Online Library of Liberty forum on McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era

At its Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund hosts a monthly “Liberty Matters” forum in which a set of scholars discusses a particular set of ideas. This month’s forum features Deirdre McCloskey‘s Bourgeois Era series of books, two of which have been published (Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity). McCloskey’s main argument is that the various material and institutional factors that we’ve hypothesized as the causes of industrialization and the dramatic increase in living standards are insufficient for explaining why it happened when, where, and how it did — in northern Europe, particularly Britain and the Netherlands, accelerating in the 18th century from previous foundations there. The most important factor, according to McCloskey, was ideas, particularly the cultural acceptance of commerce, trade, and mercantile activity as honorable.

The forum features a lead essay from Don Boudreaux, commentary essays from Joel Mokyr and John Nye, and responses from McCloskey and the other authors. The forum will continue for the rest of the month, with further commentary certain to follow.

If you want an opportunity to think about one of the most important intellectual questions of economics, here it is. The essays, responses, and interactions are an encapsulation of a lively and important debate in economic history over the past two decades. And if you want to dig more deeply, the bibliography and the references in each essay are a reading list for a solid course in economic history. These ideas affect not only our understanding of economic history and the history of industrialization, but also how ideas and attitudes affect economic activity and living standards today. Well worth your time and consideration.

Pauline Maier on colonial radicalism

With Independence Day upon us, my bedtime reading for the past couple of weeks has become timely. Pauline Maier, the MIT historian who unfortunately passed away last year, published From Resistance to Revolution in 1972. It’s a carefully researched and well-written account, weaving together reports from contemporaneous sources, of the increasing radicalization of American colonists from 1765 to 1776. How did the beliefs of so many colonists evolve from being loyal British subjects to supporting revolution and independence from Britain — why this radicalization?

Maier’s ultimate conclusion is overreaching and misinterpretations on the part of the British government, which is consistent with the “generally received” historical narrative. But what I have found most interesting and novel from her argument is Chapter 2: An Ideology of Resistance and Restraint. Maier grounds the intellectual origins of revolution in the 17th-18th-century English revolutionary writers — John Locke is best known among Americans, but also John Milton and Algernon Sidney (see here my summary of Sidney on illegitimate political power) and Frances Hutcheson. She describes a category of political belief called “Real Whigs”, and argued that the Real Whig beliefs in both the people as the ultimate source of legitimate political power and the value of social order meant that the colonists were inclined to resist the illegitimate exercise of authority, but not to jump quickly to a radical revolutionary position. For example:

Spokesmen for this English revolutionary tradition were distinguished in the eighteenth century above all by their outspoken defense of the people’s right to rise up against their rulers, which they supported in traditional contractural [sic] terms. Government was created by the people to promote the public welfare. If magistrates failed to honor that trust, they automatically forfeited their powers back to the people, who were free and even obliged [as per Sidney's argument -- ed.] to reclaim political authority. The people could do so, moreoever, in acts of limited resistance, intended to nullify only isolated wrongful acts of the magistrates, or ultimately in revolution, which denied the continued legitimacy of the established government as a whole. …

The fundamental values of the Radical Whigs were realized most fully in a well-ordered free society, such that obedience to the law was stressed as much or more than occasional resistance to it. (pp. 27-28)

This chapter really resonated with me as a clear explanation of the primacy of individual liberty combined with a society ordered using universally-applied general legal principles (otherwise known as the “rule of law”). This combination of resistance and restraint is the key to understanding the political philosophy underlying the American republic, and Maier’s chapter is the best articulation of it that I’ve read.

Given the fractious and polarized political climate we inhabit today, I think a refresher on these ideas and their foundations is a good idea. We should be having a larger conversation about what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate political authority, particularly in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, the expansion of federal executive branch assertion of authority over the past 14 years, the expansion of administrative regulation (which is a sub-category of executive assertion), and the ability of business interests with political power to influence that regulation’s form and scope. There are a lot of arguments from all parts of the political spectrum that mischaracterize or misunderstand the ideas that Maier lays out here so clearly. We’d still be likely to have a fractious and polarized political climate, but we’d have better-informed public debate.

A relatively thoughful view of libertarianism from a progressive-liberal perspective

Salon has published a lot of nonsense on libertarianism (e.g., anything by Michael Lind on the topic). So it was surprising, yesterday, to find that Kim Messick’s Salon essay on libertarianism was relatively thoughtful. No perfect, by any means, just better than most progressive-liberal attempts at criticizing libertarianism. The author at least gets basic points right and would surely score higher than most Salon writers on the relevant ideological Turing test (admittedly a low standard).

Just don’t take the title too seriously (“Libertarians’ reality problem: How an estrangement from history yields abject failure”). At Alternet the story is reproduced under the similarly silly title “How Libertarianism Would Actually Curtail Human Freedom.” Article writers often don’t choose their titles, editors do, so just skip ahead for the substance (you’ll have to similarly skim past the Tea Party and Republican chatter at the beginning and ignore the favorable linking to Lind’s Salon work). Once you skip ahead, you’ll find a reasonable journalistic effort to engage with and challenge an overly atomistic view of libertarianism.

Messick misses some things. He is apparently unfamiliar with left libertarianism (for example, the Center for a Stateless Society) or many of the writers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians; he thinks a libertarian free market would leave many people in soul-killing poverty; and at times his discussion confuses society with government. But the core of his challenge to (at least hard-core individualistic) depictions of libertarian principles makes useful work of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s writings on atomism.

In his essay “Atomism,” Taylor points out that we “only develop [our] characteristically human capacities in society” — including our capacity for choice. “Living in a society,” Taylor goes on, “is a necessary condition of the development of rationality … or of becoming a moral agent in the full sense of the term … or of becoming a fully responsible, autonomous being.” Given this, those who value personal autonomy must also affirm the value of its social sources: “[I]f we assert the right to one’s own independent moral convictions, we cannot… claim that we are not under any obligation ‘by nature’ to belong to and sustain a society of the relevant type”:

“[T]he free individual or autonomous moral agent can only achieve and maintain his identity in a certain type of culture… But these… do not come into existence spontaneously each successive instant. They are carried on in institutions and associations which require stability and continuity and frequently also support from the community as a whole… The crucial point here is this: since the free individual can only maintain his identity within a society/culture of a certain kind, he has to be concerned about the shape of this society/culture as a whole. He cannot… be concerned purely with his individual choices and the associations formed from such choices”.

Taylor shows us how to link the liberal concept of agency — the ideal of personal autonomy — with normative conclusions about what people should value. The connective tissue is the pattern of external resources on which our capacity for choice depends: the institutions, practices, and associations within which we develop and cultivate this capacity. For Taylor, it makes no sense to affirm the value of autonomy while denigrating (or simply ignoring) the social goods without which autonomy is impossible. Like communitarians, he thinks we should affirm these goods and not just our purely personal ends. Unlike them, he does not regard this as grounds for a wholesale rejection of liberal autonomy. Quite the contrary — he argues for a social element in ethical life precisely because he values autonomy and wants to sustain the cultural conditions upon which it rests.

On this I think Taylor (and by extension Messick) raises good points about the connections between society, moral development, and individual freedom. I just don’t think the only or even the best response to these points is to reject libertarian political philosophy. Messick sums up the above with, “The obvious inference is that we should see progressive liberalism as a kind of middle ground between communitarianism on the one hand and libertarianism on the other. It acknowledges the social dimensions of ethical life but accepts personal autonomy as a genuine ideal.”

But acknowledging “the social dimensions of ethical life” and “accepting personal autonomy as a genuine ideal” is exactly the common ground I want to occupy as a libertarian. The libertarian minded thinkers I like tend to emphasize the connection between increasing liberty and a flourishing society.

Messick may be surprised to learn there is active debate among libertarians on these issues of politics, markets, and social relations. Some libertarians insist non-aggression is the only necessary principle, while others suggest the broader social order is also important. In the context of these discussions, Messick’s outsider perspective on libertarianism, while imperfect, is good enough to be of some value to libertarians.

“That—that—is what we are for: voluntary associations, in all their richness and bewildering complexity”

The above is a quote from Duke political economist (and friend of KP) Mike Munger, who also blogs at Kids Prefer Cheese and Euvoluntary Exchange, and is a frequent guest on EconTalk. Mike’s written a thoughtful and interesting reflection in the Freeman on what libertarians stand for. In many ways it’s a riff on Toqueville and his analysis of American society, which remains fresh and relevant today in Mike’s view (and mine). While it’s eminently quotable, please do read the whole thing, especially if you don’t identify as a libertarian. Mike’s insights might change your thinking about what libertarians do stand for.

Why is he bothering to reflect on what libertarians stand for?

The government is not providing the basic services that our more idealistic fellow citizens expect, and they want to know why. The things they think they wan [sic]—healthcare, pensions, schools, the war on terrorism, and the war on drugs—are a litany of failures. We don’t need to pile on and say we’re against those things. We need to offer an alternative.

In other words: What positive, optimistic alternative vision of society (yes, of society, the social thing, where you actually talk to other people and work together) can we offer? Unless we can answer that, the next question will be, “Why don’t Libertarians care about real people?”

I have been making this argument to my colleagues with respect to energy and environment policy for some time. I team-teach a sustainability course with a geologist and a philospher, both of whom are politically Progressive and have typically advocated large-scale top-down regulation and government control to address global warming. As they have seen the reality of using political institutions to make collective decisions, they have expressed frustration; as they have heard my lectures on public choice and political economy and read some of the political economy literature on environmental regulation, they have expressed some ideas similar to what Mike said above.

So I’ve been focusing on alternatives — liberty allows for experimentation and for individuals to make choices that express their environmental values. The more of those experimentation and expression processes we foster, the more likely we are to devise lower-carbon ways to achieve what we want to achieve. That’s one application of the vision that Mike describes.

But a lot of people don’t think about the connection from liberty to experimentation to thriving, and default to expecting “the government” to solve collective problems. In general, people pay too much attention to politics:

If citizens ignored politics, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we are worried that our excessive focus on politics will cause us to ignore society and each other. If we fail to connect as social beings in complex reciprocal exchange relations, modern “democratic” life becomes anomic and mean, just as Tocqueville foresaw.

That—that—is what we are for: voluntary associations, in all their richness and bewildering complexity.

If you want to go out and persuade some people to work with you, and all voluntarily work for the benefit of each, then that is libertarian social change. If someone wants to opt out and form a different association, they are free to do so. And that’s a good thing because you get diverse experimentation in problem solving.

And I really like his conclusion, which makes me feel happy, large, empowered, and connected (four feelings I never experience in political collective action):

Libertarians are for voluntary action, always. It is because we are for society—a vibrant, active society—that we resist the expansion of state power.

It is because we are for giving people a chance to reach their full potential that we doubt the motives and effectiveness of government. Political coercion corrupts the human spirit; political leaders tell us they take our wealth for our own good, and political processes straitjacket independent thought—the essence of liberty.

We are for individuals, working together in complex, interconnected organizations they have designed in their efforts to solve problems.

We are for liberty, for celebrating the infinite and infinitely varied capacities of the human mind. Libertarians are for a limitless sense of the possible, for the idea that for a society of truly free and responsible citizens, nothing is impossible.

Public Choice Theory: Skwire’s First Law

Some time last spring, my friend and occasional KP contributor Sarah Skwire formulated on Facebook what’s now dubbed “Skwire’s First Law”, and we’ve been using it, kicking its tires, and discussing it all summer. In a timely manner (given what we’ve learned this summer about widespread, unwarranted government surveillance and the impending likelihood that yet another president will engage in yet another international military action without Congressional authorization), Sarah has formalized and expanded upon Skwire’s First Law in a Bleeding Heart Libertarians post today:

Accidentally invented by me on Facebook a while back, named by my co-blogger Steve Horwitz, and picked up–to my great diversion–by a crew of Facebook friends, Skwire’s law is simply stated thusly:

Politicians are asshats.

I’m driven to write a bit about Skwire’s First Law today because, like every other day, politicians are being asshats. And I want to talk about how Skwire’s law—though simply expressed—is not merely a sigh of exasperation, a political version of “boys will be boys.” It’s a manifesto condensed into three words.

Saying that politicians are asshats means that you acknowledge the deep truths of public choice theory. It means that even if the occasional politician supports a policy you like or gives a speech you admire, you know enough not to turn him or her into a hero. We can debate, as my friends and I have on Facebook, whether asshats become politicians or politicians become asshats. I don’t think that debate much matters, because I think both parts of it are true. Politics is a machine that turns good people and good ideas into bad ones, and turns bad people and bad ideas into worse ones. Politics is a system that attracts not only people who want to help, but people who want to control. And once those people—good or bad, helpful or controlling—are in the system, they use it to further their ends.

Note in particular the last three sentences, and how they encapsulate the essential implications of public choice theory — in our roles as political actors (here let’s focus on individuals as elected representatives and in regulatory agencies, not as voters), individuals prioritize self interest, broadly defined. This is the extension to the political decision realm of the self-interest assumption in our roles as purposive individuals in other decision settings. Many individual politicians are motivated by good intentions (the “public interest”, making the world a better place, “giving back”, bringing resources to his/her community), and some are also motivated by the desire to control and manage the choices of others and how others live their lives. Public choice theory is general enough to accommodate that diversity of motivation and intent.

More insidiously, though, the fact that political power gives politicians coercive power to make decisions about the resources and the choices of others means that even those who have good intentions and good ideas can, do, and often must use control and coercion to satisfy those intentions and attempt to implement those ideas. Thus even well-intentioned politicians use the system of coercion and control to attempt to achieve their ends. And I hope Sarah doesn’t mind my paraphrasing a Facebook comment of hers on this point, because it’s apt: by definition, politics means using the state’s monopoly on force, and being a politician means that you contribute to decisions that will use that force to enshrine your “honest mistakes or infelicitous actions” in a pretty permanent way in the lives of many, many people, including those the politician says s/he wants to help. If that politician is unaware of that likelihood, or doesn’t care, that’s asshattery. It’s also hubris. And it’s pervasive in politics.

Sarah goes on to point out that this outcome is not accidental or a flaw, although some of us may consider it perverse. Here’s where the study of institutions and incentives becomes important — once these individuals become politicians, they are embedded in a set of institutions that shape their incentives. They face the tragedy of the commons in the federal budgeting process, because to bring resources home to their constituents means either decreasing resources somewhere else that doesn’t matter as much to them or increasing government spending in ways that can unsustainably increase government debt (oh, hey, did you know we’re hitting another government debt ceiling in October?). They trade votes and engage in log-rolling to achieve what they style as “compromise”. The incentives are inherent in the institutions, and they are bad incentives that lead to inferior outcomes and to politicians being asshats. Of course there are nuances and degrees of asshattery, especially if you look on an issue-by-issue basis at the questions you find most pressing. But remember the initial formulation: occasional support that aligns with your preferences does not change the fundamental, underlying institutional incentives.

Note that this asshat designation is not a statement about personal character or merit of the individual politician. It’s a statement about the institutionally-driven incentives facing each individual politician regardless of their motivations or intentions. And that’s what makes it such a pithy and damning statement about the pernicious effects of political decision processes, even (or perhaps especially) political decision processes in what is supposed to be a democratic republic. It is the nature of our political institutions that politicians are asshats, and therefore

[t]hey are wasting your time and your money and your energy. They are allying you with people you hate and with causes you despise and with actions you would never condone.

Don’t wait around for them to save you or the things you think are important. Don’t think you’ve found the politician who can fix your world.

Realizing this nature of political institutions opens up the idea that political processes are not necessarily the only or the best way to approach social conflicts and problems. Thinking about alternatives, about experimenting with different approaches, about the impossibility of doing away with all social problems, gives us opportunities to be creative and to enable other approaches to emerge.

Raisin’ a complaint against USDA marketing orders

Can raisin growers pack and sell all of the raisins they grow? Yes, but only if the USDA permits it. Sometimes the USDA claims the right to take raisins off the market in the effort to keep the price to consumers higher. If a raisin grower doesn’t comply with the USDA’s demands, then the government’s attorneys will come a knocking. That is what happened to Marvin Horne and his wife, raisin growers in California, when they chose not to comply with the USDA’s demand to hand over a 47% share of the Horne’s 2002 crop without any payment from the government.

It is, as Planet Money describes it in a radio segment, kind of crazy. In most industries the federal government tries to block industry collusion–it is bad for consumers, they say–but with raisins and a number of other crops the federal government requires it. Your tax dollars at work.

The Planet Money broadcast is worth a listen. Here also is ReasonTV on the story: Feds vs. Raisins: Small Farmers Stand Up to the USDA

This 2002 act of non-compliance is, more than 10 years later, still bouncing around the courts. In a recent decision the Supreme Court declared that Horne et al. could raise a takings claim without first paying the USDA’s proposed fine of about half-a-million dollars, but that small victory only allows them to continue the legal fight.

MORE: The Cato Institute filed a legal brief at the Supreme Court in support of the Horne et al. position. Links: Summary of brief; Full brief. See also coverage at SCOTUSblog.

Lysander Spooner on government surveillance

Put yourself in the 1830s-1840s United States. What was the most disruptive, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian activity going on at the time? Abolitionist, anti-slavery advocacy, organized nationally through written correspondence. These rabble-rousers threatened to upset the social, cultural, and economic balance of a young nation. Who cares about pesky considerations like the morality of slavery? In that mindset, then-President and authoritarian poster-boy Andrew Jackson urged Congress to pass laws allowing federal government surveillance of mail and the prohibition of sending “incendiary” material through the mail.

Historian Phil Magness points out that the abolitionist activist (and noted libertarian anarchist) Lysander Spooner wrote passionately to oppose such surveillance and censorship:

If this power, so absolute over its own mails, were also an exclusive one over all mails, it would be incomparably the most tyrannical, if not the only purely tyrannical feature of the government. The other despotic powers, such as those of unlimited taxation, and unlimited military establishments, may be perverted to purposes of oppression. Yet it was necessary that the powers should be entrusted to the government, for the defence of the nation. But an exclusive and unqualified power over the transmission of intelligence, has no such apology. It has no adaptation to facilitate any thing but the operations of tyranny. It has no aspect whatever, that is favourable either to the liberty or the interests of the people. It is a power that is impossible to be exercised at all, without being exerted unjustifiably. The very maintenance of the exclusive principle involves a tyranny, and a destruction of individual rights, that are now, and ever must be, felt through every ramification of society. The power is already exerted to the great obstruction of commercial intelligence, and nearly to the destruction of all social correspondence, except among the wealthy. But that we are accustomed to such fetters, we would not submit to them for a moment.

To what further extent of tyranny and mischief, this power, in the future growth of the country, may be exerted, we cannot foresee. But the only absolute constitutional guaranty, that the people have against all these evils and dangers, is to be found in the principle, that they have the right, at pleasure, to establish mails of their own. And if the people should now surrender this principle, they would thereby prove that their minds are most happily adapted to the degradation of slavery.

Sadly, I think Spooner would see a lot that he would recognize today.

The NSA Surveillance Dictionary

I meant to include this wry article in my previous post on surveillance, abuse of power, and abuse of language, but then I decided that it deserves its own post. Rather in the spirit of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, Philip Bump proposes that we bear in mind the NSA Surveillance Dictionary when trying to understand and write about surveillance. For example:

data (ˈdeɪtə): A lot of people unfamiliar with secrecy semantics use the term “data” to refer to a group of points of information. That is wrong.

Data is content. It is what is said in a communication. It is not information about the communication. That is metadata. Got it?

If not, please refer to the congressional testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Asked by Senator Ron Wyden if the NSA “collect[s] any type of data at all” on Americans, Clapper responded no. Because, he said, he was thinking about the question only in terms of Wyden’s previous question, which dealt with how the NSA gathers emails and internet content on non-Americans. He wasn’t thinking about the metadata that the NSA collects on every phone call that takes place through every American phone provider — metadata which includes the phone numbers and length of the call. That isn’t data, it is metadata.

And therefore, by this definition, Clapper was hardly wrong at all.

Language, deception, and the people comprising the surveillance state

Newspeak, anyone? Language has long been a tool for persuasion and in the fight against tyranny and oppression, and in 1984 George Orwell pointed out how important language is when he featured the effects of the state’s attempts to steer and control the content and use of language. This week, more reporters are revealing the breadth and depth of the domestic reach of surveillance. Their reports also reveal the extent to which the people who make up the surveillance state are lying and deceiving us and how Orwellian their use of language has become.

Investigative reporter Charlie Savage reports in yesterday’s New York Times that the NSA does indeed search the content of communications of Americans.

While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching — without warrants — through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.

Not just metadata. Content. They can, and do, search for items such as names of “targets” within messages. Savage also confirms that the NSA has been playing extremely fast and loose with language, claiming that they aren’t surveiling Americans because they aren’t storing the content, but only storing metadata. Sure, they are running the messages through intercepting surveillance computers on their way in and out of the country, but since they aren’t storing them, that’s not surveillance, right?

Wrong. Wrong morally, wrong factually, wrong verbally, wrong constitutionally, and actually wrong legally, according to Senator Ron Wyden, who has seen classified briefings that the current veil of government secrecy prevents him from sharing transparently with the very people whose communications are being monitored.

Yes, I said it. Monitored. And more and more people are saying it: lying. Lied. Deliberately.

Individually and as an organization, NSA people have misled Congress, lying to the members of Congress and to the American people whom they are supposed to represent. As Alex Wilhelm notes in a TechCrunch article on the Savage story from yesterday,

…[U]nder a broad interpretation of the FISA Amendments Act, the NSA intercepts communications of U.S. citizens whose communications cross borders and mention foreign targets. You don’t have to communicate with someone being targeted directly to potentially have the NSA collect and search your email. …

The NSA has lied, repeatedly, concerning its collection of records, content, metadata, and the like of American citizens. And, frankly, it’s become a complex enough situation that it is slightly hard to parse truth from half-truth from downright lie. However, James Clapper, current Director of National Intelligence, lied to Congress — and you — about the NSA not collecting information on American citizens. All that has happened since that moment is that the depth of his lie has increased; previously, it was phone metadata that became known as a collection target. The Times’ report goes deeper in damning Clapper as mendacious. …

The new dodge is somewhat simple. Break down the NSA’s activities into two parts: collection and the search of that information. This allows the government to occlude their activities. The Times’ piece has a perfect encapsulation of the sort of idiotic verbiage that we are currently being spoon-fed: “In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect.”

The ambiguity of legal interpretation and a facility with strict parsing of words combine to enable the agents of the surveillance state to advance their interests in secrecy without people thinking that they are strictly lying. Note, for example, the very precise, and precisely evasive, language in this exchange that Savage describes:

At a House Intelligence Committee oversight hearing in June, for example, a lawmaker pressed the deputy director of the N.S.A., John Inglis, to say whether the agency listened to the phone calls or read the e-mails and text messages of American citizens. Mr. Inglis replied, “We do not target the content of U.S. person communications without a specific warrant anywhere on the earth.”

“Targeting” and “listening” or “reading” are very different things, and Mr. Inglis and other members of the security-silicon-industry state are very deliberate in their use and misuse of language to create the belief in the inattentive public that the surveillance state is not doing what we fear it is doing. And yet, that’s exactly what those individuals are doing, individually and as an organization. And they take advantage of the legal ambiguity of what it means to “target” someone.

And in a very good commentary on restoring trust in the government and the Internet, Bruce Schneier highlights another used of legal-linguistic evasion to enable those advancing the surveillance state to achieve their ends:

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has claimed that the NSA’s massive surveillance and data mining programs have helped stop more than 50 terrorist plots, 10 inside the U.S. Do you believe him? I think it depends on your definition of “helped.” We’re not told whether these programs were instrumental in foiling the plots or whether they just happened to be of minor help because the data was there. It also depends on your definition of “terrorist plots.” An examination of plots that that FBI claims to have foiled since 9/11 reveals that would-be terrorists have commonly been delusional, and most have been egged on by FBI undercover agents or informants.

Left alone, few were likely to have accomplished much of anything.

Both government agencies and corporations have cloaked themselves in so much secrecy that it’s impossible to verify anything they say; revelation after revelation demonstrates that they’ve been lying to us regularly and tell the truth only when there’s no alternative.

Amy Davidson, another reporter who has become a must-read analyst of the deception undergirding the surveillance state, also analyzes the situation that Savage’s exposé reveals and how underhandedly slippery is the use of language by the people in the surveillance state:

… a reference to “cases where NSA seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target.” What that meant, he learned from further reporting, was that the agency thought it was allowed read Americans’ e-mails pretty freely, by “temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border.” The N.S.A. comes up with a search term that is “about” a foreign target, and then reads whatever e-mails sent into and out of the country that it finds containing it. How is this not “targeting” Americans, when their communications are pulled out of the stream and studied? The answer is a language game: the person to whom those e-mails belong is not, by the N.S.A.’s definition, its target, nor—and this is somewhat new—does that person even have to be in touch with any foreign target. All you really have to be is interested in the same things as a target—or even just to use some words the N.S.A. has decided are “about” the target. …

Some of the documents released by Snowden showed that the FISA court had given the N.S.A. vague and general dispensations; others showed how it got around the question of individualized warrants entirely in the bulk collection of data like call records. This was done, in part, by redefining simple words like “relevant” and “collect”—and, now, “about.” This is the other alarming part of Savage’s piece: the further confirmation of the degradation of language. Every time the Administration says not to worry—that surveillance does not “target” Americans—the word seems to mean less and less, to the point where one expects it to argue that an American does not count as its target—with the legal protections that word implies—unless he is wearing a dartboard with a bull’s eye around his neck. [emphasis added]

Note the implications of this degradation of language. For those of you who say “I feel safer with surveillance because there are real security threats and I have nothing to hide”: how does this most recent revelation make you feel? Does the government people’s slippery and evasive use of language give you confidence that these same government people will adhere honestly and consistently to a set of rules governing their conduct, without changing what they are looking for, or what constitutes a potential threat? Or, if you thought that the people in the surveillance state were following the law, if not really the spirit of the law, how do you feel now that this belief is demonstrably false?

Please also note one final thing. I’ve made a deliberate rhetorical choice in this post: “people”. When we talk about “the state” or “the government” or “the surveillance state” or “the NSA”, we dehumanize political power. Every single one of these collective organizations that is abusing this power right now, and has been for the better part of a decade, is a group of people. People make choices. People make decisions. People make rules. People make choices about how to interpret the rules they’ve made and by which they are supposed to abide. The abuses of political power that are occurring right now through government surveillance are abuses of people by people. When we talk about surveillance as being performed by abstract groups (let alone by algorithm-driven computers), we obscure the agency of those people. We obscure the very real fact that people choose how to act.

The people who are the surveillance state are abusing their power. They are abusing the legal institutions by which each one of them, individually, is supposed to abide. They are abusing and degrading our language, which a reading of Orwell (both 1984 and Politics and the English Language) makes clear is an abuse that opens up a society to tyranny. The more we highlight these abuses, and the more aware more of us become of these abuses, the more hope we have of returning to a society of free and responsible people.