Saturday, August 17, 2013
One of the characteristics of earlier despotism is that the ruler was limited in how many people he could spy on by the technology of spying. The despot can set a spy on some of his political enemies, but eventually the number of enemies got to the point where he ran out of spies. There are always many more people than spies. He could coerce people to spy on each other, but that didn't work nearly as well. But thanks to modern technology, there has been a breakthrough. We now communicate electronically and the technology is there to spy on all this communication. Thanks to computers, even non electronic communication like letters are tracked. We may have to go back to whispering secrets to each other in person.
The man whose regime used the IRS to punish his political opponents tells us that you can trust him never to do anything inappropriate with this spying.A couple of months back, I quoted Tocqueville’s prescient words from almost two centuries ago: Although absolute monarchy theoretically “clothed kings with a power almost without limits,” in practice “the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.” In other words, the king couldn’t do it even if he wanted to. What would happen, Tocqueville wondered, if administrative capability were to evolve to bring “the details of social life and of individual existence” within His Majesty’s oversight? That world is now upon us. Today, the king concedes he most certainly can do it, but assures us not to worry, he doesn’t really want to. “If you look at the reports,” said President Obama earlier this month, “even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden’s put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s e-mails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused.”But that was a week ago. And the “prospect” is now a reality: “actual abuse” — including “listening in on people’s phone calls” and “inappropriately reading people’s e-mails” — occurs daily.