Recently the economist Thomas Sowell has defended government spying against American citizens. Here is what he says with commentary.
Intelligence agencies have neither the manpower, the time, the money, nor the interest to listen in on you and your aunt Mabel.
But it is up to the intelligence agencies to decide to whom they will listen. Maybe they will find listening to me talk with my aunt Mabel boring, but maybe they won’t. What makes Sowell think that they will not listen to conversations between people who have nothing to do with terrorism? Everybody has a private life, with personal secrets to hide from strangers. Might not a curious or ambitious agent want to peek in? Now Sowell may object that it is unlikely. But I say that it is not up to him to calculate the level of perversity of government agents. Doesn’t he know how many people governments killed in the 20th century alone? Spying on citizens is a trivial misdemeanor compared to mass murder. He should rest assured that state functionaries are quite capable of that.
And consider: in the East Germany during the Cold War a large segment of the population were Stasi spies for the government reporting on their family members and “friends.” In Russia, life was, as Hedrick Smith described it, “a mass settling of scores on a personal level.” So, all the government has to do is disrupt the harmony of interests sufficiently and invest in more manpower and money for domestic and foreign intelligence. That time will come if intellectuals like Sowell spend their time justifying the state’s spying regime.
Sowell’s second point I take to be that even if the government does spy on personal conversations, it is highly unlikely that it will be your conversations. But for heaven’s sake, it will be someone’s conversation! Someone will be unlucky. And it well may be you. And how is injustice Ok if it is limited to the relatively few individuals among some large arbitrary group? Is murdering a Chinese person better than murdering a Dane, because, well, there are plenty more Chinese where that guy came from?
Further, what of the prominent ideological enemies of the regime? Isn’t it so much more likely that they will be singled out for surveillance to make it reasonable for them to be concerned?
Or is the idea that one should count on his insignificance, on being “ordinary” or some average mass-man, and on the possibility of hiding in a crowd as protection against the state? But “ordinary” people have precisely the least amount of power to protect themselves, if the state chooses to make an example of them, say, to intimidate other “ordinary” people. Moreover, the extent to which terrorists also hide in the crowd makes this strategy so much less useful, as the spies will want to scrutinize anyone they deem in any way suspicious, regardless of how “ordinary” he looks to Sowell.
But, a Supreme Court Justice once pointed out that the Constitution of the United States is not a suicide pact. The Constitution was meant for us to live under, not be paralyzed by, in the face of death.
But to permit the government to violate the Constitution in the face of potential dangers is to put a premium on the government’s insisting that such dangers exist. If the government can suspend the Constitution any time the President declares a state of emergency, then it will encourage the use of that “tool,” national emergency or security or what not, for the state to gain dictatorial powers. That’s what public debate is for, to figure out if the danger really exists, or whether granting the government extra power is reasonable. Sowell has to prove that such a situation prevails right now. It is not enough simply to assert that “we are at war.” I mean, these days we’re always at war with someone, and that unfortunate state of affairs has come about not insignificantly because the state wants to use the fear of men like Sowell to justify increasing in size and scope and reach.
At any rate, should we be at war at all? Isn’t it our constant foreign interventionism that motivates terrorist attacks? To give the government more power in domestic matters is ultimately to enlarge that power in foreign affairs. So, there will be more wars, more foreign belligerence and oppression, which will lead to still greater dangers to American citizens, real or imagined, and to still more calls for the expansion of the police and warfare state. As usual, one intervention creates conditions that seem to call for more interventions until one part of society becomes an army on the march and the other, morally twisted slaves and informers. This vicious circle has to be broken. And Sowell is not helping.
Precious time can be wasted filing legalistic documents to get some judge’s permission to tap the domestic terrorists’ phones before CBS or CNN broadcasts the news of the captured terrorist leader overseas and the domestic terrorists stop using the phones that they had used before to talk with him.
I am not an expert on the proper procedures to keep secrets. Let us suppose then that Sowell is right. “Precious time” will, indeed, be wasted. So what? The government will have to find another way of catching those it dislikes. But at least our freedoms will be preserved. To mock Sowell just a bit, collective security is not a pact that will lead us to the world of 1984. Perhaps some risk of a terrorist attack is preferable to the danger that arbitrary government powers pose to every citizen. Maybe when people in America start disappearing without a trace, and a bullet to the back of the head in a prison corridor to “traitors” and “enemies of the people” will become standard government procedure, then Sowell will regret his defense of the destructionism of the state.
That is the point of no return — and we are drifting towards it, chattering away about legalisms and politics.
Oh yes, those annoying legalism and politics. Let us abolish the law (and lawyers), the pointless squabbling of the politicians, and, in the same spirit, the elections and transfer all powers to our new absolute monarch, George Bush. At least things will get done then. Right? Bush is a man of action. He’ll take care of everything. He is our beloved and trusted leader. All he needs is just a little more power. Surely, we can’t refuse a guy as nice as Bush, can we? I think we can and should.
And by the way. You have my full permission to listen to my conversations. I ain’t got nothing to hide.