2013-06-07

Despotism Today

I feel obligated to comment on the recent revelations of what our governments are doing to us, with either partial or full cooperation of major technology companies. That said, I am not sure my thoughts are terribly of value in this sphere. So, I'll start by stating the obvious and then move to predictions.

The Obvious
What we're reading in the news is a full-on, in-your-face, impossible-to-ignore siren calling our attention to exactly how much liberty we lost in the wake of 9/11, under the Patriot Act, and possibly before. That means that this isn't exactly news. Most liberty-minded folks of all ideological stripes have been crying out against these government abuses for at least ten years. (Ten years.) Those folks who have been really in tune with the industry have been warning of this sort of thing for much longer than that. For anecdotal evidence of this, I could point to movies like The Net or Enemy of the State, or even Sneakers. The even more obvious example would be Orwell, but "crying Orwell" has become a more greatly derided concept than crying wolf these days.

At any rate, this only feels like an ambush because the folks at The Guardian have been screaming it at us for a week. Truth is, those crazy conspiracy theorists who objected to giving out their Social Security numbers at department stores and stuff... turns out they were on the right side of history here, and they had a much further-reaching cognitive time-horizon than the rest of us.

So the first obvious lesson to learn here speaks to what I just wrote about Orwell and the conspiracy theorists: The fact that the worst fears of people typically dismissed as paranoid nutcases have actually turned into the reality in which we live is, to put it mildly, terrifying news.

My best gauge for public opinion is what people are saying on my Facebook news feed. It's not perfect, but it's not bad: most of my FB friends are normal people with mainstream political views, leaning slightly to the left, but also including a good number of conservatives and libertarians. Everyone is upset. Everyone dislikes the course our governments have taken. Everyone feels violated.

There are no disagreements about the abuse of government power in this case. Now that we see how much the government is spying on us, now that we see how the IRS has abused its power, now that we see the extent to which the government will bully the press in order to affect a given outcome, no one can raise any defense. There seems to be a general sense out there of just how wrong we've all been.

Finally!

Predictions
It's anyone's guess. Our government could easily go gestapo on us, fill the streets with tanks, and turn us into the next dictatorship. It's happened before. No society is immune.

But I don't think that's going to happen. For one thing, existing technology that the government does not fully control - and can never fully control - is sufficient to show to the world any abuse of power that occurs here. Already people use their cell phones to watchdog the police forces, and the momentum is growing. Any would-be American despot would first have to obliterate our access technology on a house-to-house level, and while they attempted this, the cameras would be rolling. The world would not stand for it, and neither would most Americans. There would be a mass refugee exodus to bordering nations, leaving the country totally decimated, while individuals would be enjoying better liberties elsewhere.

What this means is that human society has become more mobile, more independent, and more individualized over the past century. To despotize a country as large and diverse as the United States would require a level of wanton destruction that I don't think even the worst authoritarians are willing to wage on the country they wish to rule.

But the implication of this fact is that governments, despite being in a more powerful position than at any other previous time in history, are also needed by individuals less than ever before. We really are independent of governments today.

This is not "anarchy" by anyone's definition of the term, and I do think there will always be a place for some form of government. But what we are observing today is the dawn of mankind's transition from the post-Enlightenment nation-state to whatever the next phase is. People are willing to tolerate high levels of taxation and even rigged economic systems, so long as they have nice Xboxes to play with and plenty of booze and fast food. But when overreach happens, people reject it at the gut level, and that's what we're seeing now.

People of all ideological stripes are horrified by their government's willingness to shut down the entire city of Boston to catch a teenager, to demand call lists from the press, to subject the nation's internet behavior to peeping-tom algorithms, and so on. Whatever any one person might see as "the ideal government," everyone agrees that what we have is bad, wrong, undesirable, and generally inferior to even the supposed "bad" countries.

I can't remember - have I written about my experience with airport security in countries like China, where the government is supposed to be more oppressive, and yet where there are no body scanners, and basically nothing more than a metal detector, and a bureaucrat who reads your papers? It's a case in point. Many people would rather live in an oligarchic bureaucracy like communist China than live in a world where the mayor of Boston can decide to shut down one of our nation's largest cities while his jackbooted thugs gun down a couple of teenagers without a jury trial.

And there are a lot of countries out there that are even more pleasant than China.

Think about it: if the SS came for you tomorrow and you had to flee under cover of darkness, wouldn't you end up somewhere nice, like Toronto, or Rome, or Mumbai, or San Salvador? Of course you would.

So our preferences for enjoying a good, happy, pleasant life will result either in a US government that reforms itself, or a more stubborn one that folds its arms across its chest while we rational creatures leave to seek greener pastures.

And this is basically that competitive government anarcho-capitalism stuff that seems so spooky during times when the NSA isn't briefing the president on statistically significant changes to your porn-surfing habits. Welcome to the future, baby.