Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What to do about Big Brother?

Gary Chartier

The verdict in the Bradley Manning case and the controversy surrounding continued revelations regarding National Security Agency surveillance have kept attention focused on the US government’s relentless demand for secrecy.

Even though he was ultimately convicted on lesser charges, the fact that prosecutors charged Manning with “aiding the enemy” highlights the concern that those at the top of the pyramid of state power feel about the revelation of their actions. The “enemy” most clearly aided by the courageous soldier’s disclosures is the public. In practical terms, “aiding the enemy” means equipping ordinary people to hold those in authority accountable for the unjust and arbitrary exercise of power.

Transparency terrifies the powerful.

Transparency terrifies the powerful.

The rush to vilify Edward Snowden for disclosing the NSA’s unimaginably massive surveillance program and to dismiss the journalist who broke the NSA story, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, is further evidence of the fear that public awareness of what governments do behind closed doors, and resulting attempts to challenge the expanding reach of Big Brother, inspire in the powerful. And, of course, efforts to vilify Snowden and dismiss Greenwald are linked with plans to prosecute one or both for telling the truth to the world’s people.

As new disclosures continue to pour in, Establishment pundits focus attention on Snowden’s and Greenwald’s personal idiosyncrasies, question their motives, and distract attention from the real story: the emergence in contemporary America of a surveillance state more expansive by far than anything George Orwell depicted in 1984.

In a recent column, Greenwald bemoans the fact that the intelligence committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives, created after revelations of CIA misdeeds in the 1970s precisely to prevent or end rights-violations by intelligence agencies, are in fact cooperative enablers of the agencies they are theoretically tasked with policing. Their members, like other congressional supporters of the NSA, are frequently the recipients of substantial donations from corporations that do business with intelligence agencies and the military.

I think the right question to ask is: why is anyone surprised?

There are honorable exceptions, but, as a general matter, people who occupy elective or appointive government positions are people who are exceptionally interested in power and exceptionally willing to do what’s required to acquire and maintain it. If they weren’t, they would likely lose out to more ruthless competitors.

Economist Robert Higgs has noted the existence of a “ratchet effect” related to the growth of state power: while a crisis may be invoked to justify the expansion of the state’s reach, curiously enough, there’s little or no no contraction in state power after the crisis abates. People with power are loath to relinquish it. They can be expected to embrace any opportunity to acquire more power greedily, grasping it with both hands.

And, as the examples of the Senators and Representatives benefiting from the largesse of government contractors suggest, politically influential people can expect to receive repeated encouragement to consolidate state power when doing so has the potential to advance the interests of the wealthy and well-connected.

From the standpoint of those in power, the fact that governments amass power, shun transparency, and crush dissent isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

Big Brother’s power is growing. The state moves quickly to crush those who attempt to reveal its misdeeds. And those purportedly responsible for restraining the state opt, predictably, to serve as its enablers instead.

One solution is to press for reform, to urge the election or appointment of better, more principled politicians, to limit this or that avenue by which money can enter politics, to enjoin state officials to embrace greater transparency.

But it’s hard to take this option seriously when you realize that acquiring more power is what states do. From the standpoint of those in power, the fact that governments amass power, shun transparency, and crush dissent isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

No institutional arrangement can guarantee that people won’t engage in injustice. But the right kinds of institutions can reduce incentives and opportunities for people to prey on others and increase opportunities and incentives for them to benefit others. States offer politicians unchecked power, limit accountability and transparency, and, as monopolies, deny ordinary people access to alternative sources of social order and social services. Not surprisingly, then, state power is persistently exercised in abusive ways.

The way to escape from Big Brother isn’t to change the faces in Washington. It’s to move toward a society in which decision-making takes a bottom-up, grass-roots form, in which power isn’t centralized, and in which no entity has a monopoly of force, toward a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation—in a word, anarchy.

About The Author

Gary Chartier

Gary Chartier is the author of Anarchy and Legal Order (2013). He is Professor of Law and Business Ethics and Associate Dean of the Zapara School of Business at La Sierra Universit...

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