• Tag Archives democracy
  • Why We Have a Surveillance State

    “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.

    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.

    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.


    Bill Frezza

    Bill Frezza is the former host of RealClear Radio Hour and the author of New Zealand’s Far-Reaching Reforms: A Case Study in How to Save Democracy from Itself.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.



  • Woodrow Wilson Made the World Unsafe for Democracy

    Woodrow Wilson Made the World Unsafe for Democracy

    This week is the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress seeking a declaration of war against Germany. Many people celebrate this centenary of America’s emergence as a world power. But, when the Trump administration is bombing or rattling sabers at half a dozen nations while many Democrats clamor to fight Russia, it is worth reviewing World War One’s high hopes and dire results.

    Lies, Censorship, and Poison 

    Wilson was narrowly re-elected in 1916 based on a campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But Wilson had massively violated neutrality by providing armaments and money to the Allied powers that had been fighting Germany since 1914. In his war speech to Congress, Wilson hailed the U.S. government as “one of the champions of the rights of mankind” and proclaimed that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

    American soldiers fought bravely and helped turn the tide on the Western Front in late 1918. But the cost was far higher than Americans anticipated. More than a hundred thousand American soldiers died in the third bloodiest war in U.S. history. Another half million Americans perished from the Spanish flu epidemic spurred and spread by the war.

    In his speech to Congress, Wilson declared, “We have no quarrel with the German people” and feel “sympathy and friendship” towards them. But his administration speedily commenced demonizing the “Huns.” One Army recruiting poster portrayed German troops as an ape ravaging a half-naked damsel beneath an appeal to “Destroy this mad brute.”

    Wilson acted as if the congressional declaration of war against Germany was also a declaration of war against the Constitution. Harvard professor Irving Babbitt commented in 1924: “Wilson, in the pursuit of his scheme for world service, was led to make light of the constitutional checks on his authority and to reach out almost automatically for unlimited power.” Wilson even urged Congress to set up detention camps to quarantine “alien enemies.

    Wilson unleashed ruthless censorship of any criticism. Anyone who spoke publicly against military conscription was likely to get slammed with federal espionage or sedition charges. Possessing a pamphlet entitled Long Live the Constitution of the United States earned six months in jail for a Pennsylvania malcontent. Censorship was buttressed by fanatic propaganda campaigns led by the Committee on Public Information, a federal agency whose shameless motto was “faith in democracy… faith in fact.”

    The war enabled the American equivalent of the Taliban to triumph on the home front. Prohibition advocates “indignantly insisted that… any kind of opposition to prohibition was sinister and subversively pro-German,” noted William Ross, author of World War 1 and the American Constitution. Even before the 18th Amendment (which banned alcohol consumption) was ratified, Wilson banned beer sales as a wartime measure. Prohibition was a public health disaster; the rate of alcoholism tripled during the 1920s.

    To punish lawbreakers, the federal government added poisons to industrial alcohol that was often converted into drinkable hooch; ten thousand people were killed as a result. Professor Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, noted that “an official sense of higher purpose kept the poisoning program in place.”

    Hell’s Dirtiest Work

    The war provided the pretext for unprecedented federal domination of the economy. Washington promised that “food will win the war” and farmers vastly increased their plantings. Price supports and government credits for foreign buyers sent crop prices and land prices skyrocketing. However, when the credits ended in 1920, prices and land values plunged, spurring massive bankruptcies across rural America. This spurred perennial political discontent that helped lead to a federal takeover of agriculture by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s.

    World War One was ended by the Treaty of Versailles, which redrew European borders willy-nilly and imposed ruinous reparations on Germany. One of Wilson’s top aides at the peace talks, Henry White, lamented: “We had such high hopes of this adventure; we believed God called us and now we are doing hell’s dirtiest work.”

    Wilson had proclaimed 14 points to guide peace talks; instead, there were 14 separate small wars in Europe towards the end of his term–after peace had been proclaimed. Millions of Irish Americans were outraged that, despite Wilson’s bleatings about democracy, Britain brutally repressed Ireland during and after the war. The League of Nations, which Wilson championed in vain, was so smarmily worded that it could have obliged the U.S. to send troops to help Britain crush the burgeoning Irish independence movement.

    The chaos and economic depression sowed by the war and the Treaty of Versailles helped open the door to some of the worst dictators in modern times, including Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Vladimir Lenin–whom Wilson intensely disliked because “he felt the Bolshevik leader had stolen his ideas for world peace,” as historian Thomas Fleming noted in his 2003 masterpiece, The Illusion of VictoryAmerica in World War 1.

    Despite winning the war, Wilson’s Democratic Party was crushed at the polls in both 1918 and 1920. H.L. Mencken wrote on the eve of the 1920 election that Americans were sickened of Wilsonian “idealism that is oblique, confusing, dishonest, and ferocious.”

    Have today’s policymakers learned anything from the debacle a century ago? Wilson continues to be invoked by politicians who believe America can achieve great things by warring abroad. The bellicosity of both Republican and Democratic leaders is a reminder that Wilson also failed to make democracy safe for the world.

    Reprinted from USA Today.


    James Bovard

    James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.




  • Two Decades of Dictatorial Democracy

    Two Decades of Dictatorial Democracy

    The 2016 election campaign is mortifying millions of Americans in part because the presidency has become far more dangerous in recent times. Since 9/11, we have lived in a perpetual emergency which supposedly justifies routinely ignoring the law and Constitution. And both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have signaled that power grabs will proliferate in the next four years.

    There is no reason to expect the next president to be less power hungry than the last two White House occupants. Politicians talk as if voting magically protects the rights of everyone within a 50 mile radius of the polling booth. But the ballots Americans have cast in presidential elections since 2000 did nothing to constrain the commander-in-chief.

    Bush’s declaration in 2000 that America needed a more “humble” foreign policy did not deter him from vowing to “rid the world of evil” and launching the most catastrophic war in American history. Eight years later, Barack Obama campaigned as the candidate of peace and promised “a new birth of freedom.” But that did not stop him from bombing seven nations, claiming a right to assassinate American citizens, and championing Orwellian total surveillance.

    Bush was famous for “signing statements” decrees that nullified hundreds of provisions of laws enacted by Congress. Obama is renown for unilaterally endlessly rewriting laws such as the Affordable Care Act to postpone political backlashes against the Democratic Party and for effectively waiving federal immigration law. Both Bush and Obama exploited the “state secrets doctrine” to shield their most controversial policies from the American public.

    While many conservatives applauded Bush’s power grabs, many liberals cheered Obama’s decrees. After 16 years of Bush-Obama, the federal government is far more arbitrary and lethal. Richard Nixon’s maxim – ‘it’s not illegal if the president does it’ – is the lodestar for commanders-in-chief in the new century.

    Lust for Power 

    There is no reason to expect the next president to be less power hungry than the last two White House occupants. Both Trump and Clinton can be expected to trample the First Amendment. Trump has talked of shutting down mosques and changing libel laws to make it far more perilous for the media to reveal abuses by the nation’s elite. Clinton was in the forefront of an administration that broke all records for prosecuting leakers and journalists who exposed government abuses. She could smash the remnants of the Freedom of Information Act like her aides hammered her Blackberry phones to obliterate her email trail.

    By the end of the next presidential term, America will have had almost a 20-year stretch of dictatorial democracy.Neither candidate seems to recognize any limit on presidential power. Trump calls for reviving the brutal interrogation methods of the George W. Bush era. Clinton opposes torture but believes presidents have a right to launch wars whenever they decide it is in the national interest. After Clinton helped persuade Obama to bomb Libya in 2011, she signaled that the administration would scorn any congressional cease-and-desist order under the War Powers Act.

    If Americans could be confident that either Trump or Clinton would be leashed by the law, there would be less dread about who wins in November. But elections are becoming simply coronations via vote counts. The president will take an oath of office on Inaugural Day but then can do as he or she pleases.

    We now have a political system which is nominally democratic but increasingly authoritarian. The Rule of Law has been defined down to finding a single federal lawyer to write a secret memo vindicating the president’s latest unpublished executive order.

    By the end of the next presidential term, America will have had almost a 20-year stretch of dictatorial democracy. Our rulers’ disdain for the highest law of the land is torpedoing the citizenry’s faith in representative government. Forty percent of registered voters have “lost faith in American democracy,” according to recent Survey Monkey poll.

    The United States may be on the verge of the biggest legitimacy crisis since the Civil War. Whoever wins on November 8 will be profoundly distrusted even before being sworn in. The combination of a widely-detested new president and unrestrained power almost guarantees greater crises in the coming years.

    Neither Trump nor Clinton are promising to “make America constitutional again.” But, as Thomas Jefferson declared in 1786, “an elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” If presidents are lawless, then voters are merely designating the most dangerous criminal in the land.

    This article originally appeared in The Washington Times

    James Bovard


    James Bovard

    James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.