estate mania and meltdown?and epic highs and lows in the markets.

Nothing about the past ten years has been boring. And we have been there throughout, trying to help readers make some sense out of our global economy. And hopefully providing a few laughs along the way.

In short, we pen The Daily Reckoning each day -- for free -- to show you how to live well in uncertain times. We aim to make each article the most entertaining 15-minute read of your day.

  • Mageoftheyear

    “Therefore, at the least, we need institutional constraints and transparency: No secret warrants. No secret courts. No secret expansive interpretations of laws and constitutional prohibitions.”

    Therefore you need no government.

Recent Articles

Your Best Defense Against a Rising Oil Price

Byron King

Analysts predicted that Iraq's oil production would reach postwar records this year - that didn't happen, of course. Then they predicted that Iraq's refiners wouldn't suffer greatly in the wake of renewed civil war - wrong again! But Byron King has been right all along... Middle East oil production was bound to be disrupted, if not destroyed, sooner or later...


The Only Prescription for a Real Economic Recovery

Dan Amoss

Despite what most mainstream media outlets will tell you, it is impossible for a central bank to force a "self-sustaining recovery"... no matter how much money it prints. Today, Dan Amoss examines the far-reaching consequences of such short-sighted actions, and who - if anyone - stands to benefit. Read on...


A Rare Opportunity to Invest in 500 Startups

Wayne Mulligan

For years, early stage investments have been closed off to the general public. But thanks to the JOBS Act, that's all about to change. And right now, opportunities are sprouting up all over... including one unique chance to cash in on 500 startups that only a handful of investors know about. Wayne Mulligan explains...


The Idea of America

Bill Bonner

America is a country like no other. Comprised of people from all corners of the globe, America exists solely because people chose to become Americans. But what does that mean? And how does it influence the concepts of liberty and freedom Americans feel so entitled to? Bill Bonner explains...


3 Stocks You Should Avoid Like the Plague

Greg Guenthner

The market loves to trick investors into thinking a stock is better than it actually is. Because the market feeds on suckers... and then wipes them out one by one. Today, Greg Guenthner shows you three stocks that may look like a buy, but are really just traps to clean you out. Read on...