Living in the Surveillance State

The NSA scandals have clarified a couple of things: (1) The people in charge in Washington are beyond redemption. (2) The public, for the most part, doesn’t give a damn. If you had any thoughts that the public would rise up in fury if they just learned how really bad our rulers are, they should be thoroughly dashed now. Our government tortures and assassinates people and claims “national security” as an excuse for hiding anything it can’t justify. Americans don’t give a damn. Our problem isn’t so much a corrupt government as a corrupt population; people will give anything up for goodies at other people’s expense, legal advantages over people they don’t like, or a microscopic or nonexistent increase in safety.

So let’s take one thing out of consideration: There isn’t going to be any significant trend toward reversing governmental power grabs within the next decade or more. This isn’t a reason for despair, though. It’s a basis for choosing our goals and options.

What can you do as an individual? You can minimize your vulnerability and maximize your freedom within the available range. Much of the power of secret governmental operations comes from fear and uncertainty; you don’t know what they know about you and what they might do, and this can cause fear out of proportion to the chance anything will happen. (Notice that this is exactly what terrorists do.) Reversing a common phrase, just because they could be out to get you, you don’t have to be paranoid.

Don’t grant assent, explicitly or by silence. You don’t have to pick arguments, but do let people know where you stand. Don’t grant a power-grabbing scumbag the title “the Honorable.” If someone claims you support things you don’t (for example, by saying “everybody agrees…”), correct the error.

Find some way to speak out, not because you’ll immediately change any minds, but as a practical way of withholding assent. Not everyone’s in a position to do it publicly. (If you’re in a position where you can’t do it at all, think about how to get out of it.) Even if you can just encourage others when they say and do the right things, that’s something. If you’re able to speak or write or sing about it, better yet.

Watch out for informational traps. The news media have never been especially reliable sources of information. Look past the headlines. Check for independent sources. Watch out for disinformation campaigns. Remember that even the people you agree with can be misinformed or decide that it’s OK to shade the truth in the name of a cause. Follow information sources you disagree with, if they’re honest. Look for areas of limited agreement with people who might not share all your views (as if anyone shares all of them).

If you have money to spare, put some of it where it will do some good. Even small victories are worth going after. The Institute for Justice is one of my favorite organizations for defending individual rights at the courtroom level.

Have some idea what you’ll do in worst-case situations. What if you get a National Security Letter or a SWAT team bursts into your home? They’re unpleasant to think about, and not very likely events for most of us, but having some idea of how you’d respond can make them less scary.

“Going Galt” isn’t an option for most of us, but there’s a good piece of advice in Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged for anyone who loves freedom:

When they force you, obey — but do not volunteer. Never volunteer a step in their direction, or a wish, or a plea, or a purpose. Do not help a holdup man to claim that he acts as your friend and benefactor. Do not help your jailers to pretend that their jail is your natural state of existence. Do not help them to fake reality. That fake is the only dam holding off their secret terror, the terror of knowing they’re unfit to exist; remove it and let them drown; your sanction is their only life belt.

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