When it comes to your “personal data” and national security issues, there are two basic layers to the question. The first has to do with the nature of the world, and the second has to do with the nature of our particular moment in history. The first asks whether anybody should be trusted with this kind of information, and the second asks whether these people should be trusted with anything. The first is a constitutional question, the second a practical one.
You would answer the first correctly if you have been taught in line with biblical principles of civic liberty. You would answer the second correctly if you haven’t been hibernating under a rock for the last decade or so.
Start with the second issue, start with where we are. Start with those who are currently governing us. I am conducting a thought experiment here, not making any accusations. Suppose a scandal broke with regard to the NSA data collection — not the mere fact of meta-collection, but a demonstrated actual and egregious abuse of it. Make it a bona fide scandal, where men in power were using the surveillance apparatus of the government in order to get dirt on their partisan enemies. Their gathering of information had nothing to do with national security, and everything to do with getting into divorce records, tax information, salacious and damaging emails, etc.
And let us say that there was an uproar about it — lots of yelling on television, and Twitter was just a burning. “What means this stir in Rome?” Now does anybody in their right mind think that such a scandal would be processed and handled any differently than the Benghazi scandal has been, or the IRS scandal? Does anybody seriously think that these men in power would now — because the letters on the scandal are NSA — be completely honest and forthcoming? Would they give up their sandbagging, stonewalling, and obfuscating foot-dragging ways simply because the information about the porn habits, say, of a Tea Party hack were acquired in some outrageous and unconstitutional way? If you really think that, then you really need to go and sit this culture war out, there’s a dear.
I can tell you what to expect. The aftermath of such a scandal would be the same solemn procession of “mistakes were made” by no one in particular, followed up by “reforms have even now been set in place” for the faceless bureaucrats of the future to get around. Always remember that the problematic laws and regulations we are constantly having to fix are actually the end product of our previous wave of reforms. Someone has wisely said that the state is a poison that masquerades as its own antidote.
The problem is this. I don’t trust these people. I don’t trust them in the morning and I don’t trust them at night. I don’t trust them with foreign policy and I don’t trust them with domestic policy. I don’t trust them in Maryland, and I don’t trust them in California. These people are like green eggs and ham to me. “I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere.”
So why on earth would I expect them to draw an arbitrary line of self-restraint in the midst of all their tyrannical overreaching? Why would I think that we could ever hear them say, “No, no, we must not do that. That’s his private data.”
In saying this, I am simply talking about their motives, and am clearly suspecticating an evil intent. But we must also leave open the likelihood of gross incompetence. Take the lack of security firewalls over at that ramshackle Obamacare website. It now appears that if I were chump enough to sign up at Obamacare, then a competent hacker could get from there to the inside of my Kindle without ever touching the floor. So let us not accept the false dichotomy that is commonly circulated on the Right — wondering whether these people are evil or incompetent. Why not both? Why not a mix?
Now, let’s move from this to the broader question of civic liberty. A free government of a free people must have boundaries and limits that they cannot cross, and everyone involved must know where those boundaries are. This is how James Madison addressed the problem:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (Federalist #51).
In Madison’s mind, this was to be accomplished primarily through having the government dependent upon the people, but he also noted the need for something else — “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
Auxiliary precautions. Now we’re talking.
What I would really like is for the establishment conservatives to shift their priorities. Stop protecting me from the Taliban. I grant that there are places and circumstances where such protection would really be welcome, but what I actually need is protection from the commies. You know, anybody to the left of Ted Cruz.
And stay out of my Kindle.