“Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Henry Stimson, Secretary of State, 1929
I was upbraided recently by a dear friend for my frequent praise of outcast investor Peter Thiel over Thiel’s involvement with big data company Palantir. He forwarded me a Bloomberg article titled “Peter Thiel’s data-mining company is using War on Terror tools to track American citizens” adding: “Really scary. Not good for democracy; a better version of the Stasi’s filing system and way cheaper and more efficient.”
Increasingly, we live under the kind of comprehensive surveillance predicted by science fiction writers. But Palantir is just an arms merchant, not the architect of our brave new world. Like gun manufacturers, its products can be used for good or evil. I have always believed that moral responsibility lies with the wielder of weapons, not the manufacturers. (This is often expressed as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”)
Peter Thiel’s choice to become an arms merchant rather than invest his considerable talents and fortune elsewhere is a fair question given his libertarian leanings. I have no insight into the answer. I would guess that he founded Palantir as an act of patriotism after 9/11, and it metastasized following the money, cash being the mother’s milk of the state, something the celebrated Alexander Hamilton deeply understood.
Surveillance Is Not the Problem, but It Is a Symptom
The real threat to the republic, however, lies not in the weapons available but in the unlimited and unaccountable bureaucracy in Washington that deploys them, both at home and abroad. Having broken free of constitutional constraints, America’s political class now directs an all-powerful state that naturally adopts every tool technology has to offer.
Progressivism has fueled a centralization of American power whose growth and global reach is unparalleled in human history.
Because our prevailing governing philosophy acknowledges no limits to the doing of good or the thwarting of evil, any means necessary may be employed as long as worthy ends can be plausibly asserted. Evil must be discouraged, taxed, or outlawed; good must be encouraged, subsidized, or made mandatory. This progressive government mission must be implemented in the public square, in the marketplace, in our educational institutions, around the world, and in our homes until all forms of social injustice are eliminated.
To be sure, such an expansive impulse is not unique. The communists felt the same way from the 1920s to the 1980s as did the fascists through the 1930s and 1940s, alarmingly making a recent comeback. But the sustained march of the progressive movement from Woodrow Wilson’s cartelization of the economy to support his War to End all Wars to FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society to the spectacle of Obamacare outlasted all other pretenders. Progressivism has fueled a centralization of American power whose growth and global reach is unparalleled in human history. The end result is a multi-headed Leviathan that scoffs at the quaint notion that the federal government should be limited to the 17 powers enumerated in Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution.
Examples of Democracy’s Dependence on Surveillance Abound
Since the passage of the 16th amendment, we have learned to live with an Internal Revenue Service against which citizens have no right to privacy, no right to remain silent, and no presumption of innocence. This most invasive tax system ever devised insists on comprehensive intrusion into every citizen’s financial life, dragooning every employer, banker, broker, and financial intermediary into an unpaid spy network that makes Palantir look like a rank amateur. Government schools began educating us to submit to this kind of blanket surveillance as the price we pay for civilized society long before computers played a role.
As Congress increasingly abdicated regulatory power to agencies of the executive branch a parallel judicial system emerged wherein administrative law courts act as legislators, prosecutors, police, judge, and jury in matters touching every aspect of our lives and businesses. This system, too, has a voracious appetite for information. How else to ensure that its tens of thousands of mandates, regulations, prohibitions, guidances, edicts, and reporting requirements are strictly obeyed? The opportunity to manipulate this shadow government invites a degree of lobbying and influence peddling that would make the Grant administration blush.
I disagree that comprehensive and inescapable surveillance is “not good for democracy.” It is the inevitable consequence of democracy.
Our national government was once unique in having only two crimes over which it claimed jurisdiction: treason and counterfeiting. This was due to the federalist architecture our founders devised, reserving ordinary police powers for the states. But such a division of powers did not hold. Our central government has since created a vast and complex criminal code with laws too numerous to count. This includes weaponized vagaries like conspiracy, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice that ensure crimes can be manufactured even after exhaustive investigations find that none have been committed.
This has empowered a cabal of politicized federal prosecutors that can selectively indict anyone they please, using legal thuggery to threaten targets with bankruptcy to better extract plea bargains, which is why 90 percent of their cases never go to trial. These inquisitors also have the power to compel third parties to surrender vast troves of information that agents can comb through searching for anything that can be construed as a crime, even if these infractions bear no relation to the charges for which the target was originally indicted.
So I disagree that comprehensive and inescapable surveillance is “not good for democracy.” It is the inevitable consequence of democracy, only recently empowered by the advent of big data and total interconnectedness. Our founders were rightly fearful of democracy, doing everything they could to make sure it never took root in America. Their efforts to preserve our liberty, our property, and our privacy failed, and we are paying the price.