The stupidest framing of the controversy over ubiquitous surveillance is that it reflects a trade-off between “security” and “privacy”. We are putting in jeopardy values much, much more important than “privacy”.
The value we are trading away, under the surveillance programs as presently constituted, are quality of governance. This is not a debate about privacy. It is a debate about corruption.
Just after the PRISM scandal broke, Tyler Cowen offered a wonderful, wonderful tweet:
I’d heard about this for years, from “nuts,” and always assumed it was true.
There is a model of social knowledge embedded in this tweet. It implies a set of things that one believes to be true, a set of things one can admit to believing without being a “nut”, and an inconsistency between the two. Why the divergence? Oughtn’t it be true that people of integrity should simply own up to what they believe? Can a “marketplace of ideas” function without that?
It’s obvious, of course, why this divergence occurs. Will Wilkinson points to an economy of esteem, but there is also an economy of influence. There are ideas and modes of thought that are taboo in the economy of influence, assertions that discredit the asserter. Those of us who seek to matter as “thinkers” are implicitly aware of these taboos, and we navigate them mostly by avoiding or acceding to them. You can transgress a little, self-consciously and playfully, as Cowen did in his tweet. If you transgress too much, too earnestly, you are written off as a nut or worse. Conversely, there are ideas that are blessed in the economy of influence. These are markers of “seriousness”, as in Paul Krugman’s perceptive, derisive epithet “Very Serious People”. This describes “thinkers” whose positions inevitably align like iron filings to the pull of social influence, indifferent to evidence that might impinge upon their views. Most of us, with varying degrees of consciousness, are pulled this way and that, forging compromises between what we might assert in some impossible reality where we observed social facts “objectively” and the positions that our allegiances, ambitions, and taboos push us towards. Individually, there is plenty of eccentricity, plenty of noise. People go “off the reservation” all the time. But pubic intellectualizing is a collective enterprise. What matters is not what some asshole says, but the conventional wisdom we coalesce to. When the noise gets averaged out, the bias imposed by the economy of influence is hard to overcome. And the economy of influence pulls, always, in directions chosen by incumbent holders of wealth and power, by people with capacity to offer rewards and to mete out punishment.
I want to introduce a word into the discourse surrounding NSA surveillance that has been insufficiently discussed. That word is blackmail. I will out and say this. I think our President’s “evolutions” on questions of civil liberties and surveillance are largely the result of blackmail. I think it is not coincidental that support for the security state is highly correlated with seniority and influence, in both of our increasingly irrelevant political parties. The apparatus we are constructing, have constructed, creates incredible scope for digging up dirt on people and their spouses, their children, their parents. It doesn’t take much to manage the shape of the economy of influence. There are, how shall we say, network effects. You don’t have to blackmail the whole Congress. Powerful people are, almost by definition, people very attuned to economies of influence. They quickly detect the trends and emerging conventions among other powerful people and conform to them. A consensus that emerges at the top is quickly magnified and disseminated. Other voices don’t disappear, there is plenty of shouting in the blogs. But a correlation emerges between a certain set of views and “seriousness”, “respectability”. The mainstream position is defined. Eventually it’s reflected by the polls, so it’s what the American people wanted all along, we are just responding to the demands of the public, whine the politicians.
Blackmail is and has always been a consequential component of our political system. This ought not to be controversial. Blackmail — like its sister B-word, “bribery” — has largely gone mainstream and been institutionalized. “Opposition research” is a profession that is openly practiced and is considered respectable. Opposition researchers, like lobbyists, will tell perfectly accurate stories about the useful role served by their profession. The public deserves to know the truth about the people in whom it will invest the public trust. Legislators require information and expertise that only industry participants can provide. True, true! But these are, obviously, incomplete accounts of the roles that these professionals play. Lobbyists don’t simply inject neutral, objective information into the legislative process. And opposition research is used in ways other than to immediately inform the public. For both bribery and blackmail, there is a spectrum of vulgarity. A guy gives you a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills that you hide in your freezer in exchange for a legislative favor. That’s vulgar, and illegal. But the same gentleman hints in conversation that, should you ever choose to “leave public service”, his firm would be excited to hire someone with your connections and expertise — expertise which, it needn’t be said, ought naturally be reflected in legislative choices! — and that is tasteful, normal, legal. Those jobs are worth a lot more than a suitcase full of C-notes. Similarly, it is vulgar and unnecessarily risky to show up in a Congressional office with a dossier of compromising pictures, or the dossier documenting ones participation in a fraud. You just have to make it known that you know.
I’m going to excerpt a bit from a great, underdiscussed piece by Beverly Gage:
[J. Edgar] Hoover exercised powerful forms of control over potential critics. If the FBI learned a particularly juicy tidbit about a congressman, for instance, agents might show up at his office to let him know that his secrets—scandalous as they might be—were safe with the bureau. This had the predictable effect: Throughout the postwar years, Washington swirled with rumors that the FBI had a detailed file on every federal politician. There was some truth to the accusation. The FBI compiled background information on members of Congress, with an eye to both past scandals and to political ideology. But the files were probably not as extensive or all-encompassing as people believed them to be. The point was that it didn’t matter: The belief alone was enough to keep most politicians in line, and to keep them voting yes on FBI appropriations.
Today, James Bamford quotes a former senior CIA official, describing current spymaster Keith Alexander:
We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander — with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets… We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.
Bribery and blackmail go together, of course. The carrot and the stick. It’s not just that bad things will happen if you don’t toe the line. If you do the right thing, who knows? You might be the next Dianne Feinstein. Or John Boehner. Or Barack Obama. Note that, despite my excesses in this regard as a writer, I did not place do-the-right-thing in italics or scare quotes. There is a third element in this recipe for influence: persuasion. People don’t like to view themselves as venal, corrupt, weak. Even the sort of person who ends up “senior in politics” has limits to how crass a view of themselves they will tolerate. Bribery and blackmail are omnipresent in the background, but in the foreground are spirited conversations, arguments over policy, arguments in which I suspect decisionmakers frequently start with the hardest possible line against the position they will eventually accept so that they can reassure themselves: they have been persuaded, it was not just the pressure. I accuse Barack Obama of having been effectively bribed and blackmailed on these issues, but if he ever were to respond, I suspect he would deny that fervently and with perfect, absolute sincerity. He was persuaded. He knows more now than he did then.
We humans are such malleable things. This is not, ultimately, a story about evil individuals. The last thing I want to do with my time is get into an argument over the character of our President. I could care less. The problem we face here is social, institutional. Bribery, blackmail, influence peddling, flattery — these have always been and always will be part of any political landscape. Our challenge is to minimize the degree to which they corrupt the political process. “Make better humans” is not a strategy that is likely succeed. “Find better leaders” is just slightly less naive. Institutional problems require institutional solutions. We did manage to reduce the malign influence of the J. Edgar Hoover security state, by placing institutional checks on what law enforcement and intelligence agencies could do, and by placing those agencies under more public and intrusive supervision. I think that much of our task today is devising a sufficient surveillance architecture for our surveillance architecture.
But as we are talking about all this, let’s remember what we are talking about. We are not talking about a tradeoff between “security” and “privacy”. That framing is a distraction. Our current path is to pay for (alleged) security by acquiescence to increasingly corrupt and corruptible governance. We ought to ask ourselves whether a very secure, very corrupt state is better than the alternatives, whether security for corruption is a tradeoff we are willing to make.
P.S. It’s worth pausing in this context to note with sadness the death of Michael Hastings yesterday in a car crash. Hastings was a person clearly trying to address corrupt power by placing it under aggressive public surveillance. It’s worth considering the lessons of Cowen’s quip about “nuts” before we profess to be certain of very much.
- 20-Jun-2013, 6:15 a.m. PDT: “professionals play
- 21-Jun-2013, 4:55 a.m. PDT: converted parens to em dashes in bit beginning “experties which…”; added hyphen into “self-consciously”; “
to whichthey will eventually be persuadedaccept“; “reassure themselves . T: they have…”