Mises Daily Articles
Four Centuries of Surveillance: From Privy Councils to FISA Courts
As the song says, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
State power, i.e., power derived from the “political means” of acquiring wealth through force, is nothing more than a pestilence sapping the peace and prosperity of all humankind, and has been manifest in many cruel and unique forms. Whether it be the whip on the back, the sword on the throat, the gun in the face, or grand global hostage taking via the threat of nuclear destruction, it is clear that state power is nothing more than immoral aggression — logically posterior, parasitic, and subservient to economic power, i.e., power derived from the “economic means” of acquiring wealth through production and voluntary trade. Whereas economic power creates wealth and shares this fruit, state power steals wealth and squanders its spoils.
Yet, despite these self-evident truths about the rapacious nature of state powersome people consider state power to be the “boss” of economic power. Even the most ardent believer in that old chestnut, “we are the government,” cannot seriously suggest we are literally the government. Even those who see the government as a “social club,” a “social contract,” or some mystic representation of “the people,” must admit the club needs an executive committee, the contract needs drafters and enforcers, and the people need enlightened leaders (hence in each case a ruling caste).
At the root of the matter all such euphemisms are merely an insidious form of apologia — a means to obfuscate whilst upholding the idea that state power is the “boss” of economic power. It is a trick of language used by wolves and sheep alike, giving the wolves an excuse for their predation and the sheep a reason for their fleecing. Put differently, it is a way for the rabble to render their own chains, and with gilded hope and love, give “themselves” the reins. Such egalitarian doublespeak is a crucial tool used by the modern nation state to apologize for state power’s predation upon economic power, allowing the state’s agents to act as tyrants while calling themselves “servants.”
What a perversion of the truth and the law! I contend, if we wish to stop this predation and the perversion, an initial step should be for libertarians to have our opponents at least speak plainly about the state power they seek to wield!
Contrary to (or maybe owing to) immoral gimmicks with language, the modern nation-state is afforded a status separate and above the rest of civil society: above not only positive law but natural law. Put simply, a coercive ruling caste exists over the rest of society by virtue of its opaque coercive powers. This fact is evident when one looks at the vast modern bureaucracy commissioned to carry out the Sisyphean task of planning and regulating the lives of the nation’s citizens. Whether it is the IRS, FBI, CIA, NSA, EPA, or some other benign sounding state agency, the modern bureaucracy is drowning the liberty of the American people and their Constitution in a man-made sea of alphabet soup, and it is a slow boil, indeed.
Those agencies tasked with “keeping the homeland safe”re especially prone to a special status above the law through their clandestine budgets and operations as well as their severe treatment of whistleblowers. Operating in the shadows, the U.S. intelligence community seeks to be the boss of the world’s information in the name of “security.” Due to the heroic action of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, the public has now confirmed what they long suspected to be true: the NSA, under the purview of the secret FISA court, has built an “architecture of oppression” which is being used for the transnational collection of free communications of innately free peoples. Contrary to statist claims, the internet as we know it is a creation of free-market entrepreneurship, production, and competition though it is still plagued by governmentinterventions that limit and pervert the potential development of the technology.
For the state to now be preying upon this free development of economic power in the name of “keeping the people safe” or “fighting the war on terror” is not surprising. As said above, state power has been manifest in many cruel and unique forms, and this particular type of state predation upon the free development of communications has been seen before in the history of the American colonies. Let us turn to the words of Murray Rothbard from his expansive history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty, as we meet the old boss, same as the new boss:
Postal service began in the early American colonies as freely competitive private enterprises of varying forms and types. Letters between neighboring villages were sent by special messengers, who were often Indians. For longer journeys, letters were carried by travelers or regular merchants. Letters to or from England were carried by private ship captains, who often hung a bag in the local coffeehouse to receive letters for shipment. The price was generally a penny for a single letter and two pence for a double letter or parcel.
Unfortunately, English precedent held out little hope for the unhampered development of a freely competitive postal service. In 1591 the Crown had issued a proclamation granting itself the monopoly of all foreign mail, and in 1609 the Crown’s proclamation extended its own monopoly to all mail foreign or domestic. The purpose of this postal monopoly was quite simple: to enable governmental officials to read the letters of private citizens in order to discover and suppress “treason” and “sedition.”
This is a vivid display of how the state slowly assumes power and wealth from freely developed economic power for the sake of aggrandizing its own interest: state power. In this particular case, a monopoly on all meaningful communications is blatantly for the protection and security of the Crown's interest and not the colonists sending letters in the Americas and abroad. The purpose of the intervention was explicitly to discover crimes against the state: treason and sedition. At least the state officials at the time were honest with their reasons!
Rothbard continues his discussion of the Crown’s thinking at the time:
Thus, when the Privy Council decided in 1627 to allow merchants to operate an independent foreign post, the king’s principal secretary of state wrote sternly: “Your lordship best knoweth what account we shall be able to give in our places of that which passeth by letters in or out of the land, if every man may convey letters under the course of merchants to whom and what place he pleaseth ... how unfit a time this is to give liberty to every man to write and send what he list ...” And in 1657 when the Commonwealth Parliament continued the English governmental postal monopoly, the preamble of the act stated a major objective: “to discover and prevent many dangerous and bigoted designs, which have been and are daily contrived against the peace and welfare of this Commonwealth, the intelligence whereof cannot well be communicated, but by letter of script.”1
“How unfit a time this is to give liberty to every man?” What refreshing honesty from the king’s man! Ask yourself, is this the type of honesty we hear from our current “public servants”?
In a word: no.
In light of the revelations about the NSA’s massive spying programs in which the U.S. government is literally collecting our mail and communications just as the British Crown read the colonists’, the response has become cartoonish cliché. In regard to the liberties protected by the 4th Amendment, the government responds with supposed moderation, “We must work to strike a balance between liberty and security,” or extends a statement to elicit fear, “This information being released has made the country less safe. Maybe, a treasonous act.” In regard to the leaker, Edward Snowden, the government responds, “He’s a traitor,” or more diplomatically, “No one is above the law.”
It does not take much to see all of these responses as retreads of the classic egalitarian doublespeak “we are the government” and as said before, I contend it should be a libertarian project to get our statist opponents to speak plainly about how they wish to use state power. Lovers of liberty cannot allow those who wish to wield state power to hide behind “the people” when the people are the very one's being victimized and led into serfdom by the domineering use of state aggression. Thus, let us take to these phrases one by one:
(1) “Edward Snowden is a traitor and no one is above the law.”
A traitor to whom and why? Is not the Constitution the supreme law of the land? And if so, who acted above the supreme law of the land, Snowden or the government? Also, by having the power to make law and use arbitrary discretion in the law’s enforcement is not the federal government always “above the law” including the natural, objective law instilled in the 4th Amendment, the right to be left alone?
(2) “This information being released has made the country less safe. Maybe, a treasonous act.”
How in particular has the country been made less safe? Those who often claim this rarely provide evidence, as it would require them to reveal more government secrets. As for safety, how does offending the natural born rights of the global community keep us safe? As for treason, I turn to Cato’s Letters and say, “... I know not what treason is, if sapping and betraying the liberties of a people be not treason ...”
(3) “We must work to strike a balance between liberty and security.”
This bargain has never worked, especially since there is not any actual balance or bargain involved. I wish you would just come out and say what you really mean: “How unfit a time this is to give liberty to every man!” Your goal is not to strike a balance but to sap the liberty of the global community. Your goal is not to have a debate about some vague balance but to muzzle those who actually wish to debate the violation of the rights of millions of human beings. Tell the truth just as the Crown’s man did a few centuries ago, “How unfit a time this is to give liberty to every man!”
Seeing the law perverted and the truth turned on its head, it is time for us to set things right. Let us return economic power to its true place above state power. Let us return to the only true security ever discovered by human beings: a system of positive law based upon the principles of liberty and the ratiocination of natural law. Let our security be tasked with the just defense of the objective rights of all humankind where no one — not even the government — is above the law. Let us do so in peaceful resistance through independent study, industry, and debate.
And as the song also says, let each us say “... I’ll get on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again!”
Liberty in our time depends on it.
- 1. Murray Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, vol. 2, pp. 639–640.