Wednesday, June 12, 2013

They Think Themselves Better Than Us

Jonathan Swift really ruined the phrase "Modest Proposal" for everyone else. I got about halfway through this post with a title that included that phrase, until I realized it might be taken as satire. But I do not mean the following to be satire and, indeed, believe it to be a largely fair, pro-democratic, and, in the right circumstances, a politically feasible method of increasing the reciprocity and trust levels between us serfs and our government. It's even worse than Hitler mustaches because at least those can be worn ironically at costume parties, whereas you can't ironically appropriate satire, as there aren't enough fixies and flannel in the world for that much hipsteritude.

Is it wrong for the CIA to exist? Certainly if you want to get sufficiently "originalist" one can make the case that George Washington was famously distrustful of standing armies, and even if the CIA isn't directly under the DoD a national foreign espionage service is at least legitimate or illegitimate a concept as the Air Force. Maybe there are things it should stop doing, like torturing people all willy-nilly, but I think it is a plausible starting point to assume that the institution of the CIA is a legitimate function of government and that there have, over the years, become more things that it is appropriate for a modern government to do.

I suppose they will be coming to take my Official Libertarian Card away now :(

We all know taxation is theft and fundamentally illegitimate (can I have my card back now?) but by now the income tax and the IRS have largely established themselves as legitimate American institutions (guess not). I think we would all agree that, in order to enforce a legitimate income tax, it is necessary to give the IRS information about our income, or to give them ways of finding that information out. We hope the IRS and the related government agencies handle that information with a certain amount of discretion, but that discretion is, has been, and will be abused simply because it is power in the hands of human beings. We try to maintain a certain level of bureaucratic professionalism to minimize the abuses and punish those who abuse their power, but we will never, ever, get rid of abuses of power until we get rid of the use of that power.

We give the IRS that information for the legitimate purpose of funding the government. However, the legitimate purpose of funding the government can be corrupted into the illegitimate purpose of politicians, regulators, and other government money handlers enriching themselves and their circle through control of the treasury. Because of the corruptible nature of this power, we impose a reciprocal requirement on our officeholders and regulators that their income sources be published for American citizens to examine and in that manner ensure that no corruption is occurring. Is the current system perfect? Of course not. But the idea behind it is sound and it is incumbent on us citizens to push for the implementation to be improved.

The last six national elections have demonstrated beyond any doubt that there is a clear national majority in favor of substantial actions to combat the scourge of terrorism. And we are far more a democracy nowadays than we have any business of being, meaning that this wrongheaded consensus is binding on the entire government. That government has decided that one way to prevent the death of Americans and the destruction of our way of life is to read all our emails and monitor our phone records. The government requires this data so as to prevent terrorist attacks, an end that has been declared by a consistent electoral majority as legitimate and worthy.

I say, and I say this with genuine modesty, that when our government invoked an obligation on our parts to allow our communications to be surveilled that it invoked a similar and reciprocal obligation on itself. After all, more citizens have perished in the congressionally authorized wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed by terrorists in the same period. Our president has personally ordered the murder of four American citizens, a higher toll than any terrorist monitored by PRISM. But terrorism is more than just the deaths, it is the way that they can affect our daily lives even without killing anyone, and our government can, at the stroke of a pen, do the same in vast swathes of our lives. Just as the government needs our information to keep us safe, do they not have a reciprocal obligation to hand over their emails and phone records so that we can monitor their use of power and remain safe from the undeniable potential for abuses?

I am certain there is an idiot out there right now thinking "Haha, gotcha! Score one for the home team!" But I mean this in all seriousness as a modest change small enough that even those among our politicians who have nothing to hide can embrace them. Our government's reciprocal obligations to us as a citizenry sit at the heart both of the constitutional republic we once were and the democracy we have become, for it was written in the very birth of this nation that "All men were created equal," and that "governments are instituted among men"?

These two simple phrases, sitting at the heart of the American Experiment, express so much. All men are imperfect, and prone to error, and our government is built, not of angels, but among such rabble as you would find stuck in an afternoon's traffic. All men are equal, and endowed with certain rights, and endowed in equal measure, and it being the task of government to defend those rights with laws it must follow that no man can be above the law, and no man can stand beneath it. And yet, when an agency of the government, an agency of our collective yearning for an ordered liberty, creates a separation between the governors, who can know things, and the governed, who must be kept ignorant, both of whom are men endowed by God and Nature with equal and substantial rights, it strikes at the very heart of what America is in such a way that can only be remedied through a rebalancing of our mutual obligations.

Since it is likely that this level of surveillance is desired by a majority of the electorate (though they are free to demonstrate otherwise in just under seventeen months), it is only right that those appointed to legislative or regulatory positions government which give them decision making powers over this new surveillance authority operate under a reciprocal obligation.

Since the wheels of government grind slowly, and there remain legislators who claim opposition to this new authority, I would propose that the consistently pro-surveillance congressbeasts, such as Graham, Feinstien, Chambliss, and Reid. begin by voluntarily compiling and releasing the metadata for all their phone calls and emails since their most recent swearing in, January 3rd for the house and a third of the Senate. As time passes, bills can be introduced so that all legislators and all executive branch personnel with relevant decision-making authority can make these disclosures on a convenient and regular basis.

Some might protest that they do not need to be monitored, since they would never behave corruptly or abuse their powers, but the fact is that we cannot know that for sure without such monitoring. There was a time when all citizens possessed a level of trust among themselves such that it was felt this level of monitoring was not necessary to defend the ordered liberty of our nation, but that time has passed. And because we are a nation explicitly founded to preserve equality before the law, there can be no special class exempt from this monitoring, any more than there can be a special class of citizens exempt from the income tax formula, or a special state religion, or a special noble title.

And they might ask but why give that information to the public and not to the NSA? And the answer is that if I am watching you, and you are watching me, then we are both monitored and equitably responsible to each other. If, however, I am watching you and I am watching me, then I am in truth unmonitored, while you are relegated to a lesser caste.

This is not the first best solution of a constitutional republic, but disclosure reciprocity is necessary in our democracy.

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