Wednesday, June 12, 2013

NSA and the unspoken tradeoff

Now that we libertarians have your attention for the moment, inasmuch as your general trust in the government is momentarily shaken, I felt I should take advantage of the opportunity to invite you to do some introspection as to root of the outrage you may be feeling toward the NSA. Instead of thinking about how the government can repair its damaged trust, I would invite you to reconsider the nature of your relationship with the government.

Barack Obama said a lot of silly things in his press conference on Friday in San Jose. However, if you remove the collectivism, he made one very sensible statement: "as a society" (You'll understand the need for quotes in a minute), "we" have to decide on a balance between privacy and security. Agreement with this statement may surprise you coming from a libertarian, but bear with me. It's very popular right now to completely disregard the NSA's claims that they are protecting us from a terrorist threat, and indeed there's plenty of reason to be skeptical of any secretive organization. However, I think that in a world with everybody acting of their own accord, where it's not all that hard to kill a lot of people at once, it seems at least rather plausible, to me, that the right group of people finding patterns in human activities can help anticipate such events. I won't go into the details of this, other people have written about it and you should probably consider what they have to say. However I will just take as a given, for the purposes of my argument, the plausibility that some amount of security can be bought at the cost of privacy.

So why am I so easily conceding this point as a libertarian? Have I gone soft? Isn't it the libertarian position that no amount of privacy is an acceptable compromise for security? No, the libertarian position is on a third axis, advocating for the maximization of liberty, which should not get conflated with privacy. Liberty is the ability to actually have a choice in the matter, between security and privacy, and as Mr. Obama implied, each of us can have a preference on how to best optimize between privacy and security in our own lives.

The distinction is much easier to illustrate this using everybody's other favorite *SA organization.

Hands in the air, citizen

Again, as much as I like to talk about overblown threats, I will concede that there is a non-zero utility to extra scrutiny at the airport (even if the TSA doesn't happen to be providing any such utility with their current procedures). However, a lot of people do believe that the TSA's procedures involving body scans are a violation of privacy.

Assuming you, the reader, are among them, I will ask you, why exactly is this a violation? Is it a matter of the degree of privacy invasion? Would it suddenly become morally acceptable again if the TSA only tried to detect metal on your person? Is this not also a violation of your privacy? How is that fundamentally different?

The principle in play cannot be that violations of privacy are categorically wrong, or else a metal detector would be considered a lesser violation, but a violation all the same. The principle cannot be that some sorts of privacy violation are acceptable, if it is below a certain threshold; that could only be a preference, not a principle. If that were the case, body scanners would not be an outrage as much as a matter of dissatisfaction with the conditions.

No, a metal detector is not fundamentally different. The reason there was no noticable outrage with metal detectors is that most people do not feel personally invaded when a metal detector is used on their person. Thus, the decision the government made for them happens to be the same one they would make for themselves. Two morally equivalent situations are producing a moral reaction only if the degree of one of the variables is sufficiently high, and I think the explanation is a moral principle at play that many people fail to recognize. What's going on is that there is an implicit moral problem that the government has made that decision for you. There is no transaction here between you and the government that has merely left you dissatisfied, the government just stepped in the way. The only transaction is between you and the airline, and the government has restricted the conditions you are allowed to make with the airlines.

SMBC Comics: Liberty vs Safety
credit: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cerial comics

One way to resolve this situation is to abolish the TSA, and hold the airlines liable for any damages done by, and (by default, before any waivers) within, their aircraft. They will have to decide how much they would be risking at each level of customer privacy intrusion, and how much privacy customers are willing to part with at the corresponding price point and with the corresponding gain in their own security. Once this occurs, there can be some justice in the matter, because the customer will be making a voluntary agreement (or not) with the airline, with no third party forcefully interjecting themselves.

We as a society

So let's go back to where Barack Obama talks about how "we as a society need to decide". This is obviously asinine on its face, as many have already pointed out, because "the society" wasn't even consulted on the matter, as they have been unaware of these NSA programs until last week. This makes it particularly outrageous, but is this the only source of outrage? Even if we knew about the program all along, do you suppose there would be no moral outrage? He still made the decision for you, and I'd be willing to bet that for a vocal handful of you, this would go beyond your threshold of preference. This is no different than the decision made by the TSA, that decision was made wide in the open. "The people" were well aware of it. Yet there was still a moral outrage.

And this comes to why I use quotations for these collectivist statements.

Perhaps there's a world where the snooping program is very popular, and you are one of a small minority who are not keen on it. Does it make it any less outrageous that somebody is making the decision for you, even if it's endorsed by 90% of the people around you?

The fundamental problem here is that there is no such thing as a decision made by a society. Decisions require thoughts, preferences, and reason, and the only relevant entities with these faculties are individual persons. A society as a whole has no such faculties. There is such a concept as "the will of the people", but to have any meaning it can only be a function of the wills of each individual person, and usually an ill-defined function at that. Majority rule is the usual standard, but there is nothing special about this particular function that makes it any more a true will of "the people", because "the people" is not an entity. Abiding by the output of such a function merely attempts to minimize the dissatisfaction of the members of the society. It aims to optimize for preference, but it can not make the outcome any less immoral.

This is why the government constantly claims to speak for "the people", to the outrage of so many persons. This will keep happening so long as enough individuals believe in this sort of collectivist concept. Outrage is not merely the result of corrupt persons within the government, though that is of concern, and those persons are happy to take advantage of this common collectivist viewpoint. This viewpoint is altogether illogical and will always lead to unhappy results.

A moral compromise

This episode is particularly outrageous because the founding documents that are used to justify Mr. Obama's power are written based on the principle that Americans have rights a priori. The government is instituted among "the people" (ok, so they weren't perfect), and is given permission, by "the people" to occasionally violate the rights of persons. The government does not dispense rights onto individuals at the government's discretion. Mr. Obama is in no position to be lecturing the individuals living within the US borders on what sort of intrusion they should be ok with, and what sort of "accountability" we should all be ok with. He should be asking for your forgiveness for taking your liberty! Do not let Mr. Obama tell you that there is a choice "the people" have to make, between privacy and security. Make your own judgement: is it an acceptable compromise of liberty that the president is even in the position to make this decision on your behalf? Because for him to even be in that position requires a moral compromise, with your liberty on the receiving end.

Unlike with the TSA, it is hard to conceive of a voluntary arrangement performing the same tasks as the NSA (though I am not asserting that it cannot be done). As such, you may be willing to make a compromise along the axis of liberty, since under the NSA everybody within the US borders has to have the same policy imposed on them. Because you value security, and because the threat is perhaps so great, you are willing to sacrifice a certain amount of liberty, which leads to a sacrifice of a certain amount of privacy at the discretion of the politicians. So when you consider this, recognize that if you accept the existence of the NSA, you are inevitably making a moral compromise, not just a compromise in privacy. Yea, if you accept the existence of any government program, you are making a moral compromise.

Now, am I saying you should never make a moral compromise? I will not necessarily tell you that, at least not for the purposes of this argument. To take an extreme example, I would personally be willing to put up with a certain amount of moral compromise if I truly believed it was the only way to prevent a nuclear holocaust. But I ask you, when considering a proposal for an expansion of government, don't just weigh "pros" and "cons", and let the government tell you that they're balancing your privacy, security, or any other factors for you. Recognize that any proposal for an expansion of government is immoral first and foremost, and then decide if the moral compromise is worth it, and consider if there is an alternate solution, not involving government expansion, that allow for individuals to balance these factors according to their own preferences.



  2. Well written, thanks for writing this.