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Article posted Jul 03 2013, 6:25 PM Category: Big Brother/Orwellian Source: Jeffrey Tucker Print

Surveillance Has Changed Us

Jeffrey Tucker

My passport is festooned with patriotic blather about freedom and democracy. It didnít used to be this way. The less freedom we have, the more government has to convince us that it exists. But none of it rings true anymore.

One page of the passport quotes Lincoln: ďthat government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.Ē

Amused by that on several levels, I nearly sent out a status via Twitter. I had typed the following revised version that embodies a wistful fantasy: ďthat government shall perish from the Earth.Ē

But just before sending, I hesitated. You see, while doing this, I was boarding a flight from Frankfurt back to Atlanta. Presuming that the feds are reading everything, I thought that posting such words, however funny, would be too risky.

What if I found myself being detained once having landed? I might face a barrage of questions about the meaning of my little text. Did I have a diabolical plot in mind to smack the government in some way? I imagined myself having to explain polycentric legal theory and market forces to thugs in some isolated cell.

So instead of posting that little update, I pulled back. I censored myself. Doing so felt just a bit odd in some way.

This is what it has come to in the surveillance state. In my entire life, I donít recall ever pulling back from saying what I think. But these days, prudence rules. This is how I imagined things were in the Soviet Union in the old days. I recall thinking during the Cold War how great it is to have free speech, to not live in fear, to not be afraid of expressing political opinions.

Here we are in the latter day of the war on terror and we are stuck now with a jumpy regime that collects our every correspondence and is ready to misunderstand everything we write. We no longer communicate with confidence of privacy to our friends. We donít post truthfully to our followers. We no longer send authentically private emails. In every case, we edit ourselves because we know there is a third party listening in, and that party is government.

Government doesnít really care if we if are posting about our dinner plans our shopping excursions or our kidsí grades and community socials. What government cares about is politics, which is precisely why the Founders threw that First Amendment into the Bill of Rights. You have to be free to speak about politics or it canít be said that the country is truly free.

But it is precisely politics that get us in trouble these days. The tax authorities harassed groups based on political outlook. They were targeted. So it is with all our communications. Express an opinion that government ought to be upended in some way and it would not be surprising at all to come face to face with an interrogation squad that understands nothing about philosophy or economics.

You might be thinking, Oh, thatís just ridiculous; you could have posted that without consequence. And maybe thatís right. But who is to say for sure? Do we really know what kind of language triggers the authorities? We do not. It might be a slow news day and you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of some serious government muscle. Or maybe nothing would happen.

But how many people today are playing it safe just in case? I would suspect that it is nearly universal. There is a chill in the air. You whisper your opinions only to those whom you trust. You donít really tell pollsters what you really think ó most people just hang up ó but thatís been true for some time. Now you donít even tell your friends on Facebook. Even email seems sketchy.

There is another feature of all this that strikes me. In some respects, you can tell that the war on terror is ramping down. President Obama has called for an end to the ďboundless war on terror.Ē Heís even dismissed the idea that the feds would hound Edward Snowden. Itís purely anecdotal, but Iíve had fewer harrowing experiences at the airport today than I had five years ago. Security is often a snap. Even customs and passport checks are easier than they once were.

Five years ago, American citizens had to leave an extra hour or two early just to get through the maze of bureaucracy when coming back into the country. I went through the whole mess yesterday at the Atlanta airport in less than 15 minutes. None of it seemed intrusive at all. I could have carried a suitcase full of Cuban cigars and no one would have known the difference.

Itís true across the board. Drone strikes are down. The police today are less brutal in general than five years ago. The trigger-happy hysteria of five years ago has gradually mutated into a routine bureaucratic blase.

Yet the appearance of less frenzy is somewhat illusory. After Sept. 11, the government started collecting every bit of data it could on us, building profiles of every single American. If you should end up on the wrong side of the law, the power elites are now in a position to rifle through a decade-plus of emails and chats. This is the stuff of which blackmail is made.

The political climate has changed. When Edward Snowdenís revelations came to light, many people were upset about the violation of human rights this implies. But plenty of others defended the surveillance as something necessary in times of high threat levels. So you can see that weíve already been conditioned to accept a higher level of despotism than ever before.

This follows the ratchet model of government expansion as explained by Robert Higgs in his book Against Leviathan. It goes like this. During war and depression, government expands. When the crisis is over, government contracts. But the new normal is never the old normal. We have become accustomed to a new level of command and control. This is the ratchet at work. It might seem like we get freedoms back, but we do not. Instead, we just get used to being less free.

This is what happened during and after World War I and World War II and the Great Depression. The same pattern is taking place today. The war on terror is abating ó after 12 years of hell. But in the new normal, surveillance is just part of the process of governing.

No law on the books even authorizes it, write Jennifer Stisa Granick and Christopher Jon Sprigman in The New York Times. ďThrough a series of legal contortions, the Obama administration has argued that Congress, since Sept. 11, intended to implicitly authorize mass surveillance.Ē

We put up with it because it seems less bad than just a few years ago. The reality is that we are more controlled by government than any previous generation.

So yes, we watch what we post. The truth is scarcer than ever before.
Jeffrey Tucker is the publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, the Primus inter pares of the Laissez Faire Club, and the author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo, It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes, and A Beautiful Anarchy: How to Build Your Own Civilization in the Digital Age, among thousands of articles. Click to sign up for his free daily letter. Email him: | Facebook | Twitter | Google

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Comments 1 - 2 of 2 Add Comment Page 1 of 1

Posted: Jul 04 2013, 6:33 AM

20138 You are exactly right about self-censorship, and even the "nothing to hide" folks, if they REALLY knew they were being monitored (many really don't believe it yet) would find themselves doing it too.
And you hit the nail on the head about "what if"..because whether it really IS or not, to us citizens it seems ARBITRARY. Seems like any of a number of beaurocrats, or programmers, can simply dump us on a list that effectively makes our lives much harder.
And the overall surveillance. True story, I once went with my girlfriend in the 80's to Victoria, Canada. Had never been there in my life. We asked a local couple (she was pregnant) about the busses. A day or two later, in a totally different part of town, walking along and there come the couple again. We exchange nods, and amazement at meeting TWICE in a city of that size. Soem days later, just before we were to leave, my GF's brother taking us to a party, had to stop to get a friend. We went in the apt. complex and on the way up the stairs to his friends apt. coming down the stairs with a basket of laundry, THAT SAME guy going to do the laundry...we again talk, and amazed at our coincidence.
The point? It was random. It was "unbelievable". It was in the 80's but if it had been NOW, and just pretend that guy or couple were actual terrorists...our cell phone tracking, and some algorithm in the NSA or wherever, would have seen this as suspicious, I'd get on a list...maybe no-fly, whatever. This is coincidence, and because we THINK it is so rare, people put extra weight on it "what are the odds, this guy must be dirty!" a cop would think. When in fact, this happens ALL the TIME, think...if that guy had gone down to do laundry one minute earlier or later I'd have been in his building but not even known it. This happens ALL the time, yet ignorant "hunches" and assumptions would make a wrong conclusion.
We are so screwed!

Posted: Jul 05 2013, 9:36 AM

68255 There's also another aspect that complements the surveillance. It's that the government is now often working outside of the laws. They now do whatever they want regardless of whether it's lawful or not. Indefinite detention without trial seemed like impossible in free society, but now it's OK. In Boston the police did warrantless searches without hesitation, and pointed guns at the innocent citizens. However harmless TSA seems to you, you should be aware that if they don't like something in your behavior, which can be anything, they can deny you the boarding, and there are no rules that limit them, and you can't appeal their decision in any way. Technically, if any them decides to ban you for bad haircut, you won't do a thing. Or they can pull you for questioning, and you will have to answer their every question, no limits. If you say "it's none of your business, go to hell", again, they can deny boarding. Maybe they won't, but may they will - and that's the kicker: there are no rules, you don't know what will happen. They can also put you on the no-fly list, and again there will be no explanations and no sound appeal process. Compare this to the police, where the scope of what you must answer and what the cop can do is strictly defined - with the TSA, it's neither. This absolute power of the government and unpredictability of the consequences complement the surveillance: if they only listened, but there were limits to what they can do, you could always say "so what, listen whatever you want, you can't do anything without due process anyways". But now they can.

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