The Paranoid Style in Libertarian Politics

Alex Tabarrok is concerned that all of that information the NSA is gathering will be used for political purposes:

The Nixon administration plumbers broke into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to gather information to discredit him. They busted into a single file cabinet (pictured). What a bunch of amateurs.

The NSA has broken into millions of file cabinets around the world.

Nixon resigned in disgrace. Who will pay for the NSA break-ins?

I think that this is actually a more serious issue than his title or mine might lead you to believe.

My preference would be that the NSA not cast so broad a net. Indeed, I think that nearly every response of American politicians to the attacks on September 11, 2001 has been wrong-headed. I think they’re understandable but indefensible. At this point the only way the scope of the security state will be reduced will be through the democratic process and, since the incentives of both major political parties favor excess and neither major political party opposes it, such a reversal of course is far, far away.

I also think that if any U. S. administration exploits the vast amount of information we’re gathering for domestic political purposes the president whose administration it is should be removed from office whether he or she knew about it or not. To encourage the others.

However, in the absence of any real evidence that such a thing has actually transpired, I think that Dr. Tabarrok’s fears are overblown.

13 comments… add one
  • Ben Wolf

    The entire surveillance state apparatus is intended for political troublemakers. You don’t really think ten years of grabbing every shred of data possible without stopping a single terrorist is an accident, do you?

  • TastyBits

    I would like to believe that these fears are overblown, but I became skeptical a long time ago. The Tuskegee experiments did it for me. There is always a “greater good” reason, but it is never the reason giver who is negatively impacted.

    When the advocates of greater security actually submit to what they advocate, I will pay attention. I have yet to see anybody volunteering their emails, movements, telephone calls, telephone records, bank statements, Google searches, etc. to increase the “greater good”.

    If it is so innocuous, put it out there.

  • michael reynolds

    Thanks Ben for demonstrating the “paranoid style.”

    Ben, if they want to round up troublemakers, they don’t need the NSA. They can go on Twitter. Or read blogs. Good grief. The entire country is busy 24/7 spewing opinions right out in the open. Never before in human history have we had legal, public access to more from “troublemakers,” all of it supplied gratis by the troublemakers themselves.

  • michael reynolds


    They don’t volunteer because for the moment there’s still an advantage in hypocrisy. You can rail against abortion while getting your daughter an abortion. You can decry porn while downloading it. But that’s changing, and I’m not sure why we need to mount a defense of hypocrisy. If everyone’s pot-smoking habits were out in the open we’d end the drug war tomorrow. Look what happened when the small gay minority started coming out – the whole political gay-hating machine fell down and died.

  • For those who didn’t get the reference in my title, back in 1964 the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an important essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. As it works out, it has a venerable pedigree, going right back nearly to the beginnings of the republic. I think it should be part of the vocabulary of anybody interested in the American political scene.

  • Ben Wolf

    @Michael Reynolds,

    The troublemakers don’t use Twitter. They arrive at meetings without any form of electronic device whatsoever and use hard encryption to protect their data. I’ve noted that centrists, including Dave and yourself, have a major blindspot regarding the dynamics of power in a society and how certain groups will stop at nothing to accumulate it. It’s always about control and so long as psychopaths are allowed to reach the top tiers, always will be.

  • ...

    I’m sure that the NSA will remain as immune to political exploitation as the IRS.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    My sister once told me that the reason I annoy people is because I live according to my principles. Both of you are correct that the world does not work that way.

    Many times what in hindsight is clearly a bad idea was deemed a good idea at the time. To many people invading Iraq seemed like a good idea, but many of them now judge it to have been a bad idea.

    When rights are violated, those with the least power and money are the first to suffer. This is usually the poor and minorities (political, racial, religious, etc.), but they usually have the least to gain from these policies.

    It is unlikely that you, I, @Ben Wolf, or @Steve Verdon will ever have a plunger shoved up our ass, but when we allow the police to do as they will, the chances that somebody will have an ass full of splinters.

  • ...

    It is unlikely that you, I, @Ben Wolf, or @Steve Verdon will ever have a plunger shoved up our ass, but when we allow the police to do as they will, the chances that somebody will have an ass full of splinters.

    LOL, nicely put!

    And the danger isn’t so much that they will round up trouble makers (especially not those of us who make ourselves noticeable), it’s that the NSA can use their resources to threaten people with information they don’t want made public. A lot of interesting information can be gleaned from cell phone metadata, even before bringing in the big mathematical guns. Who’d you call? When? How often? How long did you speak to them? Where were you when you called, in relation to your spouse, business partners, bosses, children, pastor, doctor, etc? Was there another phone in close proximity? (That is, are you the kind of person that carries a second, secret phone?) At a guess I’d suspect listening to random calls would reveal a lot less than the overall patterns.

    And it occurs to me that I actually knew two guys in grad school that got their PhDs in mathematics and disappeared into the land of shadow. The NSA and related agencies have some serious brainpower working on ways to make use of all that information. And it will be fuck all easier to make use of it against a random citizen than it will be to track down terror cells, who are probably making at least some effort at remaining concealed.

  • TastyBits


    I think the abuses will be in new and exotic ways. Who thought that the NSA would be tapping the cell phone of Germany’s Chancellor or spying on the Pope?

    I think a bigger danger is that this will flow down to smaller and smaller agencies. At some point terrorists become drug dealers, and drug dealers become pediphiles. It will be done for the “greater good” and “the children”.

    Recently, a local New Mexico police department was able to spend 14 hours doing an anal cavity search because some guy might have some drugs shoved up his ass. I suspect this police department would have no problem with warrantless wiretaps or searches.

  • ...

    TB, think how many crimes could be solved just by matching a crime location with all the cell phone meta-data that the NSA currently has. “Let’s see, so-and-so got shot in the face at such-and-such a place at thus-and-so a time. Who’s phone was there then?” Lots of criminals aren’t very bright, lots of them probably carry their phones with them on the job….

  • ...

    Heck, even burner phones can give you leads. They bought them somewhere, right? Trace the signal back to the origin point/time. Check for nearby surveillance cameras. Viola! You’ve got a lead!

  • ...

    And it’s all there, in those vast data banks of cell phone metadata, just waiting for someone to put it to good use.

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