Where’s the Outrage?

Several weeks have passed since the world received Edward Snowden’s revelations of the massive scope of the U.S. government’s invasion of privacy by means of collecting and storing millions of persons’ emails and website visits, as well as information about their telephone calls. The public appears fairly equally divided about whether these revelations constitute a public service or a treasonous act. The U.S. government has revoked Snowden’s passport and seeks to prosecute him for theft of public property and violations of the Espionage Act, but at present he remains out of the government’s reach at the Moscow airport. To my knowledge, no demonstrations in the streets have occurred to express Americans’ outrage with the government’s actions in secretly scooping up, without a warrant or a showing of probable cause, vast quantities of information about them and their personal affairs.

The absence of a great outpouring of opposition amounts to a very bad sign. It indicates that few people regard the government’s actions as egregious or as portending great harm to the general public. I strongly believe that they are both, and unless many more Americans rouse themselves to oppose these invasions of privacy and to demand that they be terminated, the people will have stood by quietly while the state captured all the ground it needs to reduce them to utter subservience to their political masters.

We have now reached a condition in which state authorities know an immense amount about the personal lives of virtually everyone in the United States and many foreigners, as well. Do people suppose that this access to personal information will be used only for the pursuit of terrorists? Anyone who has looked even superficially into previous government information-collection programs knows better. State authorities will, at minimum, employ the communications data and other personal information now at their fingertips to pursue various sorts of criminals, especially persons suspected of tax evasion. Moreover, they will almost certainly use the information for partisan political purposes. These gratuitous extensions of the use of information they ought never to have collected in the first place—information that mocks the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees in the most serious way imaginable—will, however, almost certainly be only the beginnings of the state’s use of the new power it now holds over the general public.

How many individuals cannot be blackmailed by someone who knows everything about their personal affairs, much less by someone who also controls enormous surveillance agencies, police forces, and the courts? With the information now in their hands, state authorities will be well-nigh certain to augment their powers by using this information to deter or cripple political opponents, to coerce unwilling cooperation (including false testimony) by others, and to silence anyone who might be tempted to criticize or expose their misfeasance and malfeasance. To suppose that American state officials will not act in these ways is naïve in the extreme. These politicians are not angels; on the contrary. And their newly acquired treasure trove of information places a resource of heretofore unimagined power in their hands. To trust that they will not massively abuse their control over this resource flies in the face of everything we know about the kind of people they are.

Perhaps much stronger expressions of public outrage will be made before long. I devoutly hope so, because the longer the government gets away with this horrendous criminal action, the greater the chance that it will solidify its new position vis-à-vis the citizens, in part by exploiting the potential I have just described, so that a rollback of these invasive programs will become virtually impossible. If the American people have an ounce of capacity for righteous indignation left in them, they must do everything they can—and do it quickly—to make clear that they will not stand for being treated worse than Big Brother’s pathetic victims in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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