When I woke up this morning, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was coming out of the radio. The piece puts into music some of the ideas we have about who we are as Americans. It conveys a notion of liberty that perhaps exists only in art and literature, one that seems more and more untenable the more we know about economics and biology. Since this morning, I’ve been thinking about what liberty is, and what the signatories to the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they wrote that it is an inalienable right.

Even if there is no such thing as free will, democracy and the rule of law are still much better than dictatorship. There is such a thing as meaningful autonomy in a political sense. Michael Lynch offers a thought experiment to show why:

Imagine that I could telepathically read all your conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings — I could know about them in as much detail as you know about them yourself — and further, that you could not, in any way, control my access. You don’t, in other words, share your thoughts with me; I take them. The power I would have over you would of course be immense. Not only could you not hide from me, I would know instantly a great amount about how the outside world affects you, what scares you, what makes you act in the ways you do. And that means I could not only know what you think, I could to a large extent control what you do…
From my perspective, the perspective of the knower — your existence as a distinct person would begin to shrink. Our relationship would be so lopsided that there might cease to be, at least to me, anything subjective about you. As I learn what reactions you will have to stimuli, why you do what you do, you will become like any other object to be manipulated. You would be, as we say, dehumanized.

It may be true that even in a free state, the aims we work toward are chosen for us by our genes, or the market, or God, or some other system much larger than any one of us. Still, we maintain our liberty in at least one sense as long as our own thoughts are opaque to others, as long as we do not become objects of human knowledge. In a totalitarian state, the state’s knowledge of its citizens’ affairs is enough to control them. They become manipulable, like a bacterium or a turbine.

It would be a mistake, needless to say, to think that there is a clear separation between free and totalitarian states. Last month, Beverly Gage described how the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover controlled legislators by suggesting that the bureau knew their secrets:

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.

The National Security Agency under Gen. Keith Alexander has the same power. As long as the agency’s protocols remain substantively secret, and as long as everyone keeps guessing about how much its analysts know, we should expect Alexander to coerce legislators into protecting his agenda.

You might object that the agency does not permit itself to maintain data on U.S. citizens if there isn’t useful information or evidence of a crime, a rule that might appear to prevent blackmail. Yet as we know from McClatchy’s reporting on the administration’s Insider Threat program, anything that a foreign government might use to blackmail or exploit someone in government is important counterintelligence, including debts, extramarital affairs, homosexuality, and mental illness. If that maxim applies to federal employees, it applies equally to lawmakers and ordinary citizens. That is, the country’s spies not only interested in whether we have committed a crime or are communicating with terrorists. They are interested in precisely the things that we really don’t want them to know about, the things that reveal the most about who we are. Reassurances from intelligence and administration officials should not necessarily give any of us confidence that their work does not involve our personal lives. If they are telling the truth, they aren’t doing their job.

Liberty in any sense is inconceivable in a state that keeps an artificial eye on the psychological vulnerabilities of its citizens. Even if they did enjoy universal suffrage and equal protection under the law in such a state, they would be profoundly vulnerable to manipulation. You would have to describe such liberties as merely procedural and nominal. Recall from Hoover’s example that it is isn’t necessary for the state to ever act on its knowledge. Fear and uncertainty are powerful enough without action.

I am not suggesting that we live in such a state today. Moreover, resisting surveillance at every opportunity will not prevent this country from becoming that state. Every government needs to be able to keep secrets, and the only way to protect what we think of as our liberty is to find a way to control and circumscribe governmental secrecy, not to try to eliminate it. That, however, is a problem for another post.

Post filed under Commentary.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Evolving Views on the Rule of Law

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