Freedom As Identity

At a big wonk dinner last night there was a long discussion of NSA policy. People seemed to agree that such policies are unlikely to change due to concrete publicized examples of specific resulting harms. Instead, people argued that changing technologies require us to change laws and policies in order to uphold basic principles such as that policies should be accountable to the public, avoid possibilities for corruption, and offer some substantial limits on government powers. But I wondered: how strongly does the public really support such principles?

You may recall I posted on survey results saying a US majority thought Snowden was wrong to expose NSA intelligence-gathering efforts. Also, Robert Rubin’s favorite graph of 2013 is one showing that the US public trusts the military and police far more than the courts, media, congress, or even the president. At the dinner many talked about wanting to avoid the abuses uncovered by the Church committee, but I’ll bet few in the public even remember what that was, and even fewer remember the Church committee as the good guys.

It occurs to me that what support the US public does have for principles of a limited and accountable government may be largely a side effect of war and patriotism propaganda. During the cold war we were often told that what made them bad and us good is that we had freedoms, while their governments had and used arbitrary powers. We were also told similar things about why the Nazis were bad. And in support of all this, schools tell kids that the US started because we objected to England’s arbitrary powers over us.

But as the cold war and WWII fade into history, we define ourselves less in opposition to enemies whose governments have arbitrary powers. We instead fall back more onto presuming that our status quo laws and policies are sufficient to support whatever principles we might have. Because in fact we don’t really support abstract principles of governance. We instead support the general presumptions that they are bad and we are good, and that our existing laws and policies are good unless someone can show otherwise via specific demonstrated harms. If today “they” are terrorists, then we assume that whatever we do to hurt them under existing policies is probably good too.

If there is a hope here, it would be that political elites feel a much stronger attachment to political principles, and that the public will over time come to adopt elite beliefs. But for now that seems a slim or distant hope. World of mass government surveillance, here we come.

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  • STINKY

    “People seemed to agree that such policies are unlikely to change due to concrete publicized examples of specific resulting harms.”

    Like what? I’m not challenging this notion, I’m just not sure what it means.

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  • Fabio Rojas

    Random comments:

    1. If you read current histories of Civil Rights, a lot of historians now argue that anti-segregation efforts only gained momentum when the Soviets were the bad guys.

    2. If you read a lot of social history, most people just love passing repressive laws against each other. There is little evidence that people have any intrinsic love of personal freedom and they willingly give it up at the first sight of “bad guys.” One of my theories of the state is that it is simply a large organization designed to regulate people that dominant ethnic groups hate.

    That is why recent history is a rather amazing departure from this norm. The fact that *any* notable society has *any* norm of freedom is amazing. And yes, sadly, it is often tied to war and conflict.

  • http://www.loolagame.net/ Loola

    NSA policies and ideas around it, is not to less, we acknowledge the fact that not all bring good response.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

    On reflection, I’m skeptical of the Cold War connection.

    During the Cold War, the US was willing to prop up a lot of oppressive regimes as long as they were anti-communist. Then, late in the Cold War those countries started liberalizing (see especially South America and South Korea). We still prop up a lot of shitty regimes in the middle east, but the overall trend in global freedom seems positive, and the direction of the trend seems wrong for it to have been just mostly about wartime propaganda. This would lead me to expect the trend to continue.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The effect of war propaganda on US folks is a different issue from world trends in arbitrary powers of governments. Both could be true: governments get more constrained world wide, and US folks feel less inclined to resist arbitrary powers in their own government.

    • IMASBA

      The connection is very strong and yes there’s a disconnect between what was practiced (abroad) and what was preached (domestically), but that’s irrelevant. Cold war rhetoric continues to influence American politics and thinking, especially on economics, including Robin’s views I bet.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    Mass surveillance could be a good thing if it makes it harder to develop civilization-destroying techs like strong AI or engineered viruses.

    • anonymus

      It could also be a good thing if it were used to protect individual rights and liberties rather than undermining them. Alas, that is probably naive.

  • Craig

    To be persnickety, Robert Rubin’s favorite graph is about confidence, not trust. Regardless of whether there’s any real difference in their dictionary definitions, I think swapping one word for the other would have changed the results of the poll drastically. In particular, I would guess that people would say they trust, but do not have confidence in, a well-intentioned buffoon. In contrast, they have confidence in, but do not trust, the US military.

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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    It
    occurs to me that what support the US public does have for principles
    of a limited and accountable government may be largely a side effect of
    war and patriotism propaganda. During the cold war we were often told
    that what made them bad and us good is that we had freedoms, while their
    governments had and used arbitrary powers. – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/#sthash.OhurWsGs.dpuf

    It occurs to me that what support the US public does have for principles of a limited and accountable government may be largely a side effect of war and patriotism propaganda. During the cold war we were often told that what made them bad and us good is that we had freedoms, while their governments had and used arbitrary powers.

    I’m mystified by this.

    During the height of the Cold War you had Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the run up to WWII, there was the Smith Act, intended for repressing Nazis and then used against Communists. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, you had the “criminal syndicalism” prosecutions against U.S. labor and the Palmer Raids against anarchists.

    Cold War propaganda did not lead to greater democracy to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. It justified suppression of democracy and freedom.

    I can only conclude that your comment is historically uninformed.

    The Cold War competition with the Soviet Union brought social reforms, but it didn’t help with democracy and civil liberties. That is, it furthered agendas where the Soviets were ahead. The U.S. wasn’t competing with the Russians on the civil liberties front, not when Stalin ruled. We have the Russians to thank in part for what we have of workers rights, social insurance, and civil rights, not free-speech and privacy rights.

    • IMASBA

      It’s not historically uninformed. What was practiced was different from what was preached but that doesn’t mean the majority of people noticed it or were upset by it.

      The preaching was done with such veracity and on such scale that it really dominated. It’s really no surprise economic and political libertarianism are so much stronger in the US than in Europe.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Isn’t that what Robin is bemoaning, the majority of the people not being upset by invasions of basic democratic rights?

        Put it this way: I think Americans are far less scared to use their free speech rights to attack the government today than during the Cold War. Red scares weighed heavier against free speech than today’s terrorism scares. McCarthy’s Senate Unamerican Activities Committee was more inimical to free speech, privacy, and associated rights than today’s NSA.

        I take Robin (and you) to be saying the opposite.

      • IMASBA

        During the Cold War the US government pointed at bad things the Soviets did and that influenced the collective thinking of Americans. The topics that were pointed out were largely different from bad things the American government did (as far as those things were publicly known at the time), so the US government appeared less hypocritical.

        If today the US was locked in a cold war with China and put emphasis on the fact that China is a police state that monitors its citizens that would make Americans care more about their own privacy. But the US government doesn’t spread propaganda like that about China, they are busy fighting terrorist groups that are not known for being massive privacy violators.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The topics that were pointed out were largely different from bad things the American government did (as far as those things were publicly known at the time), so the US government appeared less hypocritical.

        They weren’t largely different. The main thing bewailed about Russia was that dissident political opinions were ruthlessly suppressed. Qualitatively, this was the same bad thing that the U.S. Government did. It outlawed certain political opinions and used the outlawry to frighten others in their broad vicinity.

        Accordingly, I thoroughly disagree with you that demonizing China on democracy would make the U.S. more democratic. As in the Cold War, it would only serve to justify American violations of the same principles it was supposedly upholding. The popular logic, if they don’t fight fair neither should we, is far stronger than the mere desire to avoid hypocrisy.