When people say they don’t trust government, they are often confusing trust with blind trust and government with functions of government they don’t like or of which they are skeptical. Few of the lefties now howling about NSA and GCHQ surveillance have a problem giving national governments enormous power to engineer certain social outcomes. And the debate over spying would be much more interesting if such persons would stop dressing what are only their prejudices and preferences in the rhetorical garb of a pseudo-libertarianism.
Now over the past few months we’ve been treated to a spectacle of public hysteria and indignation over the Snowden leaks. The popular belief seems to be that the NSA and its British counterpart have been monitoring the emails, phone calls, and text messages of the entire world, and that no man, woman, or child has uttered a word without it being recorded. A moment’s reflection should lead any reasonable person to question whether such a thing is even possible. And the next stage of that contemplation should lead him to ask: what does it mean to say that these spy agencies are collecting data? What kind of data? And further: does the gathering of such data amount to an invasion of privacy and an infringement of liberty?
This line of inquiry prompts two more questions. The first is the old one of liberty versus security: how much legal space does a government need to protect the lives and property of its citizens? This question is best discussed in the abstract. The second, more relevant, question is: what reasonable guarantees of privacy ought we to have from our government given our competing demand that it investigate and prevent terror threats?
In dealing with the latter it must be acknowledged that less and less of the content we put into various media streams can actually be kept private. If I go to the Washington Post website, a number of books I’ve expressed interest in are put before me. If I visit the Huffington Post or some other news site, I am told the names of Facebook friends who have also visited the page. We are all forced into communities of interest without our consent. Our transactions and communications are monitored and employed by private companies to get us to buy things directly or by way of seeing them advertised. I am not too bothered by these intrusions. The effort of various networking sites and retailers to keep tabs on my online activities is no threat to me, and I suppose it can be convenient at times. I am inclined to feel the same way about the collection of phone records and other kinds of meta-data by the government. And I prefer to give the government what it needs, within reason, to be effective in protecting the lives and property of its citizens, while demanding strong safeguards to prevent abuse.
The most obvious rejoinder to this preference is that it is naïve; that politicians and policy makers are never to be trusted, that government is to be always suspected of being up to no good, and that if you give it more power it will inevitably misuse it. These claims and admonitions could be used to discredit every act of the state and any of the organizations and institutions run by it. And I can only respond by saying that blanket distrust of state action and government bodies is as dangerous to liberty as unreserved confidence in them. No one expects their government to coerce, intimidate, and wrongfully persecute its citizens. But I would think that most people expect it to take measures to detect and thwart intended acts of violence and murder. I do not claim that government can justify any action on the premise of public safety; only that it can justify certain, limited, legally authorized actions on that premise.
Legislators and law courts often get things wrong when it comes to these matters. For decades the ‘law and order’ meme has been used by reactionaries and demagogues to advance everything from mass incarceration to mass deportation. It has been used to profile and harass individuals who were doing nothing other than exercising their right to protest or to put one foot in front of the other on the street; it has also been used to blackmail and smear persons whose ability to inspire and influence threatened the status quo. But criticizing acts of cruelty and suppression is a far cry from objecting to government programs on the spurious basis that the agencies that run them are in league to undermine democracy. In every forum in which this topic has been broached one has heard nothing but wild stories and over-exaggerations—the pathos of grievance and outrage that so dominates current discourse. If sanity is to be brought to the debate over spying the activity must first be seen as a legitimate public service that, like other such services, is subject to checks and oversight.
Those on the left who single out the operations of the NSA or GCHQ as examples of government infringement of individual liberty say nothing about the tax man who siphons money from wages to finance social welfare programs; nor do they complain of regulators who infringe the freedom of business owners by enforcing safety and anti-discrimination laws. Liberalism holds that government ought to intrude in the lives of individuals in limited and prescribed ways in order to promote the common good. What spy agencies do is not congenial to the moral feeling and personal temperament of everyone. But that does not put these agencies outside the bounds of public service and political control.
I should also say something, as an aside, on the current kerfuffle over The Guardian’s role in the Snowden leaks. The paper has a responsibility to publish what it thinks is in the public interest, and it should not be hauled before legislative committees for doing so. If any governmental pressure is to be brought to bear, it ought to be on Russia for harboring a fugitive—that vain, callow charlatan Mr. Edward Snowden. Otherwise, the efforts of the U.S. and U.K. are better served in trying to prevent future leaks of this kind.
Representative democracy is not perfect. Not everyone will always be pleased with what their governments do. That’s why we have politics and elections. No good comes of persons going on irrational screeds about The Big Brother State, especially when the same folks turn around the next day and blast the government for not regulating banker’s bonuses and not doing enough to bring down youth unemployment. In both instances, the government is expected to employ public resources to advance the common good. If one favors public investment in education and infrastructure but does not care for its foreign and domestic surveillance programs, that's a legitimate position. But it is just as arbitrary as someone who favors the latter but does not care for the former. In either case, the person puts his trust in government to solve public problems and promote the general welfare.