Japanese Internment: The Constitution Will Not Protect Americans From Their Government

Japanese Internment

The term “concentration camp” is generally associated with Nazi Germany, but it was actually popularized during the Second Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. While this was not the first time civilians were interned during war (for instance, the United States had an extensive system of concentration camps during the war with the Philippines), it was the first time that the entirety of a nation was systematically targeted and depopulated.

A concentration camp is a compound for noncombatants in a war zone. Auschwitz and the other infamous sites under Nazi control would more accurately be called death camps.

Whatever the term, rounding up innocent civilians and forcing them from their homes is clearly a heinous crime. It is the kind of thing that tyrants do. It is certainly not the kind of thing that happens in America, land of the free and home of the brave.

Of course, this isn’t true. By Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942 (just 74 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor), more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, primarily US citizens, were sent to concentration camps, where they were forced to live for an average of 3 years. And yes, concentration camp is the correct term here; even FDR and other government officials called them concentration camps.

It is of the utmost importance that we remember what happened to the Japanese living in America during World War 2, because many naïve Americans either forget that it happened or refuse to believe that something similar could happen again. People place entirely too much faith in their government, and the constitution that is supposed to constrain it.

In this post, I will discuss some of the history of Japanese internment, the constitutional issues and failures surrounding it, and how these issues have only grown stronger in the post-9/11 world.


Japanese Internment

The vast majority of the 130,000 Japanese in the US during the early 1940s were living on the west coast in California, Oregon, and Washington. Nearly all of them were incarcerated. The majority of those incarcerated were US citizens who had committed no crime whatsoever. According to history professor Roger Daniels,

More than two-thirds of them were native-born American citizens. Their parents, most of whom had immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1924 (when Congress barred further immigration of Japanese), were “aliens ineligible to citizenship” because of their race. Like all persons of color in the United States, both generations of Japanese Americans experienced systematic discrimination. The immigrant Issei generation, in addition to being barred from citizenship, were legally forbidden to enter a number of professions and trades and, even more importantly for a farming people, were forbidden to own agricultural land in the states where most of them lived. The second or Nisei generation, although legally citizens, were not accorded equal rights. In California, for example, they were segregated in theaters, barred from swimming pools, and limited in employment.”

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, a smaller subset of the Japanese were rounded up based on prior suspicion. Reasonable people could debate whether or not this was justified, but at least it was legal (though regular readers of this blog should understand that “legal” does not equal “moral”).

“The outbreak of war put the Issei generation at peril—they were “alien enemies” and, as such, some eight thousand, mostly men, were interned beginning on the night of 7-8 December 1941…While it is clear that some of those interned did not receive “justice,” their confinement did conform to the law of the land, which had provided for wartime internment since the War of 1812.What happened to the rest of the West Coast Japanese Americans was without precedent in American law…”

We will go over the legal aspects of setting up concentration camps for US citizens later. For now, I’d like to point out a truism about government action and its perceived authority: it’s quite common for people to accept highly questionable directives without resistance. Large segments of the population will even support such measures, be it out of fear or ignorance. There’s no reason to think that, if America begins going down the road towards concentration camps again, it won’t be a popular decision and that there won’t be similar collaborators. Even the victims themselves are likely to go along with it.

“The reaction of the Japanese American people to all of this was remarkable. The vast majority accepted the various government decisions with what appeared to be patient resignation. The leading national organization of the citizen generation, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), advocated a policy of acquiescence and even collaboration with the government’s plans hoping by such behavior to “earn” a better place for Japanese Americans in the postwar world. This kind of accommodation is not unknown among other American minority groups.”

A little known fact is that the American government also kidnapped and interned Japanese in Latin America. As described by Natsu Taylor Saito,

“The plaintiffs lost homes and possessions; some were forced to clear jungle in the Canal Zone; and men, women and children were transported under armed guard to prison camps in the Texas desert where they were incarcerated indefinitely without charge or hearing. Families were torn apart and scattered across the globe. Held as hostages, some Japanese Latin Americans were exchanged for U.S. citizens, and others were imprisoned past the end of the war, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”) declared them to be “illegal aliens” and deported them, against their will, to Japan.”

While some of the Japanese were deported at the end of the war, others refused to leave the camps.

“Ironically, in 1945, as the war was ending, the WRA [War Relocation Authority] had great difficulty in getting some Japanese Americans—mostly older members of the Issei generation—to leave the camps. Many had lost their means of livelihood and even though they had once been willing to take the great risk of emigration to a strange land, they were now afraid to return to the places where they had lived for decades.”

This is despite the deplorable living conditions in the camps. Summarized by Brian Masaru Hayashi,

“…they endured four years of cramped living quarters, inadequate facilities, low wages, and a general lack of freedom and privacy. The majority–approximately five out of every six–pledged their allegiance to the United States or promised obedience to its laws over Japan’s when confronted with questions regarding which country the aliens would support and concerning the U.S. citizens’ willingness to serve in the American armed forces during the infamous Loyalty Registration of 1943.

What is this about a “loyalty registration”? The WRA attempted to divide the prisoners into “loyal” and “disloyal” groups and separate them, based on a simple questionnaire. How American! Again, remember that these are US citizens who were not charged with any crimes.

While being rounded up, the Japanese exiles weren’t told where they were going or how long they’d be gone for. They were given a very short period of time to sell their possessions before being interned, so property was usually sold for significantly below market value. In addition, having been forced out of the labor market for several years, Japanese had significantly reduced earnings upon leaving the camps, according to research by Aimee Chin.

“Using individual-level data from the 1970 Census, I find that the labor market withdrawal induced by the internment reduced the annual earnings of males by as much as nine to thirteen percent twenty-five years afterwards. Additionally, internment increased the probability of self-employment, and reduced the probability of holding high-status professional and technical occupations. These findings are consistent with the predictions of an economic model that equates the labor market withdrawal induced by the internment with a loss of civilian labor market experience or a loss of advantageous job matches.”

This study used the youngest birth cohort whose labor would have been affected by internment.

“Older cohorts were probably even more adversely impacted, since they were more likely to be foreign-born, to have held an agricultural occupation prior to internment, and to have owned a farm or small business prior to internment (and therefore possessing more firm-specific human capital).”

All in all, the internment resulted in considerable losses in both property and income for Japanese-Americans.

The experience of life in the camps didn’t help. Families were often split up, and then people were forced to live communally with strangers, including communal latrines without partitions, and communal showers in open areas. There were partitions dividing the rooms most of the time, but they did not extend from the floor to the ceiling. You can easily imagine the privacy issues this would create. Some were housed in animal stables with the stench of manure, and many had no roof. Attempted escape or disobeying orders were punishable by death – and Roger Daniels claims that in at least three separate camps, armed soldiers shot and killed unarmed, incarcerated American citizens.

In the rush to incarcerate such a large number of people, the camps were hastily and shoddily built. Most camps were located in areas with wild temperature changes from day to night and winter to summer. They were located in barren, desolate locations, hardly suitable for the people who were forced to inhabit them.

“In May officials tried to put the best face on the construction of housing and other buildings at the camps. One description called the initial housing “basic”: “That is, the structures are soundly constructed and provide minimum essentials for decent living. As evacuees move in, they will have an opportunity to improve their quarters by their own work.” But feeling pressure from the WRA, civilian construction contractors built the centers very quickly during the spring and summer of 1942. Camp designs were based on military barracks, making them ill suited for family living. And along with the speed came shoddy construction and other deficiencies. A 1943 WRA report described “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.” While the spartan buildings may have satisfied international laws, they left much to be desired.

The less than ideal design and construction quality of the housing was magnified by the desert location of the camps. The heat was blistering in the summer and generally came with dust. One internee recalled: “Inside of our houses, in the laundry, in the latrines, in the mess halls, dust and more dust, dust everywhere.” Winters could be equally difficult. For example, at Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming, internees endured temperatures of 30 degrees below zero in the winter. Residents there resorted to banking the earth against their barracks to block the icy winds. The situation was made worse by the hasty evacuation process to the assembly center. Evacuees leaving the milder coastal climate had not been told of their ultimate destinations, and as a result, many failed to pack clothing that would have been appropriate for the bitter desert winters.”

An independent report by someone working in the camps presents a gloomy picture of camp conditions.

“Ralph Smeltzer, a member of the Brethren Church, worked within the camps and produced his own reports documenting the condition of the internees.  His reports present a group of people confined to almost unbearable situations.  Within the April 21, 1942 report, Smeltzer describes how “bathing facilities were quite inadequate, running water was late in being made available and two weeks elapsed before hot water was available.”  In the second report, dated May 5, 1942, a lack of plumbing supplies creates a “serious lack of sanitary facilities” leading to widespread dysentery.  In a third report, dated June 8, 1942, Smeltzer describes a story wherein “some Caucasians set up tables outside the barb-wire fences and handed their Japanese friends additional food over and through the fence.”  None of these conditions are to be found in any War Relocation Authority reports.

In his sixth report, dated November 6, 1942, a full seven and a half months after the camps had opened, Smeltzer describes what continues to provide the internees with low morale and high discontent.  He details how “The rooms are too small.  Two or more families live in many rooms.  An average room is 20 feet by 24 feet” allowing each person in the room a personal space of “4 feet by 20 feet;” the living facilities have “poorly fitting windows and gaping barn-like doors;” “the poorest lumbar is used throughout,” and the “rooms are nearly always cold.”  In essence, living conditions are abhorrent.”

Naturally, this was all done for the sake of “national security.” America was at war, and Japan was the enemy. Of course the Japanese-Americans would be spies, attempting to subvert the war effort! But according to Roger Daniels,

There was not one case of espionage or sabotage by a Japanese person in the United States during the entire war. One West Coast law enforcement officer, California Attorney General Earl Warren, admitted to a congressional committee on 21 February 1942 that there had been no such acts in California, but found that fact “most ominous.” It convinced him that “we are just being lulled into a false sense of security and that the only reason we haven’t had a disaster in California is because it is timed for a different date.” “Our day of reckoning is bound to come,” he testified in arguing for incarceration. Of course, if there had been sabotage by Japanese Americans in California, Warren would have used that to argue for the same thing. As far as Japanese Americans were concerned, it was a no-win situation.”


Was It Constitutional?

Those Americans who have a special faith in government because the precious constitution will keep the government honest should study the Japanese internment. It should be obvious to even the most dimwitted American boob that the constitution provided no protection to a huge group of individuals who needed it the most.

Eugene Rostow, an influential legal scholar and former Dean of Yale Law School, wrote a scathing critique of the Supreme Court cases relevant to the Japanese internment. I will draw on his argument heavily here, and I would encourage you to read it yourself if you are into that kind of thing. The emphasis in any quotations included here is mine.

Of fundamental importance to the legal structure of a supposedly democratic society is the relationship between civil and military authority.

“What the Supreme Court has done in these cases, and especially in Korematsu v. United States, is to increase the strength of the military in relation to civil government. It has upheld an act of military power without a factual record in which the justification for the act was analyzed. Thus it has created doubt as to the standards of responsibility to which the military power will be held. For the first time in American legal history, the Court has seriously weakened the protection of our basic civil right, the writ of habeas corpus. It has established a precedent which may well be used to encourage attacks on the civil rights of citizens and aliens, and may make it possible for some of those attacks to succeed. It will give aid to reactionary political programs which use social division and racial prejudice as tools for conquering power.”

As mentioned previously, the internment of the Japanese was justified as a matter of military necessity. Allegedly, spies and saboteurs would be common among the Japanese population. But there was no evidence of Japanese sabotage, and certainly not enough to justify the suspension of habeas corpus, the right to challenge unlawful imprisonment before a court.

“Apart from the members of the group known to be under suspicion, there was no evidence beyond the vaguest fear to connect the Japanese on the West Coast with the unfavorable military events of 1941 and 1942. Both at Pearl Harbor and in sporadic attacks on the West Coast the enemy had shown that he had knowledge of our dispositions. There was some signaling to enemy ships at sea, both by radio and by lights, along the West Coast. It was said to be difficult to trace such signals because of limitations on the power of search without warrant. There had been several episodes of shelling the coast by submarine, although two of the three such episodes mentioned by General DeWitt as tending to create suspicion of the Japanese Americans had taken place after their removal from the Coast. These were the only such items in the Final Report which were not identified by date.” And it was positively known that no suspicions attached to the Japanese residents for sabotage at Pearl Harbor before, during or after the raid. Those subsequently arrested as Japanese agents were all white men. “To focus attention on local residents of Japanese descent, actually diverted attention from those who were busily engaged in espionage activity.””

Even in Hawaii, a far more militarily significant location than the west coast of the mainland US, and even under the martial law that was imposed there, those Japanese who were arrested or interned were done so on an individual basis rather than as a part of a group defined by race. The same was true in France and Great Britain (with respect to their German populations), despite being much closer to the action than America was.

“During the period of three and a half years after Pearl Harbor, military power was installed in Hawaii, constitutionally or not, and the normal controls against arrest on suspicion were not available. The population of Hawaii is 500,000, of whom some 160,000, or 32%, were of Japanese descent. Despite the confusions of the moment in Hawaii, only 700 to 800 Japanese aliens were arrested and sent to the mainland for internment. In addition, fewer than 1,100 persons of Japanese ancestry were transferred to the mainland to relocation centers. These Japanese were arrested on the basis of individual suspicion, resting on previous examination or observed behavior, or they were families of interned aliens, transferred voluntarily. Of those transferred from Hawaii to the mainland, 912 were citizens, the rest aliens. Even under a regime of martial law, men were arrested as individuals, and safety was assured without mass arrests.

In the period immediately after Pearl Harbor there was no special security program on the West Coast for persons of Japanese extraction, and no general conviction that a special program was needed. Known enemy sympathizers among the Japanese, like white traitors and enemy agents, were arrested. There was no sabotage on the part of persons of Japanese ancestry, either in Hawaii or on the West Coast. There was no reason to suppose that the 112,000 persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast, 1.2% of the population, constituted a greater menace to safety than such persons in Hawaii, 32% of the Territory’s population. Their access to military installations was not substantially different in the two areas; their status in society was quite similar; their proved record of loyalty in the war has been the same. Although many white persons were arrested, and convicted, as Japanese agents, no resident Japanese American has so far been convicted of sabotage or espionage as an agent of Japan.

But the courts alleged that it was impossible to investigate individual loyalty in the case of the Japanese – a claim that is clearly wrong. In fact, a major reason the Japanese were targeted was because they were a small enough group to target, unlike the Germans or Italians. You know, the other major Axis powers.

“The second part of the Court’s basic premise of fact was that it was impossible to investigate the question of loyalty individually. As to the validity of this proposition there was neither evidence in the record nor even discussion by the Court to indicate a basis for the conclusion which might appeal to a reasonable man, or even to a choleric and harassed general, faced with the danger of invasion and the specter of his own court martial. The issue was dismissed in a sentence. “We cannot say that the war-making branches of the Government did not have ground for believing that in a critical hour such persons could not readily be isolated and separately dealt with, and constituted a menace to the national defense and safety, which demanded that prompt and adequate measures be taken to guard against it.” In view of the history of security measures during the war, it would not have been easy to establish strong grounds for such a belief. There were about 110,000 persons subject to the exclusion orders, 43% of them being over 50 or under 15. At the time of the exclusion orders, they had lived in California without committing sabotage for five months after Pearl Harbor. The number of persons to be examined was not beyond the capacities of individual examination processes, in the light of experience with such security measures, both in the United States and abroad…Actually, the exclusion program was undertaken not because the Japanese were too numerous to be examined individually, but because they were a small enough group to be punished by confinement. It would have- been physically impossible to confine the Japanese and Japanese Americans in Hawaii, and it would have been both physically and politically impossible to undertake comparable measures against the 690,000 Italians or the 314,000 Germans living in the United States. The Japanese were being attacked because for some they provided the only possible outlet and expression for sentiments of group hostility.

By the time any cases actually made it to the Supreme Court, the tide of battle had changed and the Allies were winning against the Japanese. The military reality did not justify paranoia against the Japanese. The Supreme Court was tasked not just with seeing whether the concentration camps were allowed when they were made, but also whether they continued to be justified. This makes the failure to strike indefinite detention as unconstitutional all the more bewildering and, dare I say, evil. Instead, the courts basically just abdicated their authority to rule on these kinds of issues.

“In a bewildering and unimpressive series of opinions, relieved only by the dissents of Mr. Justice Roberts and of Mr. Justice ‘Murphy in Korematsu v. United States,”‘ the Court chose to assume that the main issue of the cases – the scope and method of judicial review of military decisions – did not exist. In the political process of American life, these decisions were a negative and reactionary act. The Court avoided the risks of overruling the Government on an issue of war policy. But it weakened society’s control over military authority-one of the polarizing forces on which the organization of our society depends. And it solemnly accepted and gave the prestige of its support to dangerous racial myths about a minority group, in arguments which can be applied easily to any other minority in our society.”

It should be clear that Justice Murphy’s dissent makes far more sense than this. Here it is, so you can judge for yourself:

Being an obvious racial discrimination, the order deprives all those within its scope of’ the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. It further deprives these individuals of their constitutional rights to live and work where they will, to establish a home where they choose and to move about freely. In excommunicating, them without benefit of hearings, this order also deprives them of all their constitutional rights to procedural due process. Yet no reasonable relation to an ‘immediate, imminent, and impending’ public danger is evident to support this racial restriction which is one of the most sweeping and complete deprivations of constitutional rights in the history of this nation in the absence of martial law.”

Instead, it was held that people with the same race as the enemy constituted a more significant threat than other people (although as discussed before, this was applied inconsistently).

“The “facts” which were thus held to “afford a rational basis for decision” were that in time of war “residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of different ancestry,” and that in time of war such persons could not readily be isolated and dealt with individually…Imagine applying an ethnic presumption of disloyalty in the circumstances of the Revolution or the Civil War! In the World War and in the present war, soldiers who had ethnic affiliations with the enemy-German, Austrian, Hungarian, Finnish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Japanese and Italian-fought uniformly as Americans in our armed forces, without any suggestion of group disloyalty.”

The justification for Japanese internment is all the more awkward considering the precedent set in the Ex parte Milligan case, which determined that the military did not have the constitutional authority to arrest or try civilians when civil courts were available – as they most certainly were in 1942.

“In Ex parte Milligan the Court said that the military could not constitutionally arrest, nor could a military tribunal constitutionally try, civilians charged with treason and conspiracy to destroy the state by force, at a time when the civil courts were open and functioning. Under the plan considered in the Japanese American cases, people not charged with crime are imprisoned for several years without even a military trial, on the ground that they have the taint of Japanese blood. Why doesn’t the Milligan case apply a fortiori? If it is illegal to arrest and confine people after an unwarranted military trial, it is surely even more illegal to arrest and confine them without any trial at all. The Supreme Court says that the issues of the Milligan case are not involved because the evacuees were committed to camps by military orders, not by military tribunals, and because their jailers did not wear uniforms. It is hard to see any sequence in the sentences. The Japanese Americans were ordered detained by a general, purporting to act on military grounds. The military order was enforceable, on pain of imprisonment. While a United States marshal, rather than a military policeman, assured obedience to the order, the ultimate sanction behind the marshal’s writ is the same as that of the military police: the bayonets of United States troops. It is hardly a ground for distinction that the general’s command was backed by the penalty of civil imprisonment, or that he obtained civilian aid in running the relocation camps.

There are then two basic constitutional problems concealed in the Court’s easy dismissal of Ex parte Milligan: the arrest, removal and confinement of persons without trial, pending examination of their loyalty; and the indefinite confinement of persons found to be disloyal. On both counts, at least as to citizens, the moral of Ex parte Milligan is plain. The Milligan case says little about the propriety of a curfew, or perhaps even of the exclusion orders as such. The military necessity of such steps are to be tested independently in the light of all the relevant circumstances. The Milligan case does say, however, that arrest and confinement are forms of action which cannot be taken as military necessities while courts are open. For such punitive measures it proposes a clear and forceful rule of thumb: the protection of the individual by normal trial does not under such circumstances interfere with the conduct of war.

The various Supreme Court cases (Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Endo, if you’d like to look up these cases on your own) consider military officials as immune from the normal rules of public responsibility. If a General says something was militarily necessary, even though there is no obvious justification – that’s totally cool! The Justices will simply take their word for it, rather than burdening themselves with such silly things as the factual record.

Rostow summarizes fantastically what the Supreme Court decided in these cases. Take a moment to think about the precedent that was set, and how safe it makes you feel.

“The Japanese exclusion program thus rests on five propositions of the utmost potential menace: (1) protective custody, extending over three or four years, is a permitted form of imprisonment in the United States; (2) political opinions, not criminal acts, may contain enough clear and present danger to justify such imprisonment; (3) men, women and children of a given ethnic group, both Americans and resident aliens, can be presumed to possess the kind of dangerous ideas which require their imprisonment; (4) in time of war or emergency the military, perhaps without even the concurrence of the legislature, can decide what political opinions require imprisonment, and which ethnic groups are infected with them; and (5) the decision of the military can be carried out without indictment, trial, examination, jury, the confrontation of witnesses, counsel for the defense, the privilege against self-incrimination, or any of the other safeguards of the Bill of Rights.

We believe that the German people bear a common political responsibility for outrages secretly committed by the Gestapo and the SS. What are we to think of our own part in a program which violates every democratic social value, yet has been approved by the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court?”

The constitution means nothing.


Legal Changes Since 9/11

After September 11th, the US government gained broad new powers, such as mass surveillance of American citizens, in order to wage the so-called Global War on Terror. There is some irony to this, of course, with America being the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. But what about the power to detain American citizens?

There have been a handful of Supreme Court cases regarding this issue. In a lengthy but fascinating paper from 2006, Aya Gruber provided some analysis into these cases and how they are tied to those made during the Japanese internment (again, the emphasis in quotations is mine).

First of all, there is the issue of race. It is quite clear that Arabs have been singled out in post-9/11 America. And there has been popular support for race-based measures, even by other minorities.

“After 9/11, the government embraced an overt and extensive policy of racial decision making. The government began to use its broad immigration powers to selectively detain immigrants of Arab nationality and ethnicity. In addition, ethnic Arabs were systematically singled out for police investigation and detention…after 9/11, the public generally accepted the propriety of race-based measures in the name of terrorism prevention. Even African Americans and Latinas tended to favor ethnic and racial profiling so long as directed against “terrorists.”

I mention this not to say it is unjustified (one could make an argument that profiling works, but I am not attempting to investigate the accuracy or moral significance of that claim), but to point out that, yet again, the American public is not particularly concerned about peoples’ legal (and moral) rights when they are scared – and fear is a pretty easy emotion to cultivate. It is quite convenient to blame “outsiders” for problems; this has been the case time and again throughout history.

In any case, since 9/11, Arabs have been subject to incarceration without due process and without any compelling reasons to deny them due process.

“Scholars draw upon similar arguments to criticize the detentions of citizen Yaser Hamdi, citizen Jose Padilla, and the Guantanamo prisoners. Experts maintain that, like the Japanese, these individuals have been subject to incarceration with little or no process, without compelling reasons for denying process. Critics reject the government’s contentions that civilian criminal courts are ill equipped to handle terrorism cases and that detainees are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, scholars are highly critical of the process afforded to individuals who wish to challenge the detention. Although the Supreme Court ruled that Yaser Hamdi was entitled to a low-level evidentiary hearing to contest his status as an unlawful combatant, that process falls far short of even a pretrial detention hearing in criminal court. In addition, while Supreme Court has stated that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees’ habeas corpus claims, the government continues to urge district courts to abstain from hearing such petitions. Moreover, the D.C. Circuit recently ruled that President Bush’s treatment of the Guantanamo detainees was perfectly legal. Internment invocations are accordingly used to emphasize grave harm of process-less incarceration in the name of national security. Critics warn that “some in government are seeking to resurrect . . . Korematsu to justify the Bush Administration’s present day national security curtailment of civil liberties.””

In the case of the Japanese during WW2, military necessity at least seems like a far more reasonable excuse for the curtailment of civil liberties than modern terrorism, though as discussed earlier, it still was not justified then. But at the very least, it is clear that WW2 was a significantly more dire situation, militarily speaking, than we currently face from terrorism.

“Even assuming that current deprivations are not as bad as in World War II, which is not necessarily true, the current security situation is also not as dire as in World War II, which involved an imminent invasion during a world war. The Roosevelt Administration thus set racist and extremely harmful policy in the face of a massive threat. The Bush Administration set racist and harmful, albeit less sweeping, policy in the face of a much less severe threat. In the wake of 9/11, a single attack carried out by a terrorist group, not a nation, the Bush Administration has initiated two wars and detained thousands of individuals.

With that context, let’s turn our attention to what the more recent Supreme Court rulings mean for civil liberties and detention in America. Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld gives the military the latitude to do anything in the name of terrorism that they could if there were a congressionally declared war. And given the extreme ambiguities in the word terrorism, this basically gives the military war authority from here on out. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) issued the week after 9/11 basically counts as a general declaration of war until “the terrorists” are defeated.

“…even interpreting the case in the most restrictive manner as requiring both the AUMF (or a legislative equivalent) and factual war-like conditions to trigger war powers, those requirements still fall well short of a formal declaration of war, as contemplated in Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Quirin. A formal declaration of war requires specificity on the part of Congress, such that congressional intent to engage in combat with a particular country is easily established. The AUMF, by contrast, generally authorizes “necessary” action against those parties responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Construing the AUMF as the functional equivalent of a declaration of war allows the President to exercise war power pursuant to a vague approval of military force against parties yet unknown. Under this approach, any military action in the name of terrorism prevention triggers the same powers as a declared war.

Moreover, a declaration of war contemplates a finite length of conflict, such that when a peace treaty is executed with the particular enemy country, the war power authority generally ends. In contrast, the AUMF is incredibly broad, allowing for the existence of war powers in perpetuity so long as the executive engages in military actions directed against Al Qaeda or related terrorist groups. As a result, the executive can assert, as the Fourth Circuit did, that any military detention in the name of terrorism prevention is an exercise of a war power…The problem is that in the absence of a formal declaration of war, the issue of the conditions triggering war power becomes more open to interpretation and expansion. Hamdi leaves open the possibility that the AUMF allows for military detention power, even when there is little indication of war-like conditions, for example, during continued military occupation, engagement in isolated skirmishes, ongoing police actions, or deployment as peacekeepers…In the end, the Hamdi case leaves open the possibility that war powers can be invoked absent a declaration of war, or even any congressional approval of military action, and/or in the absence of paradigmatic war-like conditions. This is a far more broad construction of “wartime” than in Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Quirin…By elevating the current terrorism risk to the level of exigency facing the nation during The Prize Cases, the court endorsed the notion that the government may freely ignore the Constitution in any prosecution of alleged terrorists.

The Hamdi case also allows for the detention of US citizens by the military, even if there are civilian courts that are functioning.

“Unlike the internment cases, Hamdi answered the question of whether war power includes the power to detain U.S. citizens militarily in the affirmative, announcing concretely that the government can detain citizens as enemy combatants. The Court unequivocally stated, “There is no bar to this Nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant.” The Court reasoned that a U.S. citizen, just like a foreign soldier, could be detained during hostilities because “such a citizen, if released, would pose the same threat of returning to the front during the ongoing conflict.” This reasoning, however, completely ignores the contention, accepted in Milligan, that alternate detention procedures exist for citizens who consort with the enemy. The situation of a U.S. citizen combatant is extremely different from that of a foreign combatant who has not otherwise violated U.S. law and cannot be held except militarily… Consequently, the Supreme Court implicitly sanctioned the view that war powers include the ability to detain citizens for aiding the enemy domestically or abroad. This is a far more direct empowerment of the government, and hence a greater restriction of civil liberties, than the position represented in the internment cases.

So long as the vaguely defined “war on terror” continues, the US military has the authority to detain citizens as enemy combatants so long as they accuse that citizen of being a terrorist. It is very easy to be considered a terrorist in America – disliking the government can be enough. I’ll get into this more later.

The Supreme Court’s decision that the AUMF was sufficient congressional authority for the President to act and for war powers to be invoked is absurd.

“Turning to the language of the AUMF, the legislation is silent on military detention. The legislative history also fails to indicate that by passing the AUMF, Congress intended to authorize any military detention, much less the detention of U.S. civilians. In fact, some legislative history suggests that Congress was keenly aware of the differences between the AUMF and a declaration of war, which triggers presidential war powers. House Representative Conyers, for example, stated, “By not declaring war, the resolution preserves our precious civil liberties. This is important because declarations of war trigger broad statutes that not only criminalize interference with troops and recruitment but also authorize the President to apprehend ‘alien enemies.’”…As a result, the Supreme Court was forced to engage in an incredible feat of interpretive grasping to find that the AUMF authorized Hamdi’s detention. Bypassing both plain language and history, the Court asserted that given the background of the law of war, any authorization of military force must necessarily include endorsement of military detention, even citizen detention.

Thus, like the internment cases, Hamdi did not grant unilateral authority to the President to detain citizens militarily. Unlike the internment cases, however, it expanded the President’s ability to act without specific congressional approval. In the internment cases, the Court was careful to make sure that Congress did actually consent, not just to the war in general, but to the specific policies at issue in the cases. The Court in Hamdi did nearly the opposite. Rather than trying to ascertain the true intent of Congress, the Court was determined to find congressional assent by hook or crook so as to avoid addressing the problematic issue of executive unilateralism. In attempting to avoid the issue, however, the Court generously bolstered the executive’s power. The Court set up a precedent whereby the President may unilaterally initiate a program of citizen detention, which is constitutional so long as there has at some point been congressional authorization of military force against those with whom the citizen is alleged to be a sympathizer.

On the bright side, the process by which detained citizens can challenge their status has arguably improved, at least on the basis of race. But practically speaking, it is still nearly impossible to challenge the status of “enemy combatant.”

“If the government were to use the enemy combatant category to sweep thousands of Arab Americans into military detention asserting that they aided Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, insurgents in Iraq, or other disfavored groups, at least those detainees would have some ability to challenge their statuses as enemy combatants. Remember, however, that internment policies technically allowed the Japanese to demonstrate their loyalty and apply for release. For the Japanese, this was an option, but largely an unexercisable option. Likewise, for potential terrorism detainees, it is a near impossible hurdle for a military detainee (especially if there are thousands) to overcome a presumption of enemy status and disprove conclusory hearsay statements, particularly if such statements involve purportedly sensitive terrorism intelligence.

And, notably, the conditions of detainees in the War on Terror are vastly worse than those of the Japanese who were interned, as deplorable as those conditions may have been. For instance, rectal feeding, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other torture tactics you’d expect to see in North Korean prisons. Of course, the extent of the torture wasn’t known when this legal argument was written, but the detention conditions were still clearly terrible.

“Hamdi and Padilla, perhaps as a product of the nonparadigmatic nature of their capture, were separated from members of the forces with whom they were alleged to have associated, stripped of their customs, and held in jail. While such incarceration might be justified if Hamdi and Padilla were dangerous criminal defendants who posed a risk of flight, the government has insisted that the nature of the detentions is not criminal, and the Court expressly ruled that Hamdi’s detention was justified solely by military necessity. The Court, however, did not state that Hamdi’s military detention must accord with the dictates of the Geneva Convention. Obviously, the Court was not unaware that Hamdi had been detained in a jail, in lockdown condition, without any access to family. By endorsing such detention, without qualification, the Court implicitly adopted the more conservative view that military detention could be as, or more, severe than criminal incarceration.

Not only that, but the terrorism cases also allow for much lengthier duration of detention. At least during the Japanese internment, the war was clearly defined and the internment could not continue after the cessation of hostilities.

“Consequently, to avoid sanctioning indefinite detention, it was imperative for the Court to set up a viable proxy for a peace treaty that would signify the termination of war for the purpose of ending the war power. A logical route might have been to deem the regime change as the triggering factor, given that the enemy fighter could not rejoin an army that no longer existed. The Court, however, instead used the presence of troops engaged in fighting to deny that hostilities had ended sufficiently to release military prisoners. Although the Court formally justified Hamdi’s detention by the need to prevent him from rejoining the enemy army, by the time the Court reviewed Hamdi’s case the enemy army had already fallen to U.S. forces. Thus, upon closer examination, the logic of detaining Hamdi was not the stated reason of preventing him from rejoining an enemy army, but rather preventing him from acting on any decision he might make in the future to participate in insurgent activity…The concept that wartime detentions may continue after the fall of the enemy government and installation of a U.S.-friendly government goes beyond the scope of even the Ludecke opinion and certainly beyond the time frame contemplated in the internment cases. The Ludecke opinion approved of limited exercise of war-related police powers in the months following termination of the shooting war. The Hamdi case greatly expands this principle to full detention years after the enemy government has fallen. This broad definition of the length of military detention has precedent neither in domestic law nor customary international law….Had the Court adopted a similar approach after World War II, the United States could have detained “security threats”—for example, unhappy Japanese internees—for many years after the shooting war, so long as the United States continued to maintain troops in Japan. As a result, the Hamdi decision greatly extended the duration of wartime and allowed for the possibility of prolonged, if not indefinite, detention, even if the military to which the detainee belonged had been dismantled.”

To summarize,

“The Court made it much easier for the political branches to exercise war power and detain individuals outside normal criminal processes. It definitively approved of military detention of U.S. citizens, resolving the conflict between Quirin and Milligan in the least progressive way, and cementing the precedential value of the oft-criticized Quirin opinion. While not going so far as granting the executive unilateral authority to exercise wartime detention powers, the Court greatly reduced the role of Congress in authorizing detentions. Relying on the sparse AUMF and the “clear” law of war, the Court required neither explicit nor implicit congressional approval for citizen detention. The Court moreover approved of military detention that was carried out, not according to the dictates of the Geneva Convention, but rather in jails, solitary confinement, and criminal conditions. Finally, the Court’s “troops on the ground” analysis allowed military detention to be prolonged beyond what was contemplated in the World War II cases and possibly indefinitely.”


The Constitution: Basically Worthless

People might look back at the internment of the Japanese in concentration camps and write it off as a piece of history that could never be repeated in a Free CountryTM such as America, certainly not in days like these, where the public is more progressive and enlightened. But the legal situation today is actually far worse than it was during WW2, and it would be trivially easy for a return of concentration camps – or worse, under the right conditions.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who is going to claim that there will be FEMA death camps in America in the next few years or anything like that. But those who do believe this are hardly the crackpot conspiracy theorists that your average American makes them out to be. The fact is, mass indefinite detention of American citizens without charge by the military is something that would be completely legal for the US government to do. The National Defense Authorization Act has made it clear that the US government has the “right” to indefinitely detain American citizens without charge.

Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs simply because Debs had been making speeches against the war. Abraham Lincoln imprisoned Confederate sympathizers without trial. Those Presidents who have done this are some of the most celebrated ones in US history! Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his 1998 book, stated that “There is no reason to think that future wartime presidents will act differently from Lincoln, Wilson, or Roosevelt, or that future Justices of the Supreme Court will decide questions differently than their predecessors.” And current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that you are “kidding yourself” if you don’t believe that internment camps will one day return to America.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone at this point. Obama, a scholar on constitutional law from Harvard University, has ordered the murder of multiple American citizens without trial. And other than a handful of anti-drone activists, Americans have accepted this uncritically and even supported it. And why wouldn’t they? Anything to stop The Terrorists!

Of course, it’s pretty easy to be considered suspicious of being a terrorist these days. I’ll quote myself here:

“…it is very easy to be considered an “extremist” or a “suspicious” person by the US government. For instance, the FBI considers people who care about online privacy to be potentially suspicious of terrorist activity, and even likened pro-privacy supporters of Edward Snowden to a “digital al-Qaeda.” And here is a list of 72 ways the government can consider you an “extremist” in America, including talking about individual liberties, wanting to make the world a better place, being a returning veteran, and believing in a right to bear arms.”

Remember the precedent that the internment cases set: political opinions, not just overt criminal acts, are enough to justify a citizen being detained during wartime – which, nowadays, is all the time. Given the powers of mass surveillance that the government has now that were completely unavailable in the 1940s, this should be a terrifying prospect for every American. And consider this: the Department of Defense Law of War manual states that journalists can be considered “unprivileged belligerents,” giving them even fewer protections than enemy combatants!

In 2012, there was a leaked military document called “Army Field Manual 3-39.40: Internment and Resettlement Operations” which provides specific guidance for interning Americans on US soil – including how to silence political activists.

Clearly, the constitution of the United States does not offer the protection that so many people assume. No constitution can. For a constitution to work, there would need to be an adequate mechanism in place to ensure compliance with it, but this is not and cannot be the case. No other organization has the power to coerce the government itself, so the government is responsible for enforcing its own compliance with the words on a piece of paper. The Supreme Court cases regarding Japanese internment and detaining “terrorists” have clearly demonstrated that this simply isn’t going to happen.

Democracy in general is a utopian myth, but that is particularly evident in the United States.

How Anarchy Works: Security Without The State

Anarcho-capitalist flag

“It is all the more curious, incidentally, that while laissez-faireists should by the logic of their position, be ardent believers in a single, unified world government, so that no one will live in a state of “anarchy” in relation to anyone else, they almost never are. And once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as being in a state of impermissible “anarchy,” why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighborhood? Each block? Each house? Each person? But, of course, if each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society, where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.” – Murray Rothbard, Power and Market

Whenever someone is exposed to the ideas of market anarchy, their first thought is “but what about the roads?” Soon after this, more interesting questions arise, mostly relating to security issues. How would the law work? How would an anarchist society repel armed invaders? Who stops the bad guys? What’s to stop a powerful gang from looting everyone else (as though that isn’t precisely the situation we have with governments)? And so on.

Unfortunately, there is no way to answer these questions in a way that would completely satisfy the skeptic. Society is composed of humans, which implies a degree of uncertainty. This is unavoidable, whether we are discussing how anarchy works or how democratic government works. People feel comfortable with the system they know, so to most people, government “works.” But many innocent people go to jail (or are executed), many crimes go unpunished, and for every “winner” of a war, there is at least one loser. If you are a skeptic, I understand – nearly all of us crazy anarchists were once statists too.

This post is intended to be a comprehensive resource (for libertarians and skeptics alike) on some of the basic questions of how security might work in an anarchist society. The key word here is “might”; anarchist (and quasi-anarchist) societies have existed, and they have handled security issues in different ways. As such, nothing here is guaranteed.

But guarantees aren’t the point. Rather, I want the reader to come away with the understanding that security issues can be handled adequately under anarchy. Furthermore, it is highly likely that security would be considerably better under anarchy than under any statist conditions.


Human Nature – Are Anarchists Too Optimistic?

A common complaint levied against anarchists is that we must believe that humans are inherently good; how else would we trust everyone to behave under anarchy? I can understand the appeal of this objection on the surface. The state is the primary institution that supposedly fights crime, so without the state, criminals will run rampant and take advantage of those with a heightened sense of morality.

But upon closer examination, this objection doesn’t hold up. First of all, the state is not the only institution that aims to prevent crime or immorality. Consider, for instance, private security companies. There are neighborhood watch groups. There are companies that sell home defense systems. There are guns, locks, and guard dogs. In other words, there are already plenty of market mechanisms in place to prevent bad behavior. I will go into much more detail later on, but for now, the point is that the state is not the only thing that gets in the way of bad people doing nefarious things.

On a more theoretical level, the objection breaks down even further. Let me quote Stefan Molyneaux:

“The first and most obvious problem with this position is that if evil people exist in society, they will also exist within the State and be far more dangerous thereby. Citizens are able to protect themselves against evil individuals, but stand no chance against an aggressive State armed to the teeth with police and military might. Thus the argument that we need the State because evil people exist is false. If evil people exist, the State must be dismantled, since evil people will be drawn to use its power for their own ends and, unlike private thugs, evil people in government have the police and military to inflict their whims on a helpless (and usually disarmed!) population.”

In other words, the existence of immoral individuals provides a stronger argument against the state than against anarchy. One could make the argument that a state can provide checks and balances to prevent these kinds of abuses of power, but taking a quick look around at the world (and perhaps reading the next section) should make it obvious that this is no solution at all.

A more rational system can evolve to handle the evildoers without any change in human nature.


How Do States Fare In Defense/Justice?

Status quo bias causes people to support the current system. But it doesn’t take much analysis to conclude that the current system is horribly broken.

States And “National Defense”

People often wonder how a stateless society could defend itself. But realistically, how effective are states at protecting their citizens from foreign governments? To anyone who is honest about the facts, the answer is “not very.”

Any system of collective defense can only be considered good or successful if it is used primarily defensively (not for aggressive purposes or invasions), is applied consistently and effectively, and is done for a reasonable cost. State-based national defense fails on each of these grounds.

States have a natural tendency towards aggressive war, certainly as compared to organizations that exist under anarchy. States acquire their funding via taxation (aka theft), so those who make the decisions regarding war and peace are NOT the same people who are paying for it. In economic terms, the costs of aggression have been externalized – which implies a strong tendency towards aggressive war. Companies operating under freed markets do not have this issue – if a private company wants to invade another country, they need to pay the costs of this themselves (note that this is true with freed markets, but not the current “crony-capitalist” system we live under today). In addition, wars tend to help politicians accumulate power and silence critics, providing a built-in incentive to create enemies.

Some Americans may respond that their government isn’t aggressive. Given the propaganda we are constantly subject to, it is understandable that some people might think this. Allow me to quote myself from a recent article about the evils of war:

“In fact, most Americans are likely unaware of how militarily aggressive their government truly is. Since America’s founding, there have been hundreds of instances of military use in foreign lands. There are only a handful of years throughout American history where America has not been at war abroad.

In addition, William Blum counts at least 55 instances since World War 2 where the United States has attempted to overthrow a foreign government (often a democratically elected one), many times successfully.”

This aggressive foreign policy is also inconsistent. Why else would the US government be vociferously backing neo-Nazis in Ukraine? Or arming al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria, Libya, and across the globe? States can do these things, but the incentives to behave in such ridiculous ways simply does not exist under anarchy.

And this destructive behavior doesn’t come cheaply, either. The Pentagon has spent $8.5 trillion since 1996, but nobody has a clue what this money has been spent on. They’ve illegally avoided an audit for that entire time, at least in part because they’ve been cooking the books and due to repeated boondoggles:

“In one example, the DLA had stockpiled 15,000 Humvee front suspensions as of 2008, which is the equivalent of a 14-year supply. Yet somehow between 2010-2012, defying both logic and prudence entirely, the agency purchased 7,437 more of those same parts—at significantly higher cost than those already gathering dust on warehouse shelves—at a time when demand had been cut in half.

As of September 2012, the DLA and military had already ordered $733 million in duplicates of existing supernumerary supplies, which was a 21% increase from the $609 million it spent on the same asinine duplication the previous year. All this stuff makes a comprehensive inventory impossible, and a worker in the DLA’s largest warehouse explained there is no system for verifying that items are stored correctly or even to track or estimate how much is lost to employee theft.”

The Department of Defense’s budget in 2014 was $581 billion, more than the next ten military spenders combined, and a full one-third of the amount spent on defense worldwide. And many war hawks claim that “budget cuts” are gutting the military, which is simply absurd.

The reality is that in a state-based system of “defense,” the citizens will always lose. The only things being defended under the current monopoly-defense system are politicians lustful for power and the war profiteers.

States And “Justice”

It would be a cruel joke to claim that the justice system in America “works.”

Unfortunately, it would be impossible for me to document here all the ways in which justice is sorely lacking under our current system, so I will have to be satisfied with merely painting a brief picture of the issues. To anyone who has been paying any attention at all, this section should be unnecessary. Nevertheless, many of the same people who point out the flaws of our current justice system object to anarchy because they think justice will be distributed “unfairly.”

Naturally, any decent and functioning justice system should catch as many bad guys as possible, while leaving the innocent spared. But in America, 86% of those in the Federal prison population are incarcerated for victimless crimes. These millions of individuals are victims themselves, not criminals, and so the justice system is clearly a failure so long as victimless crimes are being prosecuted. Here are some more statistics from that article (emphasis in original):

“In 2008, according to the Department of Justice, there were 7,308,200 persons in the US corrections system, of whom 4,270,917 were on probation, 828,169 were on parole, 785,556 were in jails, and 1,518,559 were in state and federal prisons.  This means that the U.S. alone is responsible for holding roughly 15% of all the prisoners in the world.

In other words, 1 in 42 Americans is under correctional supervision.  This constitutes over 2% of the entire U.S. population.  That percentage jumps up drastically if we limit the comparison to working aged adult males, of which there are around 100 million.  Over 5% of the adult male population is under some form of correctional supervision, alternatively stated, 1 in 20 adult males are under correctional supervision in the U.S.”

No reasonable person can believe that a full 5% of the adult male population of the US are violent criminals or deserve to be under correctional supervision.

But even ignoring victimless crimes (and the actual violent crimes that the government commits by prosecuting them), there are many innocent people currently locked up. According to the Innocence Project, between 2.3% and 5% of the prison population is innocent (or up to 100,000 individuals). Many of these people are executed, and many more will be. And according to some of the boobs in the Supreme Court, innocence is not a sufficient precondition for being exonerated!

This should be terrifying to everyone, particularly in light of the many ways that the justice system is stacked against the defendant. For instance, the FBI recently was forced to admit that all their forensic experts falsified hair evidence in every trial for over 20 years for the benefit of prosecutors. This led to 32 individuals being sentenced to death, 14 of whom have already been executed. In fact, many state crime labs are incentivized to produce results that would lead to a guilty verdict – an absolute perversion of justice. There are many reasons why the justice system is heavily stacked in favor of prosecutors, and malicious prosecutors are almost never held accountable (prosecutors win 95% of cases, 90% of those without ever going to trial).

And what about the police? Turns out they like to abuse their power too, from faking 911 calls in order to conduct illegal warrantless searches on homes to disappearing individuals and then torturing them into making false confessions at illegal black sites. The law has provided these same police with “qualified immunity” – in effect, a license to kill. And they’ve taken advantage of it, slaughtering literally thousands of individuals without consequence; only 54 police officers have been charged since 2005, most of whom were cleared or acquitted.

And police aren’t even required to help civilians, a fact they take full advantage of. For instance, Seattle police have been allowing car break-ins to occur, even when a citizen found the culprit himself. And as we saw in Ferguson, Baltimore, and surely soon to be more locations, the police aggressively work against peaceful protesters while letting violent rioters go unmolested as they destroy innocent peoples’ property. Hell, police dogs have a higher status than civilians in America.

So, how much has this top-notch protection been costing Americans? That depends on whether you count civil asset forfeiture, the practice by which cops and prosecutors can legally seize a person’s assets without even being charged with a crime. Apparently, your cash and your car are guilty of dealing drugs, even when you aren’t. According to the Institute for Justice, these state-sanctioned armed robberies are costing Americans hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and 80 percent of those who are victimized aren’t even charged with a crime. Some of this money is going towards paying off police officers’ student loans, and buying others drugs and prostitutes. And naturally, this creates a strong incentive for police departments to go after innocent drug users rather than legitimate criminals.

But what if you don’t count these highway robberies, but only the normal costs of policing and “justice”? The states and the Federal government spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010, and it costs $30,000 per year to house an inmate. As a point of comparison, the median household income in 2013 was just $52,250.

If we are comparing the existing system to a possible anarchist system, the bar is being set quite low. As skeptical as you may be about justice under anarchy, it really doesn’t need to do much to improve upon the current system.


Transitioning To A Stateless Society

When it comes to discussions regarding how security will be provided in a stateless society, a highly relevant but often overlooked factor is how exactly anarchy comes about. This has serious implications for the feasibility of the new system.

Most of those who are not anarchists are stuck in a mental framework of living in a world dominated by states, and this makes stateless security seem far-fetched. As with most of the other reasons why people are skeptical of anarchy, this is completely understandable.

But if anarchy is to come about, an ideological and cultural change will most likely be necessary. While there may be some that I’m unfamiliar with, I know of no anarchist who would claim otherwise. A critical mass of anarchists would need to exist – in this writer’s opinion, that would be somewhere between 1% and 5% of the population of a given area. And a large segment of the population will need to stop looking to the state to solve all their problems, even if they are not anarchists per se.

When a statist imagines an anarchic system, they are usually imagining what would happen if, right now, the state simply evaporated. Of course, this is nonsensical. People are still clamoring for political rulers, so if a particular government collapsed, the state as an institution would continue to exist. If anarchy is to occur, it is likely to be a more gradual development, developing over months or years as opposed to days. Technological advances will continue to make the state more and more obviously superfluous, so that ultimately it will just wither away. Institutions will arise parallel to the state, not just after the state ends.

I will not argue here for why I am optimistic that anarchy will ultimately win out. But our discussion of how anarchy could work is not predicated on any kind of optimism. One can think that the likelihood of anarchy ultimately winning out in human society is highly improbable yet still understand that if it did arise, it would work. This is crucial – no matter how implausible you may think it is that anarchy will actually become the way of the world, it has no bearing on any of the arguments presented in this article.

Ideology and culture are important factors in the ultimate success of a stateless society. And anarchists realize that for statelessness to be successful, anarchist ideals will need to become more prevalent. Statists will reason that if anarchy were truly a superior system, then it would already exist (in a certain sense, it already does exist, in that there is still political anarchy, but I digress). But this ignores the role of ideology – and the numerous historical cases of anarchy or quasi-anarchy that have existed, which will be discussed later.

The Will To Be Free

How exactly does ideology fit into the picture? The most obvious way is that anarchists will refuse to support individuals that comprise potential ruling classes that desire to form a new state. In other words, there will be far more individuals who are not clamoring to invite a new ruling class into power and surrender their rights. States can never maintain their power through brute force alone; to a large extent, the subjects themselves will need to accept the state’s legitimacy for it to be able to rule.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel summarizes well the argument I’ve provided thus far:

“The territory constituting the United States is in a very real sense already conquered—by the United States government. Only when Americans have liberated themselves from that conqueror will they have effectively denationalized defense. In other words, the policy question—Can private alternatives provide more effective protection from foreign aggressors?—and the strategic question—Can any people mobilize the ideological muscle to smash the state?—are intimately intertwined.

…although it makes good sense to try to imagine what society would look like if minimum wages were repealed without any other change, it makes far less sense to imagine what society would look like if government were abolished—and especially to ask how such a stateless society might protect itself—without any other change. By the very act of overthrowing the domestic government, whether peacefully or forcibly, the former subjects will have forged powerful tools for protecting themselves from foreign governments. The same social consensus, the same institutions, and the same ideological imperatives that had gained them liberation from their own state would be automatically in place to defend against any other states that tried to fill the vacuum.”

Consider that military conquerors routinely use existing local government structures in order to maintain control of the subject population. These structures are already viewed as legitimate, unlike the far-away conquerors. Hummel writes:

“The effective dominance of would-be conquerors who possess military superiority but face the implacable hostility of an ideologically united population is more problematic. The English hold on Ireland was, owing to this factor, always tenuous, and one can find similar instances into the modern era. Cultural coherence is another advantage that hunter gatherers and primitive agriculturists sometimes possessed in their struggles with more centralized societies. Contrast Spain’s fairly rapid conquest of the Indians of Central and South America, already habituated to indigenous state rule, with the much more drawn out European campaigns against the North American Indians, who were slowly expropriated, expelled, and exterminated over several centuries but never really fully subjugated until the twentieth.”

In other words, a people who have an ideological appreciation for statelessness are going to be far more difficult for an existing state to subdue than is common in more modern warfare (consider how quickly the Nazis took over and subdued multiple European countries).

Hummel mentions another advantage that stateless societies would possess while defending themselves:

“Posing no threat of conquest themselves, they could tap into the sympathies of a foreign ruler’s subjects better than any other opponent such rulers might take on. Would-be conquerors could find their own legitimization seriously compromised. Just as the American Revolution sent forth sparks that helped to ignite revolutionary conflagrations in many other countries, a vibrant economy free from all government would arouse such admiration and emulation that it would surely tend to expand. In short, a future stateless society would have the best prospects of enjoying beneficial ideological dynamics, both internally and externally.”

To sum up, any feasible stateless society would be far more difficult to conquer than what people imagine today.


Anarchy – An Unknown Ideal?

Before diving into the mechanics of how an anarchic society can provide security and legal order, I want to emphasize the fact that anarchistic and quasi-anarchistic societies have in fact existed and thrived. If you think that without government, it would be impossible to settle interpersonal disputes and survive in a world of states, consider the many historical instances to the contrary.

Statelessness seems to have been a feature of many primitive societies, where

“…the costs of violence and the benefits of order in primitive societies were enough to induce the establishment of recognized rules of conduct with emphasis on individual rights and private property-that is, the type of laws necessary for maintenance of a free market system in more complex societies. Furthermore, voluntary participatory mechanisms to enforce those rules, to adjudicate disputes, and…to allow for further legal growth, also developed.”

Furthermore, according to a scholar of primitive societies, E. Adamson Hoebel:

“The community group, although it may be ethnologically a segment of a tribe is autonomous and independent. There is no tribal state. Leadership resides in family or local group headmen who have little coercive authority and are hence lacking both means to exploit and the means to judge…They are not explicitly elected to office; rather, they lead by the tacit consent of their followers, and they lose their leadership when their people begin no longer to accept their suggestions. . . . As it is, their leadership is confined to action in routine matters. The patriarchal tyrant of the primitive horde is nothing but a figment of nineteenth century speculation. The simplest primitive societies are democratic to the point of near-anarchy. But primitive anarchy does not mean disorder. Anarchv as synonymous with disorder occurs only temporarily in complex societies when in a social cataclysm the regulating restraints of government and law are suddenly and disastrously removed.’”

None of the following cases are a perfect description of what I would consider a modern-day anarchy to be. Most are fairly old, and it can be difficult to extrapolate legal insights from societies that existed hundreds of years ago. My intent in this section isn’t to say “look at these successful anarchist societies that we should emulate,” but rather that other societies have dealt with the problems of security without resorting to the state, so it should be plausible that contemporary or future societies can as well.

Anarchy In America

The continent of North America has seen a number of historical instances of anarchic legal institutions, where justice is provided without government.

Many of the Native American tribes in North America relied on a customary legal system rather than law defined by states. Notable examples are the Yurok and Comanche tribes, whose legal systems were described by Bruce Benson:

“Few Indian groups had any sort of strong central legal authority before Europeans began to exert various types of influence on the evolution of Indian law. This does not mean that there was no law, however. Evolving unwritten social contracts among Indian groups had produced well-developed legal systems based on customary rules of conduct which emphasized individual rights and private property. Adjudication procedures were in place to solve disputes without violence. No state-like centralized authority applied sanctions, but sanctions were applied, primarily in the form of economic restitution. These sanctions were enforceable because of reciprocal arrangements between individuals for recognition of law, support of judgments, and community wide ostracism.

These features [of Native American legal systems] are: (1) rules of conduct which emphasized a predominant concern for individual rights and private property; (2) the responsibility of law enforcement falling to the victim backed by reciprocal arrangements for protection and support when a dispute arose; (3) standard adjudicative procedures established in order to avoid violent forms of dispute resolution; (4) offenses treated as torts punishable by economic payments in restitution; (5) strong incentives to yield to prescribed punishment when guilty of an offense due to the reciprocally established threat of social ostracism which led to physical retribution; and (6) legal change arising through an evolutionary process of developing customs and norms.”

The colony of Pennsylvania had a brief stint of anarchy between 1684 and 1688. During this period, there was technically a government; it just never did anything. The governing council didn’t meet and taxes weren’t collected. Murray Rothbard explains:

“If for most of 1684-88 there was no colonywide government in existence, what of the local officials? Were they not around to provide that evidence of the state’s continued existence, which so many people through the ages have deemed vital to man’s very survival? The answer is no. The lower courts met only a few days a year, and the county officials were, again, private citizens who devoted very little time to upholding the law. No, the reality must be faced that the new, but rather large, colony of Pennsylvania lived for the greater part of four years in a de facto condition of individual anarchism, and seemed none the worse for the experience. Furthermore, the Assembly passed no laws after 1686, as it was involved in a continual wrangle over attempts to increase its powers and to amend, rather than just reject, legislation.”

Another example of a legal order arising without a central government is that of the so-called “wild, wild West,” which was nowhere near as chaotic as popular culture makes it out to be. Terry Anderson and PJ Hill studied this period and concluded:

“The West during this time often is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life. Our research indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed. Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved. These agencies often did not qualify as governments because they did not have a legal monopoly on “keeping order.” They soon discovered that “warfare” was a costly way of resolving disputes and lower cost methods of settlement (arbitration, courts, etc.) resulted.”

Numerous kinds of organizations arose to deal with disputes among individuals. Land clubs allowed property rights to be established in areas that the federal government had yet to survey; cattlemen’s associations enforced property rights in areas with large amounts of cattle but lacking in government police; mining camps helped establish the rules for adjudicating mining claims without lawyers; and wagon trains provided means of enforcement for those who were traveling West and had left the federal government’s jurisdiction.

These associations were all voluntary, allowed a variety of legal systems to flourish in parallel to each other, and resolved disputes in ways that minimized the risk of violence (the West seemed to have far lower homicide rates under these arrangements than when government police were present). Individuals who wanted to leave an existing group and start a new one could do so at will – unlike with governments.

Anarchy In Asia

In Western New Guinea, the Kapauku people maintained a form of legal order without government or a central coercive power. The legal system involved establishing reciprocal relationships with a tonowi, who was a respected person within the community. Bruce Benson describes the arrangement:

“Each individual in the society could choose to contract with any available tonowi (availability generally involved kinship). Typically, followers became debtors to a tonowi in exchange for agreeing to perform certain duties in support of the tonowi. The followers got much more than a loan, however: “The expectation of future favors and advantages is probably the most potent motivation for most of the headman’s followers…. Even individuals from neighboring confederations may yield to the wishes of a tonowi in case his help may be needed in the future.” Thus, tonowi leadership was given, not taken, and reflected to a great extent an ability to “persuade the unit to support a man in a dispute or to fight for his cause.” Thus, this position of leadership was achieved through reciprocal exchange of support between a tonowi and his followers, support that could be freely withdrawn by either party (e.g., upon payment of debt or demand for repayment). The informality and contractual characteristics of Kapauku leadership led many Western observers to conclude that Kapauku society lacked law, but there is clear evidence that law was recognized, and that processes for adjudication and change existed in the Kapauku’s legal system.”

From this basis, a complex legal system allowed the Kapauku to maintain peace with each other, and allowed for changes in the law as needed.

In addition, the people living in the highlands of Southeast Asia (called Zomia) had a stateless society that survived for an extended period of time. Parts of India, Burma, China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia chose to remain out of reach of state control for thousands of years. Today, many in this region have been absorbed into existing states, but there are still many who remain outside of state control (an estimated 80-100 million people live in this region).

The people of Zomia engaged in intentional behaviors to avoid becoming subject to states, as Edward Stringham and Caleb Miles show.

“The Zomia have chosen to live and conduct economic activity in places that have been difficult for states to control or tax. Zomian peoples have organized their agriculture so that their crops cannot easily be confiscated or measured. They have also adopted religions and ideologies that make them resistant to control by external or internally grown states.”

Perhaps we can learn from them!

Anarchy In Europe

Europe has also seen numerous experiments in anarchy.

Let’s take medieval Iceland for starters. Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, Iceland had a system of private law that is quite interesting. David Friedman explains:

“Killing was a civil offense resulting in a fine paid to the survivors of the victim. Laws were made by a “parliament,” seats in which were a marketable commodity. Enforcement of law was entirely a private affair. And yet these extraordinary institutions survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one. Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.”

The Icelandic system managed to solve some of the common problems that statists instinctively think of when they try to picture what anarchy would look like. For instance:

“One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right – the right to be reimbursed by the criminal and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.”

On the other hand, some complain that those who lose in court would simply refuse to pay up. But that can be addressed as well:

“A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.”

In a later section sketching out possible ways anarchist law could work, the insights from the Icelandic system will come in handy.

Another anarchic justice system was that which prevailed in medieval Celtic Ireland for nearly 1000 years. Joseph Peden studied this system and concluded:

“My survey of the literature indicates that (1) private ownership of property played a crucial and essential role in the legal and social’ institutions of ancient Irish society; (2) that the Irish law as developed by the professional jurists – the brehons – outside the institutions of the State, was able to evolve an extremely sophisticated and flexible legal response to changing social and cultural conditions while preserving principles of equity and the protection of property rights; (3) that this flexibility and development can be best seen in the development of the legal capacity and rights of women and in the role of the Church in assimilating to native Irish institutions and law; (4) that the English invasion, conquest and colonization in Ireland resulted in the gradual imposition of English feudal concepts and common law which were incompatible with the principles of Irish law, and resulted in the wholesale destruction of the property rights of the Irish Church and the Irish people.”

The legal status of women was particularly noteworthy; they were centuries ahead of the English in this respect. Women could own property, initiate divorces, and make contracts. Many types of sexual relationships were legally permitted and protected – and in some cases, men were entirely responsible for the support of children.

Other European areas have also experienced anarchy, including the region called Moresnet between Prussia and The Netherlands, which was a disputed territory after the Napoleonic Wars. The people of this small town lived in peace and prosperity, unmolested by nearby states, and with a market for legal recourse, from 1816 until World War 1, when it was absorbed into Belgium.

The final example I will mention here is the tiny Republic of Cospaia, which survived for nearly 400 years as an enclave in central Italy that was free from government. The denizens of Cospaia prospered, largely because there were no taxes. Despite having no government, there is no indication that the people of Cospaia had to contend with violence or a breakdown of society.

Modern Somalia

“Why don’t you move to Somalia?” is one of the most common things I hear when I tell people that I am an anarchist. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about this region, but I have already written an extensive article on what anarchists can learn from Somalia.

I’ll let you read that post if you want all the details, but here’s the short version. Many people are surprised (or refuse to believe) that Somalia has actually seen dramatic improvements since the loss of central government in 1991 in a large number of development indicators, even relative to its neighbors that do have states. This is largely because of the Xeer, the traditional clan-based legal system that has existed in Somalia since the 7th century, and doesn’t involve the state at all:

“The Xeer outlaws homicide, assault, torture, battery, rape, accidental wounding, kidnapping, abduction, robbery, burglary, theft, arson, extortion, fraud, and property damage (Van Notten 2005:49). The legal system focuses on the restitution of victims, not the punishment of criminals. For violations of the law, maximum payments to compensate victims are specified in camels (payment can be made in equivalent monetary value). Typical compensation to the family of a murder victim is 100 camels for a man and 50 for a woman; an animal thief usually must return two animals for every one he stole.”

There’s a lot more to it, of course. For those of you who are interested in exploring the subject of Somalia in more detail, I strongly suggest you read the article linked above.


Security Against Crime: Law In An Anarchist Society

We have already dealt with many of the objections that you may have with regards to the provision of law in a free society, but most people still will have a difficult time visualizing how anarchy would work when dealing with criminals.

Certainly, we anarchists are not utopians, and we acknowledge that there will still be criminals, whether the state exists or not. The question then becomes: how does society deal with them?

I intend to answer that question in this section. As mentioned before, this is just a sketch of ways that criminality can be addressed under anarchy. I’m sure that legal entrepreneurs will come up with far more innovative solutions than I am including here, but I hope to help you recognize that the problems of justice in a free society are solvable.

Polycentric Law – How Does Law Evolve?

Most people think of “the” law as specifically the rules created by the state that they live under, and that law is created because the government says so. The law is legislated, or in other words, the law is “made.”

But we can also think of law as being something that is “found” – and in fact, this is far superior to the reigning paradigm. Law should be thought of as principles to be discovered by judges, not just whatever legislators want. The law is decentralized, since no single body determines all the rules of conduct. Because of this decentralization, multiple types of law can coexist in what we’d call a polycentric legal order.

In a sense, we already live under polycentric law. Consider the competition among governments and their respective legal systems, and the rules of homeowners’ associations, clubs, religions, and employment. Consider the rules you must abide by to live in a residential co-op, to buy or sell goods in a mall, and even the cultural norms that we abide by.

Norms are discovered, and written and unwritten rules are developed as a consequence, because of the natural process of human action. But when the law is monopolized by the state, the natural process of the discovery of law is destroyed. True law is formed in a bottom-up process rather than the top-down way of our current system.

There are quite a few arguments for a more decentralized evolution of law than the centralized method of legislation. Most fundamentally, polycentric law provides far more certainty than a legislative system, although that may seem paradoxical at first. But since the legislature has the ability to change the law from day to day, the system creates uncertainty with regards to what rules will apply tomorrow. Stephan Kinsella explains:

“First, judges can only make decisions when asked to do so by the parties concerned. Second, the judge’s decision is less far-reaching than legislation because it primarily affects the parties to the dispute, and only occasionally affects third parties or others with no connection to the parties involved…Third, a judge’s discretion is further limited by the necessity of referring to similar precedents.”

Legislation can override agreements that have already been voluntarily accepted, which, in the long run, makes it difficult to rely on any existing conventions or to keep the agreements that have already been made. If the rules are likely to change, then it makes it more difficult to trust the rules.

When rules are less trustworthy, the future becomes more unpredictable than it otherwise would be. Future goods, actions, and expectations become less likely to occur due to this unpredictability. The result is that people further shift their preferences away from future goods and more towards present goods. This makes everyone poorer, since it is saving (delaying gratification) that builds wealth. Not only that, it increases the amount of crime.

“As a person becomes more present-oriented, immediate (criminal) gratifications become relatively more attractive, and future, uncertain punishment becomes less of a disincentive. Thus many people on the margin — those who are just deterred from committing crimes by the threat of possible future punishment under normal time-preference conditions in a free society — will not be deterred from committing crimes in a society with legislation and its concomitant increase in time preference. In other words, there are individuals today who are committing violent crimes solely because of the increased uncertainty in society caused by the existence of legislation. Further, when the increased uncertainty tends to impoverish us by shortening the structure of production, more people are poor and impoverished, which also tends to increase the amount of crime in society.”

Legislation also suffers from a knowledge problem, similar to all forms of central planning.

“A crucial reason for the systematic ignorance of central planners and legislators alike is “the decentralized, fragmentary character of knowledge.” This makes central planners and central law-makers systematically unable to ever have enough knowledge to make informed decisions that affect entire economic or legal systems. Moreover, not only is a central planner “unable” to gather information only present in a dynamic price structure, but the attempt to plan actually destroys the price structure because the private property system at the base of a price structure is outlawed. Similarly, not only does a legislator face a severe ignorance problem — he could never hope to have a comprehensive and continually updated view of all the interactions, rules, relationships, and customs that exist among the people — he also subverts the very spontaneous legal order that would form in the absence of legislative interference.”

The end result is law that is simply worse.

“…legislators, even if they wanted to enact rules that truly take into account the actual situation, customs, expectations, and practices of individuals, simply can never collect enough information about the near-infinite variety of human interactions. The legislator, like a communist central planner, can only grope in the dark. And unlike a blind man who literally has to grope in the dark but at least knows when he has finally run into a wall or found the door, the legislator (or central planner) have no reliable guide for knowing whether they have constructed the “right” law (or economic allocation) or not. Further, not only can legislators not know the actual situation of the individuals they intend to cast their legislative net over, but they cannot predict the often far-reaching effects of legislation. Legislation routinely has unintended consequences, a fact that cannot be gotten around since it is necessitated by the systematic ignorance that legislators face.”

Decentralized, polycentric law gets around this problem. Cases can and will be reviewed by peers, and market actors can determine whether they agree or not. It’s a natural form of checks and balances.

It also reduces the impact of special interests on the legislative process. When law is discovered by judges, the scope of a decision is far smaller, and special interests have vastly less to gain from manipulating the process.

This is not to say that there won’t be any mistakes made in rulings by judges under a polycentric legal order. Of course there will. But if all the courts are private and competing, there is at least a real incentive to have the rules improved. Legislators have no such incentive, and don’t really provide a solution to the possibility of judges making mistakes.

“Another problem with urging legislation as a solution to common law gone astray, is that this assumes that the legislature can be convinced to make the correct legal reform. First, this is a very dubious assumption, especially given the special interest lobbying that legislators face, and also given the fact that legislators tend to be people who are interested in power rather than philosopher-kings who want to do the right thing. Second, if a proponent of legislation assumes that reasonable and humane legislators can see the light of reason and correctly reform the law, why is it not at least as likely that judges can be persuaded as well?”

Clearly, polycentric law is far superior to what governments have to offer.

Okay, But What Would Law Actually Look Like Under Anarchy?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the merits of polycentric law, but it can still be difficult to picture how this would play out in real life. By its very nature, I couldn’t tell you how it would look with certainty, but I can at least sketch out some possibilities.

Needless to say, there will need to be some kind of organization tasked with resolving disputes. A natural candidate for this kind of organization would be an insurance company – in this case, you are insuring yourself and your property from crime.

Not everything can be insured; if you have partial or total control over that risk, then insurance is not a viable business model. For instance, I cannot insure myself against committing suicide, or not wanting to get up in the morning. As such, insurance companies would only insure you against unprovoked crime, and would therefore regulate certain behaviors that would provoke others in order to contract with them. This implies that known aggressors would be unable to procure insurance, and those who wanted more insurance would need to conform to certain non-aggressive norms (for instance, the policy would stipulate that you cannot steal from others). They would likely also subsidize any means of increasing their clients’ security, either by lowering premiums or just supplying them outright. For instance, insurers may want to subsidize alarm systems, more advanced locks or access systems, fences, guard dogs, armored vehicles, mace, rape whistles, self-defense training and education, and handguns. Perhaps they would aid in the creation of neighborhood watch groups. It is in the insurers’ interest to make clients as secure as possible in order to reduce the number of claims they will need to pay out.

You can also think about crime insurers under anarchy as “cosigners” for one’s agreements. In other words, they act as a guarantor of their clientele’s contracts, with the premium charged being a reflection of the risk that a particular client may get into costly disputes with others.

Because different insurance companies would be competing, different sets of norms would be available. In other words, people would get to choose the type of rules they submit themselves to. There could be all kinds of firms with different types of laws: religious laws, hippy laws, or bro codes. This should drastically reduce conflict in and of itself, since people aren’t forced to live under rules that were imposed upon them, and they are fully aware of the rules at the outset. Compare this with government law, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe wittily does (emphasis mine):

“The state, as ultimate decision-maker and judge, operates in a contract-less legal vacuum. There exists no contract between the state and its citizens. It is not contractually fixed, what is actually owned by whom, and what, accordingly, is to be protected. It is not fixed, what service the state is to provide, what is to happen if the state fails in its duty, nor what the price is that the “customer” of such “service” must pay. Rather, the state unilaterally fixes the rules of the game and can change them, per legislation, during the game. Obviously, such behavior is inconceivable for freely financed security providers. Just imagine a security provider, whether police, insurer or arbitrator, whose offer consisted in something like this: I will not contractually guarantee you anything. I will not tell you what specific things I will regard as your to-be-protected property, nor will I tell you what I oblige myself to do if, according to your opinion, I do not fulfill my service to you but in any case, I reserve the right to unilaterally determine the price that you must pay me for such undefined service. Any such security provider would immediately disappear from the market due to a complete lack of customers.”

Things get only slightly more complicated when you consider conflicts that occur between people living under different legal codes. Insurance companies will establish certain procedures for how they handle this kind of situation, quite likely involving arbitration from a third party. These procedures will tend toward standardization, since it makes it so that insurers can interact with each other as efficiently as possible, just as different banks, credit cards, and merchants have standardized themselves to become highly interoperable. And of course, these procedures would be specified in advance in any insurance policy.

Arbiters would be chosen largely based on their reputation for fairness. The whole point of arbitration is to find a peaceful resolution to interpersonal disputes, and this requires a point of agreement regarding the procedure for resolving the conflict. For each party to the dispute, proposing an arbiter biased in their favor does nothing to reach this point of agreement; if they weren’t interested in a peaceful resolution, they could simply fight, rather than try hiring a biased or corrupt arbiter. In other words, both parties have an interest in using an arbiter that is generally seen by society as fair and impartial.

This perception of fairness is the most important asset of any arbitration agency – if they develop a reputation as unfair or corrupt, they will quickly lose business. Nevertheless, it’s certainly plausible that one or more parties in a dispute will find the judge’s verdict unfair. But the arbiter can at least aim to render a verdict (and explain their reasoning) in a way that seems fair to as many third parties as possible. This is imperfect, for sure, but compare it to law under government, where even highly corrupt/unfair/inefficient judges are shielded from market competition.

If you are a party to a dispute and refuse arbitration, your protection agency, as well as most others, will likely perceive this as evidence that you are in the wrong. Those who refuse, therefore, are unlikely to continue receiving protection. Similarly, if you accept arbitration but then refuse to abide by the ruling, you will be left to fend for yourself. You may be added to blacklists or have your “crime score” (analogous to a credit score) raised, and people will refuse to do business with you, or at least charge a high premium for it.

Catching And Punishing Criminals

This is all well and good for contract disputes and other instances where both the plaintiff and the defendant are known ahead of time. But what about instances of crime where the criminal has escaped? Someone will need to investigate the crime and catch the bad guy, but without government police, who will be responsible?

The insurer/protection agencies can fulfill this function as well. Perhaps the insurer has their own detective division, or perhaps they contract out with a private police agency to conduct the forensic work necessary – the exact setup will of course depend on how entrepreneurs and consumers act. On the subject of policing in a stateless society, Edward Stringham writes:

“There are many cases of private law enforcement, one of the most common can be seen at institutions of higher learning. Although private security officers and dean’s offices differ greatly from their bureaucratic counterparts, they nevertheless perform the job supposedly only government police and courts are capable. Many other entities also produce a safe atmosphere in a similar manner: shopping malls, amusement parks, resorts, and private housing developments are cases in point. Just because they are not as ostentatious as the state does not mean that they are not providing protection. These institutions show that not only is the notion of private security possible, but that it is widespread.”

(Look how elegantly the market can solve the “market failure” of so-called “public goods.” Take the example of homeowners’ associations (HOA), which I predict would be common under anarchy. They are quite capable of providing security without the need for a government; in fact, they have several significant advantages. For one thing, HOAs are non-coercive institutions where all of the members have agreed to abide by their terms, in distinct contrast to government. Members of an HOA are almost certain to have more influence over its policies than they would over their government’s policies, particularly due to their smaller size and the shared community. Finally, competition between HOAs is far more significant than that of governments, even local ones.)

Let’s say someone robs you of $10,000. Your crime insurance policy stipulates that in the case of theft, you will be reimbursed for, say, 1.25 times the value of what was stolen (a little something extra for mental anguish, perhaps). You, the victim, are immediately reimbursed and made whole again, and in exchange, your insurer now has the rights to pursue the criminal and recover damages from them. Today, victims of crime don’t get their money back or any kind of compensation.

If the insurer catches the alleged criminal, then there can be a trial to determine whether they are guilty. If the arbitrator finds them guilty, what happens then?

Most likely, the guilty party will be required to pay the protection agency a fine, which could be based off the insurance payout, plus the cost of pursuing and apprehending the criminal. (As an aside, this would create an incentive for criminals to immediately turn themselves in, since the cost of apprehending them, and thus the cost of being found guilty, will increase otherwise.) In other words, the criminal would owe the insurer $X.

As mentioned in the previous section, the guilty party has very strong incentives to accept the terms of the arbiter peacefully. To not do so would result in social ostracism that is likely at least as damaging as the fine. An obvious issue at this point is: what if the criminal can’t pay up?

An institution analogous to a prison can fulfill this role under anarchy. I describe in detail how private prisons could work under anarchy as well as major issues with our current prison system here, but I’ll let Robert Murphy explain:

“But where would these ne’er-do-wells be taken, once they were brought into “custody”? Specialized firms would develop, offering high-security analogs to the current jailhouse. However, the “jails” in market anarchy would compete with each other to attract criminals.

Consider: No insurance company would vouch for a serial killer if he applied for a job at the local library, but they would deal with him if he agreed to live in a secure building under close scrutiny. The insurance company would make sure that the “jail” that held him was well-run. After all, if the person escaped and killed again, the insurance company would be held liable, since it pledges to make good on any damages its clients commit.

On the other hand, there would be no undue cruelty for the prisoners in such a system. Although they would have no chance of escape (unlike government prisons), they wouldn’t be beaten by sadistic guards. If they were, they’d simply switch to a different jail, just as travelers can switch hotels if they view the staff as discourteous. Again, the insurance company (which vouches for a violent person) doesn’t care which jail its client chooses, so long as its inspectors have determined that the jail will not let its client escape into the general population.”

This is worlds apart from our current system, where victims have the double-whammy of paying for the incarceration of criminals via taxation in addition to the loss from the crime itself. These “prisons” would still keep dangerous people “off the streets,” but unlike our current system, would actually have a shot at rehabilitating criminals by having them take responsibility for their actions. And the conditions would be vastly superior to the incredible abuse that you see in prisons today.

Some Common Objections And Responses

The above was just a rough sketch of how an anarchist society could provide law and order. But if you are reading this and not an anarchist, chances are you have some questions or issues regarding how this system would work. In this section, I’d like to address some of the most common ones. If you can think of one that isn’t included here, please leave a comment.

Won’t protection agencies go to war with each other?

By far the most common practical objection to anarchy is that there would be chaos, as marauding protection agencies battled it out with each other. The argument goes something like this: I am insured by protection agency A, and you are insured by protection agency B. We get into a dispute, and then our protection agencies go to war with each other. Multiply this by all of the disputes at any given time, and you have absolute chaos. A Hobbesian jungle.

Upon closer reflection, this objection has no legs. First of all, even if the above account were true, it is significant that populations living under states fall into civil war constantly. To use this as a justification for government, one would need to show that this kind of civil strife would be more common under anarchy than it is with states – no easy task.

After all, there are good reasons why we wouldn’t expect chaos and civil war between protection agencies. Most importantly, these protection agencies would own their own assets, whereas decision-makers in government do not. If two agencies were to go to war, both would suffer severe costs in money and manpower. Even the “winner” would lose quite a bit, and both would lose market share to any other protection agencies that are operating nearby. This is true regardless of the relative size and strength of the protection agencies. Robert Murphy elucidates this principle by asking a question about the American Civil War:

“In the 1860s, would large scale combat have broken out on anywhere near the same scale if, instead of the two factions controlling hundreds of thousands of conscripts, all military commanders had to hire voluntary mercenaries and pay them a market wage for their services?”

To ask the question is to answer it. When people are responsible for paying the cost of their actions, highly destructive behavior such as war becomes far less likely.

But there’s another reason why war breaking out between protection agencies is unlikely. The employees of security agencies can make their own decisions, and I suspect there are very few who would be willing to risk their lives in order to (potentially) increase their bosses’ profits. Most people are strongly opposed to and disgusted by the idea of murdering other members of society, and would agree that they want to settle their disputes peacefully and without resorting to violence. Were this not so, the point would be moot, as governments are hardly a solution to the problem of people wanting to murder each other.

Since people generally do not want to resort to violence,

“…why would we expect such virtuous people, as consumers, to patronize defense agencies that routinely used force against weak opponents?  Why wouldn’t the vast bulk of reasonable customers patronize defense agencies that had interlocking arbitration agreements, and submitted their legitimate disputes to reputable, disinterested arbitrators?”

Finally, if there were rogue protection agencies that decided to go to war, it would be in nearly everyone’s best interest to stop them. Banks could start freezing their assets. Utility companies could shut off their water and electricity. There would be market mechanisms to prevent the rogue agency from warring.

So long as arbitration is viewed as a cheaper way to resolve disputes than violence (and this will be true under almost all conditions), war between rival protection agencies is highly unlikely.

Wouldn’t these insurance agencies become states? Wouldn’t they collude and form a cartel?

Many people will read the above description of justice in a stateless society and dismiss it, claiming that the insurance or protection agencies would just be states. Often, this comes from the fallacious association people have in their minds between government and criminal justice – whatever organization that is mediating disputes is the government, in this view.

And if you would like to call it a government, or “competing governments,” or whatever you want, that’s fine. The semantics don’t really matter. That being said, there is one fundamental difference between government and the system described above: the role of coercion.

The key feature of states is that they have a monopoly on “legitimate” coercive authority within a given territory. In contrast, individuals can withdraw their support for their protection agency (which they voluntarily chose in the first place) and take their business elsewhere.

But what if an individual’s protection agency decided that they wanted to subjugate their current, paying clients? This is the kind of problem that would be very easy to anticipate, so individuals shopping around for crime insurance will only become clients if their contract has a stipulation regarding how disputes between the insurer and the insured are resolved that is favorable to them. Perhaps a particular arbiter is specified at the outset, or perhaps the arbiter will be of the client’s choosing. If the protection agency doesn’t heed this procedure, then they – just like the criminals discussed above – would become pariahs, and lose all their business and all their power.

Of course, this assumes that the protection agencies don’t form a cartel, backed by coercive violence, and thus bring the state in through the back door. But protection agencies forming a cartel is unlikely for the same reasons that they are unlikely to go to war against each other. Presumably, the reason to join a cartel is economic self-interest, so it is logically inconsistent to suggest that an agency will join a cartel but then engage in self-destructive behavior. The cartelized agencies are essentially in a prisoner’s dilemma with each other; the payoff to a given agency of reneging on an agreement to punish “outsider” agencies is higher than going along with it.

How would the poor get access to the legal system? What about the uninsured?

This problem should be negligible, since those who have less property also have less to insure, and thus would have lower premiums. And in the most extreme of edge cases, surely charity and pro bono work could help. It’s easy to envision arbiters doing some pro bono work for the poor in order to improve their reputation, which will help them get more paying clients. Contrast this with our governmental system, where legal fees price even middle-class people out of legal representation.

In any system, government or not, there will be a small segment that slips between the cracks, and doesn’t receive justice. Unfortunately, the only solution to this is for criminals to agree to stop committing crimes, and everyone else agreeing to stop getting into disputes.

A related objection is that some people don’t believe that justice is something people should need to pay for. But whether there is a government or not, justice has a cost, and it must be paid. I will dismiss this with a clever quote from Michael Huemer:

“If we decide that it is wrong to charge money for a vital service such as rights protection, whereas one can charge whatever one likes for inessential goods such as Twinkies and cell phones, then we will build a society with plenty of Twinkies, cell phones, and rights violations.”

Does this let people get whatever weapons they want, like nukes and assault weapons?

Some people think that we need government so that there aren’t random people building nuclear weapons in their basements. How would anarchy deal with things like weapons proliferation and gun control? A stateless society could handle this issue peacefully, and in a way that ought to satisfy both those in favor of gun rights and those who lean toward gun control.

Consider weapons from the standpoint of a crime insurance agency, which will need to pay a large sum to the estate of anyone whom their clients kill. One of the first things you’d want to know is what kind of heat they are packing, right?

Different insurers will handle the situation differently, and I’m sure a variety of policies will be available. But my bet is that someone who keeps assault rifles and sawed off shotguns in their house is more likely to hurt others, so insurance companies will either charge a significantly higher premium, or refuse to insure them entirely. Similarly, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an insurer who is willing to underwrite a policy for someone who is tinkering with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

This presents a beautiful solution to the gun control problem. Actuaries could determine the relative risk of people carrying certain types of weapons, and a rational, market-based approach would result. I cannot predict what the end result of this would be, but here’s my guess: most insurers would probably reduce a client’s premium if they own a handgun and verify that they have taken a gun safety course, since this will allow the client to defend themselves and reduce claims. Other weapons are likely to increase premiums, perhaps drastically. For those individuals who really want to own an assault rifle, no coercive force will be used to stop them – but the full force of society’s values will be used to discourage it.

What happens when the arbiters make incorrect judgments?

In any given case, there are two main ways that judges could make errors: letting a criminal go free, or proclaiming an innocent person guilty. Unfortunately, no one has yet devised a social system that can prevent these kinds of issues from occurring, but anarchy can help mitigate the effects of these errors.

Let’s say that an obvious murderer has been judged innocent. Today, it is completely feasible that someone widely viewed as guilty can be acquitted (think OJ Simpson). When this happens, the murderer gets away with it – no further punishment is meted out. Under anarchy, however, you can be quite sure that the murderer’s insurer will hike up their premiums for continued service, or refuse to do business with them entirely. Remember: the insurer is concerned about the likelihood that their client will be convicted of a crime in the future (and then need to pay damages), and someone who is generally recognized as a murderer would be considered a liability.

What about the wrongfully convicted? For starters, it defies imagination that a stateless society could wrongfully convict more people than America’s current “justice” system, particularly if you include all of the victimless “crimes” that innocent people are sent away to prison to rot for. No doubt, people will continue to be wrongfully convicted under anarchy. The difference is that someone will actually be responsible for it, and can be held accountable. If John is wrongfully convicted of murder, the protection agency that caught and prosecuted him could be brought to court for the damages they’ve done to him. This means that any insurer will want a high-confidence that they found the right guy, otherwise they may be on the hook for a lot of money. In addition, John has a legally enforceable right to this money, so he can offer to pay anyone who can find evidence proving his innocence (or his insurance agency can look for evidence as well). Under government, once a conviction happens, nobody has any reason to look for evidence of John’s innocence.

Clearly, this system is imperfect, as are all social systems. But it is equally clear that anarchy would handle mistakes of justice far better than government.


Security Against States: “National Defense” Under Anarchy

Having discussed how a stateless society could handle conflicts internally, we now come to another issue: how would a stateless society defend itself from attacks from foreign governments? After all, it is highly unlikely that all governments will disappear at once, so what is to stop a government from invading and taking over a region under anarchy?

It is critical to anarchist theory that this question be answered. After all, “national defense” is the prototypical “public good” – one in which non-payers cannot be excluded from enjoying its benefits, and use by one individual does not make it less available to others. According to this theory, a free market would be unable to provide for common security because of free riders – individuals who will not pay for protection because they know they can get it for free so long as others pay for it. It would be difficult for an army to say “we will protect house A from foreign aggression, but we will not protect house B.” Since everyone has the incentive to be a free rider, defense from foreign aggression will be under-produced on the market.

This view is fallacious. For one thing, all goods that tend to be considered public goods have been adequately provided by the market (lighthouses are a classic example). Things like software and radio or television broadcasting would fit the definition of public goods, but do not require government intervention to produce in sufficient quantities. In my mind, it is likely that the idea of public goods have been deliberately promoted in order to provide an aura of legitimacy to government – but I digress.

What it comes down to is that public goods theorists simply aren’t creative enough. They ignore the many ways in which humans overcome the free rider problem, and refuse to consider that these means could be possible. I’m pleased to say that as cryptographic technology improves, the public goods justification for the state will completely fade. The Lighthouse app (still in beta), a peer-to-peer crowdfunding app relying on smart contracts, has officially and mathematically solved the problem of how to provide public goods in general. That’s how human progress works – entrepreneurs come up with solutions to problems.

As for collective security in particular, it is crucial to remember that the state is distinct from its subjects, and the state is designed to protect itself, not the people residing within its borders. Those who make up the state have strong incentives to provide defense that will secure the state itself – but the incentive to protect the people living under that state is minimal. After all, the state (or those who make up the state) is just another special interest group. But defense of the public remains a public good, so it is very unlikely to be adequately supplied by a government.

The free rider problem can be overcome and collective security can be produced efficiently, but seeing this may require some imagination as well as remembering that the ideological milieu would be different under anarchy. Psychological factors can help to overcome the free rider problem, as described by Keith Preston:

“But there are many other reasons why individuals would choose to fight an enemy invader or contribute voluntarily towards such an effort [besides economic reasons]. Psychological attachments of the “blood and soil” variety, loyalty to one’s family, community, religion or culture might be a motivating factor for many people. For example, gays might be eager fight against a potential conqueror known for its persecution of homosexuals. Racists might fight an invader out of base racial hatred for the dominant ethnic group among the enemy. Believers in virtues such as honor and courage or adherents to particular ideals (“justice”, “freedom”, “humanity”) would have their own reasons for fighting beyond the mere economic. Some may choose to fight for the sheer adventure of it all or out of a simple taste for violence and bloodshed.”

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes:

“…national defense, in the sense of protecting the people from a foreign State, is a subset of the general problem of protecting them from any State, domestic or foreign. Consequently, the factors that already provide protection from the domestic State are the very factors which on the market would provide protection from foreign States. To put it concretely, the same social consensus that has voluntarily overcome the free-rider obstacle to protect the United States, one of the most free, if not the most free, nation in the world would voluntarily overcome the free-rider obstacle to protect American freedom from foreign States.”

If we can expect the state to provide for collective defense, then we can even more strongly expect an anarchist society to do so.

Avoiding Conflict

Without a doubt, the best strategy for collective defense of a society is to avoid armed conflict in the first place. Anarchist societies can do a far better job of avoiding conflict than states can.

While certainly not the only factor in decisions regarding whether or not to go to war, the most important one is a cost/benefit analysis. It can generally be said that if a potential war will provide little utility to those who decide to embark on it, but will be costly, it most likely will not happen.

This of course implies that states are likely to be highly aggressive – the costs of war are not borne by the politicians, but them and their military-industrial complex cronies can certainly get significant benefits from it! Stateless societies, where those who choose to make war must fund it fully themselves, are far less likely to be aggressive. And luckily, what is needed for effective defense is far less expensive than what is required for military aggression.

A stateless society can drastically reduce the chance of conflict by making it costly to invade, and with as little benefit as possible. Without an already existing state in place, there will be no command center for the foreign aggressor to take over. Rather than simply taking over the capitol and using the already existing and “legitimized” state apparatus to extract taxes from the populace, the invader will need to win the war neighborhood by neighborhood. And if they succeed, they’ll need to create all the infrastructure needed to govern the hostile territory before being able to take from it. For example,

“…during the American Revolution the British focused their energies on conquering Philadelphia, at that time the nominal capital of the United States, on the assumption that once the capital had fallen the rest of the country would be theirs as well. What the British failed to realize was that the United States was a loose-knit confederation, not a centralized nation-state, and the government in Philadelphia had almost no authority. When Philadelphia fell, the rest of the country went about its business as usual; Americans were not accustomed to living their lives according to directives from Philadelphia, and so the British troops ended up simply sitting uselessly in the occupied capital, achieving nothing. Hence Benjamin Franklin, when he heard that the British army had captured Philadelphia, is said to have replied, ‘Nay, I think Philadelphia has captured the British army.’”

In short, there would likely be very little to gain from attacking a stateless territory, at least financially. Contrast this with the possibility of invading a small state with a weak military. There is already an apparatus for control and administration in place, and likely only government defense institutions rather than a decentralized network of private ones. Given that there are many governments today with weak militaries, they would be superior targets for invasion than a stateless region. And since these weaker states aren’t being constantly invaded in today’s world, that provides some evidence that large states may not be all that aggressive against a stateless society. In fact, today there are more than 20 nations without a standing army, including noteworthy examples like Costa Rica and Liechtenstein, which hasn’t had a military since 1868 (and wasn’t taken over by the Nazis!).

As time progresses and technology advances, the benefits of warring also become lower. If wealth is mobile, then the potential gain from an aggressive attack is decreased substantially. With more and more economic activity taking place on the internet, physical invasion becomes less profitable. Consider this example from Bruce Benson:

“While land certainly remains an important source of wealth in much of the world, it is increasingly less important. Wealth is increasingly tied to capital, which is increasingly mobile. If the defenders can escape and take much of their wealth with them, the expected gains from invasion are reduced. Note what has been happening to Hong Kong as the date for China’s take-over of the city approaches, for instance. Much of the city’s wealth has been relocated to Vancouver, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, and elsewhere, as entrepreneurs and capital owners seek relatively free societies where their property rights will be more secure.”

Along the same lines, Mark Lutter makes a convincing argument that war is becoming less and less likely as trade becomes easier.

“I propose history to be interpreted as a gradual reduction in transaction costs. Institutional evolution is leading to a world where anonymous exchange is possible with any actor. It is the lowering of transaction costs that has led to the highest standard of living mankind has ever enjoyed, as well as the most peaceful time in human history. It is now more profitable than ever to cooperate.”

Since it is quite likely that the stateless society will be engaging in some form of trade with the people of any potential aggressor nation, the price of going to war drastically increases for an aggressor.

This is all well and good in terms of the economic motivations for war, but war is sometimes about more than that. There can be ideological or geopolitical motivations as well. In a stateless society, there would be no government to engage in significant disputes with foreign governments, and thus eliminate many of the potential causes for war. There may be individuals in the ungoverned area that are hostile to a particular state, but that foreign government will feel far less threatened by some hostile individuals than a hostile government. In addition, stateless societies would not be players in the power games and competition for domination in an area. There would be no standing army, and the society would not act as a single agent, so foreign governments will feel less threatened by the “power” of a stateless society. It would be clear to the subjects of a state that is aggressing against a stateless society that it is their government that is in the wrong, which will decrease the state’s legitimacy in their eyes. With legitimacy being the source of the state’s power, this would be a dangerous game for them to play.

Nevertheless, it would be naïve to argue that a stateless society will never be invaded. But there are some easy ways that the anarchists could make it as costly as possible. For instance, protection agencies (being those who are most threatened by a potential foreign invasion) can put bounties on the heads of state officials to encourage insurrection and privateering. They can also assassinate those public officials, or create the credible threat that they could do so. Since protection agencies will be practiced at capturing/apprehending people, assassination or kidnap might be something they’re good at. Government decision makers are far less likely to go to war if they know that it is their heads which are on the line.

Protection agencies should ensure that the threat of retaliation is squarely on the political/military leaders, and not the soldiers and civilians of the foreign country. In fact, they can offer sanctuary or perhaps money to foreign soldiers in exchange for their desertion. If deserters bring some weapons with them, surely protection agencies would be willing to pay for those as well.

Couldn’t states just nuke the stateless regions? Technically yes, but remember that states can also nuke other states, and would have more reason to do so. Nuking a stateless region would offer no gain, would have long-lasting environmental impacts that could damage the aggressor state, and there would almost certainly be a loss of legitimacy internally.

To sum up, there are many reasons to believe that a stateless society would have drastically lower needs for defense than a state would, and is unlikely to be attacked. This is truer under some conditions than others. Philosopher Michael Huemer provides seven conditions of an anarchist society that make it very likely that it could avoid warfare:

  1. Established in a region otherwise dominated by liberal democracies
  2. The society itself embraced liberal values
  3. Strong social and economic relations with its neighbors
  4. No large internal ethnic or religious tensions
  5. Not established in a region with a long-standing territorial dispute
  6. Established through an indigenous movement rather than being imposed by a foreign power
  7. Established with the consent of the state previously controlling the territory.

All but #7 seem highly likely, but even that would be quite plausible as ideology evolves and becomes more anarchist-friendly. And if not – well, they can still assassinate the generals.

Guerrilla Warfare

Even if the risk of a stateless society going to war is lower, it still exists; the people must be able to defend themselves when this happens.

History has shown time and again that a small group can beat even a great empire via guerrilla warfare. And a stateless society could handle guerrilla warfare quite well, including an advanced division of labor, as Keith Preston describes:

“The anarcho-military forces would likely differentiate between ordinary infantry and militia fighters on one hand and more professionalized specialists on the other. The militia itself would include ordinary people of all ages and backgrounds. The responsibility of these groups would be to secure supply centers, transportation systems and medical facilities along with ordinary community institutions, businesses and homes. They would likely be armed with weapons that are easy to maintain, transport, supply and use such as high-powered rifles with a good scope, semi-automatic handguns and regular shotguns sawed off as low as possible. An invading army would have to fight on a community-to-community, street-to-street, house-to-house basis. Enemy troops attempting conquest would face an endless barrage of sniper fire, Molotov cocktails, ambushes, sabotage, bombings and assassinations. Guerrilla attacks would be launched from forest areas adjacent to highways where enemy military units were traveling. Anti-aircraft artillery would be placed atop mountains and skyscrapers. Those charged with the use of more powerful or sophisticated weaponry – tanks, laser technology, rocket launchers, land mines, machine guns, grenades, fighter planes, missiles – would likely be drawn from the ranks of mercenaries and other military professionals specifically trained for certain functions.”

How would a stateless society secure the manpower for these militias?

“Organizations that sponsor immigrants might make membership in a defensive militia a condition of a grant of assistance. The same might be true of homeless organizations, proprietary communities or professional guilds. Mercenary groups might sell their services to businesses or communities during a time of invasion. These groups might support themselves during peacetime through contracting out for other types of labor including street patrol, private security or bodyguard services, fire and rescue services, construction work, park maintenance, environmental cleanup or disaster relief. Militia recruits might come from some unusual sources. Gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs might serve as mercenaries during a time of war. (The Hell’s Angels volunteered for service in Vietnam but were refused.) Criminals might work off their restitution debts through service in a militia.”

And in the event of invasion, protection agencies could arm their clients or lift restrictions on their weapons. There could even be a “draft” clause within the policy that mandates the signatory to become part of a militia in times of need, perhaps in exchange for a reduced premium. It’s also quite likely that protections agencies would stockpile some good guerrilla weaponry during peacetime, including roadside explosives, antitank weapons, sniper rifles, and so on.

Instead of having a government Navy, shipping-related industries could supply protection for their own vessels and could maintain a fleet of warships, or pay mercenaries/privateers to do so. Aviation related industries could supply air defense by having a few fighter jets or attack helicopters. It’s easy to imagine industry groups doing this collectively – not every small shipper needs its own battleships.

And in today’s world, cyber-warfare is becoming more and more important, and this helps distribute power away from states as well. Stateless hackers could be very effective in gathering intelligence, messing with the aggressor’s communications and supply lines, or even damaging infrastructure directly.

Along with all of this war-making ability, a civil defense system could coexist.

“…a non-statist military defense would likely include an elaborate civil defense system. This might involve a large network of radar monitor services, scout ships and planes, sirens and broadcast systems that could be used to notify the public of an eminent invasion, vaccines, antidotes, gas masks, decontamination centers, bomb shelters, underground tunnels, radiation suits, body armor, emergency food and medical supplies, emergency evacuation plans, intelligence services, arsenals and emergency communications centers. These programs, organized and funded by Red Cross or March of Dimes-like organizations, could co-exist along with the private, voluntary militias of the type already described.”

Finally, the stateless society is likely to receive aid from other foreign governments who are enemies of the invading government. This could include air defense, intelligence, small arms…you name it.

Through guerrilla warfare, the stateless society could fight back against aggressive states, and become incredibly difficult to pacify.

Nonviolent Resistance

The most important component of collective security without a state (in my opinion) is nonviolent resistance, such as hunger strikes, marches and demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, labor strikes, refusal to pay taxes, and ostracism of collaborators. Bertrand Russell once pondered:

“Let us imagine that England were to disband its army, after a generation of instruction in the principles of passive resistance as a better defense than war. Let us suppose that England at the same time publicly announced that no armed opposition would be offered to any invader, that all might come freely, but that no obedience would be yielded to any commands that a foreign authority might issue. What would happen in this case?”

Any potential invader who actually followed through on it would have their brutality immediately revealed, which is likely to garner sympathy for the stateless side, lead to additional foreign aid, and potentially foster insurrection against the invading government.

When governments resort to violence against nonviolent protesters, previously uninvolved individuals will become partisans, expanding the resistance. As the aggressive government’s authority becomes delegitimized, the source of its power dwindles as citizens refuse to cooperate.

This may sound outlandish to some, but it is actually quite common. The historical success rate of nonviolent action seems to be at least comparable if not better than violence. We all know about Gandhi and the British, the civil rights movement, and the fall of communism, for instance. There are numerous advantages to nonviolent action, a few of which are described by Bryan Caplan:

“Because it seems less dangerous and radical than violence, it more easily…wins broad public support. The costs of participation are lower, so more people are likely to participate. Traditional noncombatants like children, women, and the old can effectively participate in nonviolent struggle. It is more likely to convert opponents and produce internal disagreement within the ruling class. It generally leads to far fewer casualties and material losses than violence. And since it is more decentralized than violent action, it is less likely to give rise to an even more oppressive state if it succeeds.”

Another benefit is that there is no such thing as final defeat so long as there exist individuals whose spirit has not yet been bent to the invaders’ will. It can also be done with less planning, strategy, or organization than violent methods such as military conflict.

Historically, most nonviolent resistance movements have been sporadic and fairly disorganized. But it can be significantly more effective if people are trained in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest tactics. This could be a good area for a charity/volunteer organization, and could lead to a sort of “National Civil Disobedience Reserve Army.”

Nonviolent resistance, done properly, is incredibly difficult to defeat.



If you have spent little time contemplating anarchy in the past, chances are you have a ton of questions or concerns about how it would work. I attempted to address many of the most common ones in the body of this article, but surely I’ve missed some. If you have any thoughts about this, please leave a comment and I will do my best to address it.

There are also numerous books out there which cover this subject matter in far more detail than I have. Here are a handful that I would recommend:

I’d like to end with a quote from Murray Rothbard:

“Suppose…that we were all suddenly dropped down on the earth de novo and that we were all then confronted with the question of what societal arrangements to adopt. And suppose then that someone suggested: “We are all bound to suffer from those of us who wish to aggress against their fellow men. Let us then solve this problem of crime by handing all of our weapons to the Jones family, over there, by giving all of our ultimate power to settle disputes to that family. In that way, with their monopoly of coercion and of ultimate decision making, the Jones family will be able to protect each of us from each other.” I submit that this proposal would get very short shrift, except perhaps from the Jones family themselves. And yet this is precisely the common argument for the existence of the state.”

Are Private Prisons Compatible With Libertarianism?


Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation’s criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent. The prison boom has its own inexorable logic. Steven R. Donziger, a young attorney who headed the National Criminal Justice Commission in 1996, explains the thinking: “If crime is going up, then we need to build more prisons; and if crime is going down, it’s because we built more prisons—and building even more prisons will therefore drive crime down even lower.” – Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic

The United States has, bar none, the largest prison population in the world. According to the ACLU:

  • With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population – that makes us the world’s largest jailer.
  • Since 1970, our prison population has risen 700%.
  • One in 99 adults are living behind bars in the U.S. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history.
  • One in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control, counting prison, jail, parole and probation populations.

On top of these horrid statistics, 86% of all Federal inmates are being incarcerated for victimless crimes, such as drug use or administrative crimes (not filling out paperwork in time, etc.). And imprisoning all of these people isn’t cheap: According to the national Prisons Bureau:

The fee to cover the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates in Fiscal Year 2011 was $28,893.40. The average annual cost to confine an inmate in a Community Corrections Center for Fiscal Year 2011 was $26,163.

According to a report from the Vera Institute for Justice, in the 40 states that participated in their study, the total cost of incarceration to taxpayers was $39 billion! And all of that money is fueling an industry of great import: the prison-industrial complex. This includes, among others, construction firms, prison managers, wardens, food service providers, security personnel and technology, counselors, and so on. This complex is becoming increasingly private rather than public, as described in a 2012 report from the Sentencing Project:

In 2010, private prisons held 128,195 of the 1.6 million state and federal prisoners in the United States, representing eight percent of the total population. For the period 1999-2010, the number of individuals held in private prisons grew by 80 percent, compared to 18 percent for the overall prison population. While both federal and state governments increasingly relied on privatization, the federal prison system’s commitment to privatization grew much more dramatically. The number of federal prisoners held in private prisons rose from 3,828 to 33,830, an increase of 784 percent, while the number of state prisoners incarcerated privately grew by 40 percent, from 67,380 to 94,365. Today, 30 states maintain some level of privatization, with seven states housing more than a quarter of their prison populations privately.

Libertarians advocate for the privatization of all government “services,” and this includes the prison system. Whenever I mention that “public” utilities and “public” works ought to be done privately, a common retort is to “look at how that has worked in the prison industry.” But how libertarian are private prisons anyways?

The answer to this question is quite nuanced, with many subtleties that are difficult for statists to grasp. Hell, they are pretty difficult for many libertarians to grasp too! In this post, I’d like to set the record straight (while acknowledging that there are differences of opinion among libertarians on this issue).


The Problem With Private Prisons

If you assume that a society based on market anarchist ideals would have a similar system of justice as our current world (an assumption which, as I will argue later, is unlikely), then everything, including prisons, would be privatized.

But the very existence of a state changes the dynamic in very important ways. In a post slamming libertarianism because of the abuses of the private prison industry, Gus DiZeriga writes:

Privatization of prisons creates corporations with a vested interest in maintaining current crimes as illegal even when there is no just reason for doing so, because it guarantees keeping their cells filled and their profits high. They also have a vested interest in criminalizing additional behavior. They demonstrably use some of their profits to support friendly legislators and lobby for legislation they desire. And their political favors are returned.

All libertarians will agree on this point. And this makes things complicated, because in the purely voluntary society envisioned by libertarians, there would be no state influence, which essentially nullifies this problem. To bribe the whole slew of private defense firms and insurance companies in order to maintain these unjust arrangements would be prohibitively expensive (though technically not impossible).

In any case, the state does currently exist. And as such, we are seeing an incredible amount of “public-private partnerships” and corrupt lobbying, with all the perverse incentives that this entails.

According to Think Progress, the lobbying budgets of these private prison companies are significant:

In the past decade, three major private prison companies spent $45 million on campaign donations and lobbyists to push legislation at the state and federal level. At times, this money has gone to truly nefarious legislation. A 2011 report found that the private prison industry spent millions seeking to increase sentences and incarcerate more people in order to increase the industry’s profits. 30 of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored Arizona’s now mostly invalidated immigration law — which would have landed many more people in detention — received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists or companies, including CCA and GEO. According to a report released last year, CCA spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent between $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span in 2011. $450,000 went to the Republican national and congressional committees, while Democrats received less than half that number. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Sen. John McCain(R-AZ) were also among the private prison lobby’s top benefactors.

Some more specifics regarding the two biggest players in the for-profit prison industry, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO group:

And this lobbying is for decidedly un-libertarian aims. For instance, CCA proposed to buy prisons from 48 states, with the stipulation that the states agree to maintain a 90% prison bed occupancy rate for at least 20 years! And they lobby for harsh mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, and so on.

On the surface, this presents a real problem for libertarians, at least from the perspective of those with an incomplete understanding of the philosophy. After all, isn’t the move toward privatization of prisons exactly what libertarians have been suggesting?

Not quite. The “prison” system envisioned by anarchist libertarians is radically different, and a brief sketch of it will be outlined in the next section. In the meantime, it is important to note that the current prison system, whether administered privately or publically, possesses the same perverse incentives.

Liberals routinely argue that the profit motive creates perverse incentives in the prison industry. This is certainly true. But liberals do not understand what “profit” really means (any individual can profit, not just massive corporations), and ignore the fact that a purely state-run prison system has a similar incentive structure, perhaps to a slightly smaller degree.

cage prison

There is no reason to believe that a state-run prison would behave differently than any other government bureaucracy. As with all government agencies, administrators will continue to seek larger budgets. And both success and failure, however awkwardly they would be defined for a prison system, would provide justification for increased budgets, hiring more employees, and greater benefits.

Corrections guard unions and police unions are interest groups that, so long as the state apparatus exists, would directly benefit from and lobby for increased criminalization of assorted activities in order to expand the prison population. This is the same kind of rent-seeking behavior that you would see in the private sector.

In addition, public employees face additional perverse incentives related to protecting their members from accountability. We see this all the time with “qualified immunity” for police officers, making it nearly impossible to prosecute them for abuses, but it also happens with corrections officers. One example would be how the guards’ union in Maryland successfully lobbied to pass the Correctional Officers Bill of Rights. This is a law “which made it much harder to discipline bad correctional officers — thus reducing C.O.s’ accountability and facilitating brutality and corruption scandals,” as legal scholar Sasha Volokh explains.

To sum up, Nathan Goodman argues:

Thus, public choice theory suggests that those who benefit have more incentive and ability to influence policy than those who bear the costs, so we see a rise in incarceration, regardless of whether it’s good policy for the general public. The perverse incentives are easy to illustrate when ruthless corporate profiteers are the beneficiaries and rent seekers, but local populations that want jobs as prison guards have the same types of incentive problems. This is why we need to push not just against for-profit prisons, but against all prisons. The economic logic of state financed prisons encourages a growing prison state.


Restitution, Justice, And Anarchist “Prisons”

Under the current state capitalist system, a private prison may be owned privately, but it is still paid by the state using money that is stolen directly from taxpayers. Fundamentally, this makes the private/public distinction a less relevant one from the libertarian standpoint – either way, the system is unjust.

Philosophically, there is a huge difference between the ideals of an anarchist system of incarceration and that which exists under our current state capitalist system. As of right now, justice is about punishment. If you are convicted of a crime, you are expected to be punished with a prison sentence. But does putting criminals in prison do anything to help the original victim of the crime?

Of course not! A more appropriate system would focus on restitution rather than punishment. This means, broadly, attempting to make the victim “whole” again. It is fairly easy to see how this would work in a case of theft. Let’s say I steal $10,000 from you. You are entitled now to those $10,000 plus interest, and perhaps even more than that (but I’ll leave it to the legal scholars and legal entrepreneurs to determine the appropriate amounts). This is covered under your “theft insurance,” so the insurance company pays for the damages right away, and now owns the claim to restitution from the criminal. An investigation is conducted, a criminal is found, and they are tried and convicted. That’s where the anarchist “prisons” come into play, but I will get to that in just a moment.

You may find this plausible in cases of theft, but what about crimes that can’t be compensated for, such as murder or rape? A similar “murder insurance” could be put in place. I can take out a policy stipulating that my next of kin gets $200,000 in case I am murdered. The rest proceeds accordingly, with the murderer needing to pay up.

If you are not an anarchist, you probably are quite skeptical of this explanation, because it is so far removed from our modern system. You likely have many questions. It is not my intent to go into detail on the ins and outs of a completely anarchist legal system, but there is no shortage of explanations out there on the internet, so I suggest you read through a couple of these before blithely assuming it can’t work. Here are a few to help get you started:

Okay, so what about the actual prisons?

For starters, I must get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way: there is no single way that an anarchist society will work. When we talk about free markets, we must admit the fact that due to entrepreneurial alertness, new technologies, and new business models, systems can and will evolve. In addition, the differences between the current system and an anarchist system are so pronounced, it may be hard for some to comprehend. As Brad Spangler notes:

Perhaps no other thing the state does offers so much potential for privatization nightmare stories as prisons do. There’s a reason for this. Prisons themselves, as we understand the term today, are inherently abusive and criminal enterprises — whether managed directly by a state or a state-affiliated monopoly contractor.

Does that mean there will be nothing like prisons in a market anarchist society? Yes and no. Context matters. We’re really talking about two different things — “privatization” under statism is not the same thing as what will likely result in the marketplace if we were to abolish the state and make “law” a free market for consensual dispute resolution with justice understood as restitution rather than punishment.

But amidst the extreme contrast between these systems, it is easy to discern a critical difference: because the system is based on restitution, the criminal will be liable for some specified amount of damages for whatever crime they commit. Chances are, they will owe the money to their own insurance company or “Dispute Resolution Organization,” who will act as a kind of cosigning agent for an individual’s interactions (not unlike insurance companies do today). If they are not insured this way, they will owe the money directly to the victim or their agent.

Either way, the criminal would be held responsible in some way. If insured, their insurance company may simply increase their premium, particularly in cases of less extreme crime. A form of house arrest is another less invasive option. But in more extreme cases (theft of large sums, murder, rape, etc.), or if uninsured, the criminal may then end up in “prison.”

Here, another major difference between anarchist “prisons” and modern prisons comes up. Today, if you are sent to prison, you have no choice in the matter. You become a captive, entirely subject to the will of your captors. If they send you to a horribly abusive prison, too bad. Or you might get lucky. But either way, you have no choice.

Under anarchy, you would get to choose which “prison” you went to. Or, you’re insurance company would choose (or give you options. There are an infinite variety of models here) for you. Of course, insurance companies won’t want to be associated with “prisons” known to have horrid, abusive conditions, and criminals certainly won’t choose to go to them, so these “prisons” have an incentive to have reasonable living conditions. Robert Murphy elaborates:

Consider: No insurance company would vouch for a serial killer if he applied for a job at the local library, but they would deal with him if he agreed to live in a secure building under close scrutiny. The insurance company would make sure that the “jail” that held him was well-run. After all, if the person escaped and killed again, the insurance company would be held liable, since it pledges to make good on any damages its clients commit.

On the other hand, there would be no undue cruelty for the prisoners in such a system. Although they would have no chance of escape (unlike government prisons), they wouldn’t be beaten by sadistic guards. If they were, they’d simply switch to a different jail, just as travelers can switch hotels if they view the staff as discourteous. Again, the insurance company (which vouches for a violent person) doesn’t care which jail its client chooses, so long as its inspectors have determined that the jail will not let its client escape into the general population.

Under anarchy, the criminal becomes the “customer” for detention facilities, rather than the state. This creates a whole different incentive structure. These facilities would resemble something more akin to a high-security hotel than to a modern prison – they would cater to criminals who need a place to stay while working off their debts in order to pay restitution.

proactiv prison breakout

In our current, state capitalist system, private prisons have an incentive to cut costs – perhaps by hiring fewer guards, paying less for healthcare and food, and through generally crappier conditions. Under anarchy, prisoner choice provides a countervailing force. And insurance companies may pay for prison upkeep, so there need not be forced labor by prisoners to pay for their expenses.

I certainly haven’t covered all possible contingencies here. But it should be clear from the sketch above that an anarchist prison system need not suffer the same kinds of intolerable abuses that are so prevalent today in both private and state-run prisons.


Prison Labor And The Prison-Industrial Complex

Since 1980 spending on corrections at the local, state, and federal levels has increased about fivefold. What was once a niche business for a handful of companies has become a multibillion-dollar industry with its own trade shows and conventions, its own Web sites, mail-order catalogues, and direct-marketing campaigns. The prison-industrial complex now includes some of the nation’s largest architecture and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks that handle prison bond issues and invest in private prisons, plumbing-supply companies, food-service companies, health-care companies, companies that sell everything from bullet-resistant security cameras to padded cells available in a “vast color selection.” A directory called the Corrections Yellow Pages lists more than a thousand vendors. Among the items now being advertised for sale: a “violent prisoner chair,” a sadomasochist’s fantasy of belts and shackles attached to a metal frame, with special accessories for juveniles; B.O.S.S., a “body-orifice security scanner,” essentially a metal detector that an inmate must sit on; and a diverse line of razor wire, with trade names such as Maze, Supermaze, Detainer Hook Barb, and Silent Swordsman Barbed Tape. – Eric Schlosser

Contrast the humane system above with the thoroughly exploitative system of prison labor that exists now. Currently, prison labor is abused in all the typical ways that crony capitalism is known for.

Big companies will use cheap prison labor to gain a competitive advantage by cutting labor costs significantly. Think about it: there’s no need to worry about the workers going on strike; there’s no need to pay for unemployment insurance, vacation time, or any other benefits; the workers are full-time and never show up late; and if they don’t like how much they are getting paid, too bad! They can just get locked up in isolation.

And compare this with the savings that would be generated from outsourcing. While cheap labor abroad is still quite cheap, there are additional costs associated with transporting goods around the world, which is far less of a concern while using local prison labor. Note that state-run prisons also contract out their prisoners for labor, not just private ones. A prison laborer typically makes between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, often working with toxic substances and without the protections that a normal worker would have.

So, not only do the private prisons make a bunch of money from getting guaranteed payments per prisoner regardless of cost, but other large corporations get to take advantage of what basically amounts to slave labor. What is this exploitation creating, and who benefits? Two informative articles from Global Research help answer these questions (see here and here).

Predictably, the potential profit of the prison labor boom has encouraged the foundations of US corporate society to move their production forces into American prisons. Conglomerates such as IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Victoria’s Secret, and Target have all begun mounting production operations in US prisons.

That should give you some idea of the kinds of things these prisoners are making, but here’s some more detail:

According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

Should it really be at all of a surprise that the prison-industrial complex is another cog in the military-industrial complex? Of course the captive labor in prison is being used to make military supplies on the cheap (but don’t worry, the Pentagon will still pay top dollar for crappy weapons projects like the F-35).

The whole system ties together quite nicely. If you take a look at this list of companies that own more than 1 million shares of CCA and GEO Group, you’ll notice many of the big players in the international crony capitalist elite. When you consider the interconnections that tie the whole international system of crony capitalism and American foreign policy together, it starts to make a lot of sense.

Many of these Fortune 500 conglomerates are corporate members of civil society groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). These think tanks are critical toward influencing American foreign policy. Under the guise of democracy promotion, these civil societies fund opposition movements and train dissent groups in countries around the world in the interest of pro-US regime change. With naked insincerity, the same companies that outsource the production of their products to American prisons simultaneously sponsor civil societies that demanded the release of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest – an overly political effort in the on-going attempts to install a compliant regime in that country.

And finally, it should come as no surprise that all the same regulatory problems inherent in a crony capitalist system should be present with respect to the prison-industrial complex as well. Take this example of a state agency being in cahoots with GEO Group, a textbook example of regulatory capture:

The concept of privatizing prisons to reduce expenses comes at great cost to the inmates detained, who are subjected to living in increasingly squalid conditions in jail cells across America. In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) was sent to a West Texas juvenile prison run by GEO Group for the purpose of monitoring its quality standards. The monitors sent by the TYC were subsequently fired for failing to report the sordid conditions they witnessed in the facility while they awarded the GEO Group with an overall compliance score of nearly 100%. Independent auditors later visited the facility and discovered that inmates were forced to urinate or defecate in small containers due to a lack of toilets in some of the cells. The independent commission also noted in their list of reported findings that the facility racially segregated prisoners and disciplined Hispanics for speaking Spanish by denying their access to lawyers and medical treatment. It was later discovered that the TYC monitors were employed by the GEO Group.

Let’s take a moment to remember that this horrible system of exploitation is not a product of the free market, but rather a consequence of having a state exist in general. A system of justice based on polycentric law and administered in a non-coercive fashion could never support abuse on such a wide scale.


Solutions/Moving Forward

As a libertarian, I believe there must be real free market solutions to the problems caused by the prison-industrial complex. While many people will no doubt be taken in by the idea of prison reform, we have seen that these problems are inherent in a statist system of justice, and no amount of reform can address those underlying problems.

prison download music

Nevertheless, while I have doubts about its ability to cause real change in this area, the mantra “voting with your dollars” can apply here. The Prison Divestment Campaign may help curb some of the excesses of the prison profiteers. It may be worthwhile to support this cause, but changing the fundamental problems will require a different kind of solution.

Short of seeing the realization of a fully anarcho-capitalist society, we can look to some new technologies to help cause a fundamental shift in the system, perhaps even within the next decade or so. Some of the functionality of Bitcoin and the blockchain could revolutionize legal practice, and thus indirectly have a powerful effect on the prison system.

As these technologies evolve and become more widely adopted, a parallel legal system will begin to emerge in competition with our current state monopoly system. Basically, a new Common Law. Here’s an example:

The plain, ordinary Common Law developed as the result of competing courts that issued opinions basically as advertisements of how fair and impartial they were. We could see something similar with Bitcoin arbitration. If arbitrators sign their transactions with links to and a cryptographic hash of a PDF that explains why they ruled as they did, we could see real competition in the articulation of rules. Over time, some of these articulations could come to be widely accepted and form a body of Bitcoin precedent.

This kind of arbitration is perfectly doable using a currently existing Bitcoin feature: multi-signature transactions. This is a feature that doesn’t allow a transaction to be fully processed unless m-of-n people have agreed. Most simply, this could mean that two out of three people involved in a transaction must agree to it for it to become valid. That could mean you and me in a business dealing, with a third party arbitrator if one of us is unhappy with the deal as executed.

Over time and once more widely used, these technologies could practically eliminate the need for lawyers and government courts for dealing with the administration of many types of contracts and disputes. For instance, Blockchain Apparatus just released new software that will take care of the administration of estates and wills in a completely decentralized, trustless, cheap, and quick way. And an ex-Rugby player is working on a smart contracts tool to manage third-party endorsement contracts and take a lot of the headache over contract disputes in sports.

For more details on multi-signature transactions and their legal applications, see this.

For more information on smart contracts in general, see this.

By creating a new legal framework outside of the state system, technology may help us get to a stateless system of justice sooner than many people think. And we will not be able to eliminate the statist (in)justice system until this happens.



While libertarians ostensibly support the privatization of government functions, it is more complicated than it sounds in practice. Particularly with regard to prison administration, contracting out these “services” are not what a principled libertarian has in mind. As Bruce Benson explains:

If Hitler had contracted out some of his law enforcement services, the rounding up and extermination of Jews might have been accomplished at a lower per-unit cost and more Jews could have been exterminated, but the fact that more of these politically defined “criminals” could have been exterminated more “efficiently” in a technological sense does not mean that the contracting out of this process would have been desirable. Indeed, if contracting out enhances technological efficiency, as its advocates argue it will, then it may encourage even more intensive law enforcement efforts against victimless crimes, thereby reducing both allocative efficiency and liberty.

Ultimately, the only just system is one based on restitution rather than punishment, and in the context of a purely voluntary society.

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The American Panopticon: Why A Free Society Can’t Have Mass Surveillance


If you knew you were being watched, would you behave differently? Would you not second guess your natural inclinations or tendencies? Perhaps you would act like a totally different person – more subdued, more “average”, and less likely to rock the boat.

A situation in which everyone felt as though they were being watched all the time may be terrifying to many, but there are situations where one might feel this is a feature and not a bug. For instance, a prison. Take Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon:

“The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.”

In a prison, being able to have everyone feel as though they are constantly under surveillance will lead to self-regulation of behavior among the inmates, making them far easier to control. When dealing with violent criminals, there are some obvious advantages to this.

The Panopticon was designed to be a physical structure, but it would be appropriate to treat it as a metaphor for modern disciplinary society, or the inclination to observe everyone as much as possible and to “normalize” their behavior. Some readers may think it a stretch to make this comparison, but modern day America is becoming a Panopticon of sorts with nearly unlimited warrantless surveillance, big data, and the coming Internet of Things.

Mass surveillance has always been an issue – and in fact, is one of the common things that Americans loathe about other totalitarian countries. If you ask any American about the Soviet Union, they will invariably know about the KGB, people being “disappeared” to the gulag, and so on. We tend to juxtapose our society with theirs, and claim that America is “a free country.”

I intend to argue in this post that a society with persistent, mass surveillance cannot be considered “free”. In addition, I plan to show that the United States government either has already created a Panopticon-like country, or is frighteningly close to it.

After the Edward Snowden revelations, it is hard to believe there are people who don’t already understand this. William Binney, the highest ranking NSA whistleblower of all time (Technical Leader) has said that the goal of the NSA is “total population control.”

Warning: This is going to be a very lengthy post. I have left no stone untouched, and wanted to create a full picture of the totalitarian Panopticon that is forming around us all. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and get ready.

“The man who is compelled to live every minute of his life among others and whose every need, thought, desire, fancy, or gratification is subject to public scrutiny, has been deprived of his individuality and human dignity. Such an individual merges with the mass. His opinions, being public, tend always to be conventionally accepted ones; his feelings, being openly exhibited, tend to lose their quality of unique personal warmth and to become the feelings of every man. Such a being, although sentient, in fungible; he is not an individual.” – Edward Bloustein, former Rutgers University President


But I Have Nothing To Hide

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

This is the single most common response of most people who are not as terribly afraid of the American Panopticon as they ought to be. Most are likely to be blissfully unaware that this quote was in fact attributed to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist.

How might this argument go in practice? Daniel Solove, in his brilliant refutation of this common argument, frames it like this:

“The NSA surveillance, data mining, or other government information-gathering programs will result in the disclosure of particular pieces of information to a few government officials, or perhaps only to government computers. This very limited disclosure of the particular information involved is not likely to be threatening to the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Only those who are engaged in illegal activities have a reason to hide this information. Although there may be some cases in which the information might be sensitive or embarrassing to law-abiding citizens, the limited disclosure lessens the threat to privacy. Moreover, the security interest in detecting, investigating, and preventing terrorist attacks is very high and outweighs whatever minimal or moderate privacy interests law-abiding citizens may have in these particular pieces of information.”

The underlying assumption of this argument is that privacy is about hiding “bad” things. Those who say they “have nothing to hide” are arguing from the faulty premise that privacy is only about hiding negative or embarrassing things.

Many issues result from this faulty premise. Surveillance and privacy violations are a serious problem, even if there is no information gathered that people wouldn’t want uncovered. It can lead to Kafkaesque scenarios where the citizen is completely powerless and vulnerable because the oppressor has vast amounts of data on him, and he has no influence on the process. As Solove said:

“The harms consist of those created by bureaucracies – indifference, errors, abuses, frustration, and lack of transparency and accountability.”

Because there is so little transparency in the data mining going on, it would be impossible to say that NSA surveillance won’t uncover information that people may want to hide. Furthermore, one of the major purposes of all this data is to make predictions about future behavior. All sorts of information is being gathered about you, without you knowing precisely what, and then that information is used to create a profile on you and your likely future actions. It’s easy to imagine how this could be used improperly – and all with it being information that you were willing to give away.

Nothing To Hide

Ultimately, this creates are very clear power imbalance between you and the government. Why should the NSA and those who control it, largely unaccountable to the public and shielded from scrutiny, have such a large advantage over citizens? A government that possesses so much information could wield immense power over the public. If you have any appreciation for the history of totalitarianism in the 20th century, then this thought should make you cringe.

Perhaps you believe that even if there is all this information gathered, it will only be used in strictly lawful ways. You can’t imagine the information being used against you if, say, it could only be accessed for the sake of “national security.” Not so, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). According to them, government powers that were legally only supposed to be used to prevent terrorism have been used for more routine law enforcement purposes.

“Law enforcement made 47 sneak-and-peek searches nationwide from September 2001 to April 2003. The 2010 report reveals 3,970 total requests were processed. Within three years that number jumped to 11,129. That’s an increase of over 7,000 requests. Exactly what privacy advocates argued in 2001 is happening: sneak and peak warrants are not just being used in exceptional circumstances—which was their original intent—but as an everyday investigative tool.”

“Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.”

In addition, both the DEA and IRS are given data that the NSA has gathered, which is then used as evidence in drug or tax crimes. These agencies then use “parallel reconstruction” and pretend that they gathered the evidence via other methods, a clearly unconstitutional practice. In other words, these organizations act completely above the law, and not to stop terrorism.

Perhaps you are still not concerned; after all, you don’t use drugs! But the specific use isn’t the point. The data that is gathered could theoretically be used for anything that is illegal. Considering how some reputable estimates suggest that the average American commits three felonies per day, this should be a concern to everyone. In addition, you do not know how long this data will be stored; in some programs, this is legally specified, and in others it is not. Often times, data is required to be stored for many years. And as the cost of data storage continues getting cheaper, it is quite feasible to think that it will be stored and searchable for many, many years. There are quite a few examples of people who may have believed they had “nothing to hide”, but have suffered serious consequences regardless, often due to something as mundane as a bureaucratic error (mistaken drug tests, misidentification, and my favorite, being convicted for violating a law that didn’t exist).

All sorts of bad things could happen to you due to the kinds of mass surveillance happening nowadays. On the more “mundane” side, there are numerous documented and confirmed instances where NSA employees used their access in order to spy on lovers, ex-girlfriends, and the like, which is jokingly referred to as LOVEINT, a play off of SIGINT, or signals intelligence. While those cases are disturbing, they pale in comparison to these other situations, as mentioned by Solove:

“Most privacy problems and harms lack dead bodies. Of course, there are exceptional cases such as the murders of Rebecca Shaeffer and Amy Boyer. Rebecca Shaeffer was an actress killed when a stalker obtained her address from a Department of Motor Vehicles record. This incident prompted Congress to pass the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. Likewise, Amy Boyer was murdered by a stalker who obtained her personal information, including her work address and Social Security Number, from a database company.”

You may have done nothing wrong in your life, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be afraid of mass data collection.


Why Privacy Matters

There are many more reasons why you ought to be concerned about privacy and the negative effects of mass surveillance, some more subtle, and some with terrifying and dangerous implications. I will begin with the more subtle before moving on to the most direct reasons why privacy is critical.

Bathroom surveillance

Privacy Is Important To Our Relationships

In an interesting paper by James Rachels (“Why Privacy is Important”, 1975), an often overlooked aspect of privacy was mentioned. A key part of privacy is in how we manage our social relationships. Different relationships have different characters; we put on “masks”, so to speak, depending on who we are around. Losing privacy causes us to lose this separation between different kinds of relationships: business, marriage, kids, friendships, acquaintances, etc. This point requires some elaboration. Consider this example:

“First, consider what happens when two close friends are joined by a casual acquaintance. The character of the group changes; and one of the changes is that conversation about intimate matters is now out of order. Then suppose these friends could never be alone; suppose there were always third parties (let us say casual acquaintances or strangers) intruding. Then they could do either of two things. They could carry on as close friends do, sharing confidences, freely ex-pressing their feelings about things, and so on. But this would mean violating their sense of how it is appropriate to behave around casual acquaintances or strangers. Or they could avoid doing or saying anything which they think inappropriate to do or say around a third party. But this would mean that they could no longer behave with one another in the way that friends do and further that, eventually, they would no longer be close friends.”

Obama Spying

This implies that our associations with others need to be separate or compartmentalized to some degree. In order to have control over our relationships with others, we must have control over the access that other people have to us (and our information).

“We now have an explanation of the value of privacy in ordinary situations in which we have nothing to hide. The explanation is that, even in the most common and unremarkable circumstances, we regulate our behavior according to the kinds of relationships we have with the people around us. If we cannot control who has access to us, sometimes including and sometimes excluding various people, then we cannot control the patterns of behavior we need to adopt (this is one reason why privacy is an aspect of liberty) or the kinds of relations with other people that we will have.”

Personal Growth And Maturity Become Stunted

Losing control of your relationships with others is one thing. But when your privacy is consistently violated, you end up losing something even more important – your sense of self.

Forgot Password

When people consistently have their privacy violated, they are kept in a more childish state. Constant surveillance trains us to behave more “normally”, and acting in an unconventional way becomes more challenging and less common. As people consistently act conventionally, they begin to think and feel conventionally as well; the inner “spark” that makes us each unique in some way shines less and less brightly. People lose their capacity for self-discovery and creativity. Over time, the more rebellious, different, and unconventional ideas that are perfectly normal for people to have will never come to exist. There will be no need for a despotic government to even try to suppress these inclinations – a “Brave New World” scenario becomes more and more like reality.

How does this happen? For one thing, people become less spontaneous when they know that whatever they do is being tracked or recorded. I’m not just driving from place X to place Y at time T; I’m driving from place X to place Y at time T and creating a record of it. The difference may seem trivial at first, but when everything is being recorded, your life must become more measured and thought out. What if you knew that every time you were having sex, you were being recorded?

When thought of that way, it is clear that invasions of privacy are insults, because they deny an individual’s ownership of himself. Mass surveillance is like having a permanent, ever-present Peeping Tom in everyone’s lives; if you have a problem with voyeurism directed at yourself, why would you not have a proportionately greater objection to mass surveillance?

Growing up in the American Panopticon will make it more difficult for people to develop a strong conception of “self” or self-ownership. You no longer have personal sovereignty if all of your data is collected and visible from some single point outside of you. You become mere data to the Leviathan. You no longer have the authority to withdraw yourself from public view and scrutiny, and in that way, you are symbolically losing your “self” to some centralized institution. As Jeffrey Reiman wrote (“Driving to the Panopticon”, 1995):

“But, of course, what is symbolic is almost never merely symbolic. By such symbols do we come to acquire our self-conceptions. They shape the way we identify ourselves to ourselves and to one another, and thus they shape our identities themselves. Growing up in the informational panopticon, people will be less likely to acquire selves that think of themselves as owning themselves. They will say mine with less authority, and yours with less respect. And I think that selves that think of themselves as owning themselves are precisely what we understand as “moral selves”. They are selves that naturally accept ownership of their actions and thus responsibility for them. They naturally insist on ownership of their destinies and thus on the right to choose their own way. Here the loss of privacy threatens an incalculable loss. What will it be worth if a man should gain the world but lose his soul?”

In other words, the loss of identity that comes with mass surveillance will also reduce peoples’ feelings of moral responsibility. If you think this is farfetched, consider an analogy to the way people tend to look at reducing poverty these days. To many, it is the responsibility of the state to alleviate poverty. It would be easy enough for most individuals to give a dollar to the homeless man that they pass on the street, but instead, they view that as the responsibility of the collective, the state. Most millennials feel zero guilt ignoring the homeless person and continuing to stare at one of their many screens. They need not help out their fellow man, an individual; after all, that’s the government’s job! If anything, they consider their time better spent lobbying the government to take more money from other people in order to aid the homeless.

Suppression Of Free Speech And Chilling Effects

Now we begin to get into the less abstract and more scary things that a loss of privacy entails. The most obvious effect is the loss of free speech.

You're Being Watched

It’s not hard to imagine how mass surveillance curtails peoples’ freedom of speech. Most Americans will somewhat regularly juxtapose America with banana republics like North Korea which have very overt controls on speech and association. It is commonly assumed that “it could never happen here.” And perhaps it never will become quite that bad – but even without the direct control of speech (say the wrong thing and go to jail), surveillance still creates a strong form of social control and self-censorship (say the wrong thing and get blacklisted from jobs, sued, marginalized, etc.).

It is quite clear that at the very least, there is already a chilling effect going on in America. Surveys have shown that, in our post-Snowden world, people are becoming more unwilling to discuss surveillance issues online due to fears of the NSA. But we don’t even need surveys or research to know that this is an effect. I’m sure almost every one of us has at one point or other censored ourselves while discussing something online. I have been told by family members that I should stop writing this blog because of the potential ramifications of my unorthodox thought. The suggestions are well-meaning and appreciated (and perhaps even the right decision from a personal/selfish standpoint), but they just further prove my point.

The chilling effect is not merely on speech; it also affects what you read or purchase, and who you associate with. If you know that the books you take out from the library are being recorded, perhaps you are less likely to take out, say, the Qur’an, or a history of revolutionary thought. You may try to avoid being affiliated with certain organizations; if the country grew more tyrannical, you may not want to be receiving a newsletter from the ACLU.

Other kinds of behavior become chilled as well. People who live unorthodox lifestyles or who do unconventional things may feel the need to repress those things. People often try to oppress those who live unconventional lifestyles. The best example I can think of here would be homosexuality; many governments throughout the world have very dangerous policies with regards to homosexuals, and being outed could be a death sentence in some countries. Other examples could include pornography use, gambling, possession of certain taboo plants or chemicals, and so on.

Some of you may not consider this a big deal, because you yourself believe those activities to be immoral. But as I’ve stated before, anything could become illegal, and you could become the victim of this yourself. What about the children who are suffering from awful diseases because they don’t have access to medical marijuana? Some parents will go to the trouble of moving to a new state for ease of access, but others may not. They have had their behavior chilled, and their child is the unfortunate victim.

As our world becomes increasingly politicized, more and more behaviors begin to fall into this category. For instance, the more socialized medicine becomes, the more people will feel justified intruding into your health decisions. What if every time you swiped your credit card at a fast food restaurant, this information went out to a database somewhere and bureaucrats (or even nosy neighbors) started to hound you for making medical costs higher for everyone?

Now, not everyone will be intimidated or really experience the chilling affect personally. That being said, it is still dangerous. Here is what Solove has to say about the subject:

“Even surveillance of legal activities can inhibit people from engaging in them. It might be that particular people may not be chilled by surveillance – indeed, probably most people will not be except those engaging in particularly unpopular speech or associating with disfavored groups. The value of protecting against such chilling is not measured simply in terms of the value to those particular individuals. Chilling effects harm society because, among other things, they reduce the range of viewpoints being expressed and the degree of freedom with which to engage in political activity.”

Regardless of how you personally respond to mass surveillance, there are negative effects to society on the whole because there will be less intellectual diversity. Almost every brilliant thought was at one point radical, but it is the more radical or outlandish thoughts that people will avoid expressing.

Finally, even if you think that outright suppression of speech “couldn’t happen here” (let’s ignore the fact that it already does happen here; for instance, the French government just took down several websites they claimed promote or advocate terrorism, Holocaust denial is illegal in much of Europe, etc.), one of the Snowden revelations was that the GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, is specifically targeting journalists. And let’s not forget about COINTELPRO, the FBI’s 1956-1971 (perhaps it has continued for longer under a different name) program which monitored, infiltrated, and subverted domestic political organizations. And it is becoming increasingly frequent that people in the US and UK are being charged for crimes based entirely off social media postings (generally when they are anti-war or anti-police), rather than actually committing a real crime against other people. In other words, people are going to jail for expressing their views.

Manipulation And Social Control

The most terrifying part of the growth in the unchecked surveillance state is the way that it can be used to manipulate the political process on behalf of powerful actors, and to manipulate the public to go along with it.

As stated above, the purpose of NSA mass surveillance is “total population control.” Relatively new technologies, primarily social media, provide the NSA with unprecedented abilities to achieve this goal.

DARPA is spending millions of dollars on research regarding social media and how messages are spread and adopted. As The Guardian reports (far more detail at that link):

“The project list includes a study of how activists with the Occupy movement used Twitter as well as a range of research on tracking internet memes and some about understanding how influence behaviour (liking, following, retweeting) happens on a range of popular social media platforms like Pinterest, Twitter, Kickstarter, Digg and Reddit.”

One such study was performed by Facebook on over 600,000 users without their knowledge. Facebook changed the content of these users’ news feeds by giving people more negative emotional content to see how moods can be manipulated en masse. This research was connected to the Minerva Initiative, a Department of Defense project which funds research on modeling the “dynamics, risks, and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world.”

Additional research is being done on “informational cascades,” or how social network behavior is shaped by each other’s decisions resulting in a “cascade” of behavior that people may not have otherwise taken. For instance, “liking” something on Facebook because other people have already liked it. The research being done is deliberately focusing on how to maximize the number of “favorable” decisions. The information is being specifically used to better understand “the formation of opinions” and “the evolution of new cultural norms.” I don’t think I need to elaborate on how this type of knowledge could be used for evil purposes (or even to attempt to topple foreign governments, like Cuba’s).

…okay, fine, I’ll elaborate just a little bit. Documents released by Edward Snowden have revealed that the government is encouraging the use of a technique they call the “Counter Reset” in order to disrupt the momentum that unfavorable articles may generate online. For instance, if The Powers That Be dislike a story, they can do a Counter Reset, and suddenly the article will have zero upvotes, likes, or retweets. This will help decrease the number of eyeballs that see an unfavorable story. In fact, this was done on Reddit, somewhat ironically, to decrease the momentum of the story where these techniques were revealed by Snowden – a story I will go into in just a moment.

The Snowden revelations, outlined by Glenn Greenwald in this article, are primarily about the GCHQ and its JTRIG group, but likely apply to the NSA as well. Here is a quick summary:

“Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.”

GCHQ descredit target

GCHQ discredit company

It’s easy to see why people would want this story suppressed, right? These techniques aren’t just being used against hostile governments, terrorists, and the like; they are being used against people who are merely suspected of being involved in ordinary crimes. The key word is “suspected”; targets need not be actually charged or convicted of any crimes. Surveillance agencies have given themselves the power to ruin innocent peoples’ reputations and to disrupt political activity online without cause. As Greenwald concludes:

“Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?”

Excellent question. But the manipulation of the public is only one part of the problem. What if surveillance was being used against more powerful people or politicians in order to control them? Many readers may be inclined to dismiss this as a paranoid “conspiracy theory,” but it is simply a documented fact that this is going on. We know that the NSA has monitored the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders (likely as a means to keep the empire’s vassal states in line), but it is far harder for many to accept that this is done domestically as well.

But please, accept it. This is not just a theoretical problem. For instance, the CIA was caught spying on members of Congress in the lead up to the release of the famous torture report. The NSA has indirectly admitted that it spies on Congress. Russell Tice, a former NSA employee turned whistleblower, has revealed many people that the NSA has spied on:

  • Members of Congress, both House and Senate, and particularly those who are on the Intelligence, Armed Services, and Judiciary committees.
  • A current Supreme Court judge
  • Two former FISA judges (these are the people who rubber stamp intelligence gathering operations)
  • State Department officials
  • Barack Obama, while he was in the Senate
  • White House spokesman Scott McClellan
  • General David Petraeus (who was also formerly the head of the CIA) and other Generals

There is plenty of precedent for this. The NSA previously had spied on Senators Frank Church and Howard Baker, who were investigating the intelligence community and Watergate, respectively. And J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI compiled dossiers on everyone in politics, specifically for the purpose of blackmail. With the NSA currently spying on peoples’ porn habits, is it so hard to believe that this information could be used to blackmail and control politicians and other highly placed people?

It is clear that this information could be used to the benefit of secretive, powerful interests within the National Security State. This surveillance helps concentrate power into fewer and fewer hands, to those who control the information flow. It is also quite clear that this could very easily subvert constitutional checks and balances. As this process continues, the US government becomes more and more like the tyrannical governments that are considered a joke in modern American discourse. And whether you have “something to hide” or not, the government gets closer and closer to being the kind of regime that will go after you regardless. Excusing mass surveillance in what was once a relatively free country leads to that country becoming despotic, which ought to raise the hair on the back of everyone’s necks.


Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Turning Every American Into A Threat

It is a common saying and a major precept of our justice system that people are “innocent until proven guilty.” Unfortunately, mass surveillance has turned this on its head.

Big Data

By definition, mass surveillance is not targeted to those who have committed crimes. There is a tendency to regard the entire citizenry as the enemy; who knows what kind of undesirables could be hiding in plain sight?! To distill this into a simple mathematical formula: mass surveillance = mass suspicion.

This can easily be seen with the proliferation of government watchlists that have exploded in use and size since 9/11. These lists are gigantic and growing – and once on the list, it is very difficult to get off. An important and fascinating report by Hina Shamsi and Matthew Harwood of the ACLU delves deeply into this subject, and we will borrow much of their research for this analysis.

When police encounter someone who they believe may in some way be connected to terrorism, they fill out a “suspicious activity report,” or SAR. Similarly, the government is instilling fear in Americans and encouraging them to snitch on their fellow citizens with the slogan “if you see something, say something.”

“FBI Director James Comey asked the public to report any suspicions they have to authorities. “When the hair on the back of your neck stands, listen to that instinct and just tell somebody,” said Comey.”

This is one of the most Orwellian slogans imaginable, and there are some deep, fundamental problems with it. Sometimes if I hear a noise at night, the hair on the back of my neck will stand – I really don’t think this is a reasonable standard for suspicion. Despite their clear attempts at creating a “Minority Report“-esque system, it is not easy to predict who is going to be a threat before people have actually committed any crime, particularly when based on such a flimsy standard.

Of course, determining who ought to be added to the SAR database requires some clear definition of what a “suspicious activity” actually looks like. The government has a list of 16 behaviors that qualify; nine of these behaviors have nothing whatsoever to do with criminal activity. Do you really think someone ought to be added to a terrorism watchlist because they are taking photographs, asking questions “beyond mere curiosity,” taking notes, or looking at stuff through binoculars?

(As an aside, while not directly related to the SAR program, it is very easy to be considered an “extremist” or a “suspicious” person by the US government. For instance, the FBI considers people who care about online privacy to be potentially suspicious of terrorist activity, and even likened pro-privacy supporters of Edward Snowden to a “digital al-Qaeda.” And here is a list of 72 ways the government can consider you an “extremist” in America, including talking about individual liberties, wanting to make the world a better place, being a returning veteran, and believing in a right to bear arms. They all really make the hair on the back of my neck stand!)

As you can imagine, the SAR database, based as it is on these ridiculous standards of (constitutionally protected) behavior, is likely not particularly effective. In fact, a Government Accountability Office report says that the FBI doesn’t even track whether the SARs that are uploaded to their database actually help thwart terrorism or lead to arrests or convictions. And for your viewing pleasure, the ACLU has collected a bunch of these SARs and revealed their contents:

“A number of reports were concerned with “ME” — Middle Eastern — males. One headline proclaimed, “Suspicious ME Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water at REDACTED.” Another read, “Suspicious Activities by a ME Male in Lodi, CA.” And just what was so suspicious about this male? Read into the document and you discover that a sergeant at the Elk Grove Police Department had long been “concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly.” And it’s not just “Middle Eastern males” who provoke such suspicion. Get involved in a civil rights protest against the police and California law enforcement might report you, too. A June 2012 SAR was headlined “Demonstration Against Law Enforcement Use of Excessive Force” and reported that “a scheduled protest” by demonstrators “concerned about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” was about to occur.”

So, if you are of Middle Eastern descent, are “unfriendly,” or are concerned about police brutality, you are probably a terrorist.

And then there is the dreaded no-fly list. On 9/11, the no-fly list had only 16 names, but by 2013, this had gone up by 293,650% to 47,000 people, including 800 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. These people are considered “known or suspected terrorists,” and cannot fly to, from, or over the United States. These kinds of restrictions, as you can imagine, could be very disruptive to any innocent people who get added to the list. But surely it is easy to get removed, right? Wrong.

“In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security established the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program through which those who believe they are wrongly blacklisted can theoretically attempt to correct the government’s error. But banned flyers quickly find themselves frustrated because they have to guess what evidence they must produce to refute the government’s unrevealed basis for watchlisting them in the first place. Redress then becomes a grim bureaucratic wonderland. In response to queries, blacklisted people receive a letter from the DHS that gives no explanation for why they were not allowed to board a plane, no confirmation of whether they are actually on the no-fly list, and no certainty about whether they can fly in the future. In the end, the only recourse for such victims is to roll the dice by buying a ticket, going to the airport, and hoping for the best.”

Lists, lists, and more lists! In addition to the SAR database and the no-fly list, there is also a secret “master watchlist”:

“According to documents recently leaked to the Intercept, as of August 2013 that master watchlist contained 680,000 people, including 5,000 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. The government can add people’s names to it according to a shaky “reasonable suspicion” standard. There is, however, growing evidence that what’s “reasonable” to the government may only remotely resemble what that word means in everyday usage. Information from a single source, even an uncorroborated Facebook post, can allow a government agent to watchlist an individual with virtually no outside scrutiny. Perhaps that’s why 40% of those on the master watchlist have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation,” according to the government’s own records.”

If your name is on this list, you will get treated with extreme scrutiny when traveling, or when interacting with the police in any way.

And finally, the most terrifying list of them all:

“Inside the United States, no watchlist may be as consequential as the one that goes by the moniker of the Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorist File. The names on this blacklist are shared with more than 17,000 state, local, and tribal police departments nationwide through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Unlike any other information disseminated through the NCIC, the KST File reflects mere suspicion of involvement with criminal activity, so law enforcement personnel across the country are given access to a database of people who have secretly been labeled terrorism suspects with little or no actual evidence, based on virtually meaningless criteria.”

“And once someone is on this watchlist, good luck getting off it. According to the government’s watchlist rulebook, even a jury can’t help you. “An individual who is acquitted or against whom charges are dismissed for a crime related to terrorism,” it reads, “may nevertheless meet the reasonable standard and appropriately remain on, or be nominated to, the Terrorist Watchlist.””

Privacy ID Man

Picture this: you make a comment on Facebook about the 2nd Amendment. The police/surveillance apparatus picks this up and throws you onto one of their lists. One day, you get pulled over because of a broken tail light. When the police officer runs your plate, he sees that you are an “extremist” and potentially a terrorist, and are likely armed. Do you think the police officer might be a little on edge? And remember, you have no idea what the officer knows about you. How much more likely do you think it is that this interaction will turn out poorly?

Oh, that’s right. The police are trolling through social media in order to assign “threat ratings” to people. I kid you not. Here is a brief description of the software being used:

“…scanning the residents’ online comments, social media and recent purchases for warning signs. Commercial, criminal and social media information, including, as Intrado vice president Steve Reed said in an interview with urgentcomm.com, “any comments that could be construed as offensive,” all contribute to the threat score.”

Combine this with new technology developed by Raytheon which predicts your behavior based on your social media activity, and we start getting into the realm of the really creepy. The software “can be used to closely track a person’s life, down to their daily gym schedule,” and then predict what their next move will be (and then there is the US government questionnaire, which social workers and educators are supposed to use to determine which families are most likely to become terrorists). Is it farfetched to think that one day soon, people who have not committed any crimes at all will be monitored due to comments made online, picked up discretely when they go somewhere such that the police know they are alone, and then “disappeared” to a Homan Square-like black site? All in the name of “fighting terrorism” of course.

This is the world you invite when you advocate for mass surveillance.


The Architecture Of Mass Surveillance

“Unless social, legal, or technical forces intervene, it is conceivable that there will be no place on earth where an ordinary person will be able to avoid surveillance. In this possible future, public places will be watched by terrestrial cameras and even by satellites. Facial and voice recognition software, cell phone position monitoring, smart transport, and other science-fiction-like developments will together provide full and perhaps real time information on everyone’s location. Homes and bodies will be subject to sense-enhanced viewing. All communications, save perhaps some encrypted messages, will be scannable and sortable. Copyright protection “snitchware” and Internet-based user tracking will generate full dossiers of reading and shopping habits. The move to web-based commerce, combined with the fight against money laundering and tax evasion, will make it possible to assemble a complete economic profile of every consumer. All documents, whether electronic, photocopied, or (perhaps) even privately printed, will have invisible markings making it possible to trace the author. Workplaces will not only be observed by camera, but also anything involving computer use will be subject to detailed monitoring, analyzed for both efficiency and inappropriate use. As the cost of storage continues to drop, enormous databases will be created, or disparate distributed databases linked, allowing data to be cross-referenced in increasingly sophisticated ways. In this very possible future, indeed perhaps in our present, there may be nowhere to hide and little that can stay hidden.” – Froomkin (2000)

Thus far, we’ve seen how mass surveillance and violations of privacy can have catastrophic, dystopian consequences. In this section, I’d like to go into more detail on what kind of surveillance is going on right now, as we speak.

But before detailing the many ways that you are being surveilled (see here and here for lists of known NSA activities, though both lists are old and not comprehensive), I’d like to briefly address a very important subject.

NSA Spying

Does Mass Surveillance Stop Terrorism?

Many people in America are terrified. In their minds, terrorists lurk around every corner, just waiting to blow up them and their families. Even if they don’t like the idea of mass surveillance, they are willing to trade some of their liberty for what they believe will be enhanced security.

For starters, the actual risk to a US person that terrorism poses is trivially small. Just about everything you can imagine is more dangerous to you than terrorism:

  • You are 5,882 times more likely to die from medical error than terrorism.
  • You’re 4,706 times more likely to drink yourself to death than die from terrorism.
  • You are 1,904 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack.
  • You are 271 times more likely to die from a workplace accident than terrorism.
  • You are 26 times more likely to die from falling out of bed than be killed by terrorists.
  • You are more likely to be killed by a toddler than by a terrorist.
  • You are equally likely to die from being crushed to death by your TV or furniture as you are to die from terrorism.
  • You are 4 times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

And best of all, you are 55 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than to be killed by a terrorist. So put your fear in perspective; perhaps your real fear ought to be directed towards the police (or toddlers 😉 ) rather than terrorists.

Now, even if you want to ignore all this and focus undue attention on terrorists (which, of course, is their goal…), one must still show that mass surveillance plays a role in preventing terrorist attacks in order to have any chance of justifying it. Either way, the extreme risks of mass surveillance outlined above more than outweigh any potential benefit that this surveillance could have. But a key point here is that mass surveillance has been proven to be totally ineffective anyways.

For Your Safety

Now I know, you’ve probably heard something about how the NSA has stopped 54 terror plots using mass surveillance. This is indeed what they claimed at one point. But when pressed further, only one case, where someone was caught sending $8500 (chump change) to the Al Shabaab organization in Somalia, has been confirmed. What this means is that we have no knowledge of a single life being saved due to surveillance. Certainly, there could be instances that have not been made public, but we’ll just have to take the NSA’s word for it – the same NSA known for its repeated lies.

Additionally, research done by the European Union has shown that low-tech surveillance methods are more effective than the high tech methods in use today, such as internet monitoring. Best of all, members of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Obama’s own commission, a US federal court, and an independent privacy board have all found that there is no convincing evidence that mass surveillance stops terror attacks.

But what about all the terrorist attacks that the FBI has thwarted on US soil? Surely quite a few of those are legitimate (though not necessarily the result of surveillance). However, many of these attacks are ones that were created, planned, and funded by the FBI itself! Usually the FBI finds a Muslim who publicly expresses somewhat radical political views, but is a poor, unemployed loner in his early 20s. Then the FBI creates a terror plot and recruits an informant to convince the target to partake in this government-supplied plot. Usually, there is resistance, but after plying them with large amounts of cash, they will agree. And then the FBI valiantly makes an arrest and trumpets to the media how great of a job they are doing keeping Americans safe. As Glenn Greenwald asks:

“But how serious of a threat can all of this be, at least domestically, if the FBI continually has to resort to manufacturing its own plots by trolling the Internet in search of young drifters and/or the mentally ill whom they target, recruit and then manipulate into joining? Does that not, by itself, demonstrate how over-hyped and insubstantial this “threat” actually is? Shouldn’t there be actual plots, ones that are created and fueled without the help of the FBI, that the agency should devote its massive resources to stopping?

This FBI tactic would be akin to having the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) constantly warn of the severe threat posed by drug addiction while it simultaneously uses pushers on its payroll to deliberately get people hooked on drugs so that they can arrest the addicts they’ve created and thus justify their own warnings and budgets (and that kind of threat-creation, just by the way, is not all that far off from what the other federal law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, are actually doing). As we noted the last time we wrote about this, the Justice Department is aggressively pressuring U.S. allies to employ these same entrapment tactics in order to create their own terrorists, who can then be paraded around as proof of the grave threat.”

To sum up: you shouldn’t be so deathly afraid of terrorism. It is clearly a negligible threat to you. And in any case, mass surveillance will do nothing to reduce your risk of being a victim.

Where Are You Going? Surveillance That Tracks Your Movements

One of the biggest “growth industries” in terms of mass surveillance is in tracking your physical movements from place to place. This includes all forms of transportation, from flying to driving to walking down the street. The government would like to know where you are at all times and be able to retrace your steps.

As far as street surveillance goes, Britain is most definitely the world leader. They have one CCTV (closed-circuit television) camera for every 11 people, or 5.9 million total. This includes 750,000 in schools, hospitals, and other “sensitive locations.” Just recently, the Scotland Yard chief has suggested that all British citizens install CCTV cameras in their homes. While I don’t doubt that these can be useful for catching criminals after the fact, there are clear Orwellian implications as well. The police were able to reconstruct a three mile route around York while investigating a woman’s disappearance, ruling out that she walked to work. Trying to find a missing person is good, but what about trailing, say, a political activist?

America doesn’t have quite as sophisticated a network as Britain, but there are plenty of cameras here too. The extent of video surveillance used by government is generally not made public in the US, so it is more difficult to gauge the extent of their use. But thanks to a 2011 ACLU report, we know that the Chicago Police Department has access to at least 10,000 public and private cameras, and can see virtually every public segment of the downtown area. These cameras “have the power to automatically identify and track particular persons, and the capacity to magnify and make visible small details and objects at great distances.” This, despite the fact that this type of surveillance has not been proven effective and is ripe for abuse. Having ever-present video surveillance of public places will have a serious chilling effect:

“As syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum has pointed out, “knowing that you are being watched by armed government agents tends to put a damper on things. You don’t want to offend them or otherwise call attention to yourself.” Eventually, he warns, “people may learn to be careful about the books and periodicals they read in public, avoiding titles that might alarm unseen observers. They may also put more thought into how they dress, lest they look like terrorists, gang members, druggies or hookers.” Indeed, the studies of cameras in Britain found that people deemed to be “out of time and place” with the surroundings were subjected to prolonged surveillance.”

And do you really want the government to know when you are walking into the psychiatrist’s office or a reproductive health clinic? Or, for that matter, a political gathering?

As technology gets more and more advanced, this becomes more and more scary. There are new cameras being deployed that are flown above small cities, and can track the movements of every person and vehicle for several hours at a time. What if these were flown above, say, an Occupy protest, a Tea Party gathering, or the recent protests over police killings?

And then there are other surveillance cameras that can monitor the streets for “pre-crimes” or “suspicious” behavior, and then alert the authorities. These cameras have been installed at “tourist attractions, government buildings, and military bases in the US.” But they are also about to be installed in San Francisco subways. These things tend to proliferate quickly, so don’t be surprised to see them used widely across the US over the next few years.

Perhaps most disturbing is the recent revelation that police departments across the US are using radar devices that let them see through walls and into your home. And they’ve been secretly using these devices for years.

There is also extensive surveillance of cars and where you are driving. The street cameras mentioned above are relevant here, but there are also masses of license plate readers being deployed across the US. According to John Whitehead:

“License plate readers, yet another law enforcement spying device made possible through funding by the Department of Homeland Security, can record up to 1800 license plates per minute. However, it seems these surveillance cameras can also photograph those inside a moving car. Recent reports indicate that the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using the cameras in conjunction with facial recognition software to build a “vehicle surveillance database” of the nation’s cars, drivers and passengers.”

What’s more disturbing is that the primary goal of this massive database is to help the DEA seize cars and cash associated with the drug trade via civil asset forfeiture. In other words, this whole, massive surveillance apparatus is specifically being used in order to steal from people who have not even been arrested, let alone convicted, of any crimes!

But let’s just say, hypothetically, these license plate scanners were being used to stop crimes. How effective are they? Vermont has an extensive program, which captured 7.9 million plates in an 18 month period. The program helped solve five crimes. Five.

But things start getting really Orwellian when we consider things like the tax-per-mile scheme that is going to be tested out in Oregon. You see, after mandating that cars become more fuel efficient, the government ended up losing out on too much revenue from their gasoline taxes. So instead, they are making sure all cars are fitted with a tracker that monitors how many miles you drive and sends that info back to the state.

“It plugs into the Onboard Diagnostics (OBD) port that all cars manufactured since the mid-1990s have. Then ties into your car’s computer, where the data about your mileage and (cue Darth Sideous voice) many other things are stored. Including your speed, rate of acceleration, whether you’re wearing a seatbelt.”

We can add to that list things like emissions data, parking locations, and GPS data regarding your location. Better yet, these little doohickeys can both send AND receive information. So if you haven’t paid your speeding ticket, you might just have your car automatically shut down. Combined with the knowledge that the FBI can remotely activate the microphones in cars (such as OnStar systems) and then listen in on what’s happening inside the car without passengers being able to tell, we have the makings of some truly scary stuff (technically, that is illegal, but when has that ever stopped them?). Perhaps the government will track someone who was important in a political protest, listen in on what’s going on in their car, and then remotely stop them from even making it there. That’s right, those who monitor your car can gain remote access to your vehicle (and this includes hackers/criminals, as well). Here’s a creepy example of what might start happening in the next few years:

“Picture this: You’re riding with the flow of traffic, say 40 MPH and the speed limit, like most speed limits, is under posted at 30 MPH. Suddenly an on-coming car whips a left in front of you and you center-punch the drivers door, doing considerable damage to you and the driver. His insurance company refuses to pay your claims on the basis that you were exceeding the speed limit and that there is evidence that you are a dangerous maniacal rider that shouldn’t even have a license.

At the trial the opposition pulls out the black box data. Sure enough, you were going 10 MPH over the speed limit, but traffic records show that everyone travels that road at 10 MPH over the speed limit. Then they show that on 47 occasions over the past six months you hit speeds in excess of 90 MPH! You’re portrayed as a loose cannon looking for a place to have an accident. In fact, not five minutes before the accident you were traveling 87 MPH! It doesn’t matter that you were executing a clean, safe pass, you were exceeding the speed limit by 27 miles per hour, “reckless driving” according to state statutes.”

Anyone who is using E-ZPass is also liable to have their location and movements monitored and documented, even when they aren’t driving through toll booths.

Covert Surveillance

And as anyone who has flown at all in the last dozen or so years knows, you are being thoroughly tracked when you fly. I’m only going to gloss over the TSA here, because their abuses are obvious and they really deserve a separate article. But according to a former TSA employee, many of his coworkers would laugh at the nude images from the Rapiscan (you can’t make this stuff up) X-ray machines from another room – and would sometimes be having sex in there rather than trying to keep airline passengers safe. That doesn’t really matter anyways, because even the manufacturer admitted that they don’t work, and it is easy to sneak explosives or guns through them. Oh, and these machines have the capacity to store and send these naked images.

The expanded security at airports sure makes traveling a lot more stressful. But now there are cameras being deployed in airports that can detect “emotional strain” and analyze voice-prints to detect stress. Based on these indicators, your “behavioral intent” can be scrutinized as a part of the security process. These could be a great technology and save people a lot of time going through security, but what happens with false positives?

Oh, and you probably suspected as much, but the NSA knows where you are flying and when by reading through peoples’ airline reservations and passenger manifests. And this information is being used to associate you with other people on the same flight. So if you happen to be on a flight with a criminal, even if you have no relation to them whatsoever, this will be a small strike against you.

And while they are still a relatively new technology, let’s not forget about the government’s use of drones for domestic surveillance. In the coming years, drone surveillance is likely to expand exponentially, but the Air Force is already flying drones over the US, and they are spying on us. The FBI even admits this! Worse, there are no rules in place concerning domestic surveillance using drones, so the government has a completely free hand in this area. Of course, stronger privacy laws likely won’t stop this from happening, but they would be a start. Not only that, but (and perhaps you can see a pattern here) the military is developing drones with facial recognition software which can “remember” peoples’ faces and read “malintent.” The net is tightening.

Eavesdropping On Your Calls – Phone Surveillance

It is the NSA’s cell phone surveillance that is probably the most well-known by Americans since the Snowden revelations began. Much has been made of these mass surveillance programs, but most Americans are not familiar with the incredible extent of modern cell phone surveillance. Let’s take a look.

For a while, the NSA had insisted that their bulk collection programs only collect the metadata of your calls, and that therefore the American people need not worry about the intrusiveness of these programs. The metadata (the phone numbers involved in the call, duration of call, etc.) is totally different from the content of your calls, and so you shouldn’t be concerned, according to their side of the story.

This is pure BS, for numerous reasons. Metadata can be used to reveal far more about you than Obama and the NSA would have you believe. Two Stanford graduate students were able to gather the following information just from phone metadata:

“Using phone metadata, the researchers inferred sensitive information about people’s lives, including: neurological and heart conditions, gun ownership, marijuana cultivation, abortion, and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous.”

This is just from a small experiment done by two grad students; I’m sure the NSA’s capabilities are significantly more advanced.

“They warn that the metadata they had access to is dwarfed by what the amount the NSA has access to. “The dataset that we analyzed in this report spanned hundreds of users over several months. Phone records held by the NSA and telecoms span millions of Americans over multiple years.””

For more disturbing details, see this. In addition, the NSA is using this metadata (in addition to data from emails, social media, passenger manifests, GPS tracking, etc.) in order to map the social networks of Americans, so they can know who you may be associating with. And in 2014, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden remarked: “We kill people based on metadata.”

Regardless, it is somewhat of a moot point, because the NSA is in fact listening in on the content of your phone calls. In fact, low ranking analysts can listen to the content of phone calls, and read the content of emails, text messages, and instant messages without any kind of authorization! Note that this isn’t just in real time; the content of your calls (and everything else) is being stored, and can be sifted through by thousands of low ranking analysts at their discretion.

In other words, you have no privacy whatsoever.

But there is a lot more stuff we know about the government’s surveillance of phone data. This list is hardly comprehensive, but hopefully will provide you with some idea of the scope of the mass surveillance going on:

  • It was recently revealed that the DEA has been collecting data on all calls made between the US and certain foreign countries. This surveillance is related to drug crimes, not terrorism.
  • Law enforcement officers have had access to a massive database of call records dating back to 1987, which has been used for routine law enforcement (again, not terrorism). Four billion call records are added to the database every day (although one call can correspond to more than one record).
  • The NSA is collecting up to five billion phone records per day from around the world, provided by US telecom providers. This doesn’t specifically target Americans, but a lot of American call records are scooped up “incidentally.”
  • The NSA, in it’s Dishfire program, collects 200 million text messages every day globally. These records can be queried for location data, contacts, credit card info, missed call alerts, roaming alerts (indicating potential border crossings), payment notifications, travel itinerary alerts, meeting information, electronic business cards, and so on. This is an untargeted operation and includes information on people who are not suspected of any crimes.
  • The NSA and GCHQ stole the encryption keys from various SIM card makers, most notably Gemalto. Gemalto produces two billion SIM cards per year, sold all over the world. Any phone with one of these SIM cards is completely vulnerable, and all the data on it is available to these spy agencies.
  • The NSA is secretly introducing flaws into communication systems so that they can easily be tapped into. This makes networks less secure and makes it easier for hackers or foreign governments to steal data as well, not just the NSA. The scope of this project (codename: AURORAGOLD) is such that “virtually every cellphone network in the world is NSA accessible.”
  • The CIA has a coordinated campaign to hack Apple’s iPhones and iPads. Read more about this interesting story here.
  • Dozens of governments around the world have bought surveillance technology that allows them to monitor the location of cell phones simply by typing in a phone number. The NSA and GCHQ have been doing this for years, but it is also accessible to dictators in banana republics.
  • The FBI remotely activates the microphones in cell phones to listen in on conversations in real time. They are able to do this even if the phone is turned off.
  • The Feds are flying small planes equipped with fake cell tower technology over the US, which collects phone data by forcing your phone to connect with it. These machines are supposed to be used to aid in routine law enforcement, but the machines are incapable of discriminating and end up picking up the data of everyone within range. The range of these planes cover “most of the US population.”
  • Police departments across the country are using Stingray devices, which also operate as fake cell towers. The government has been absurdly secretive about their use. Apparently, these devices disrupt cell service of any phones in their vicinity – a potential danger if there are emergencies happening nearby.

The government has almost unqualified access to your phone data. Again, it is not at all difficult to see how this kind of power could be abused.

“Gentlemen Don’t Read Each Other’s Mail” – Snail Mail Surveillance

Even your very low-tech snail mail isn’t safe from the mass surveillance machine.

For starters, all mail sent in the US has its envelope scanned and is loaded into a database. This contributes to the massive amounts of metadata out there, helping to create the government’s dossier on you.

On top of that, the US Postal Service approved nearly 50,000 requests from law enforcement to monitor your mail in 2013. These requests were approved despite often having no reason provided or even the proper written authorization that is supposedly required. Unsurprisingly, this program was abused by those trusted to administer it. For instance, it was used at least once by a politician to spy on a political opponent, and was also used to spy on communications between attorneys and their clients.

And just recently, mysterious secret cameras were discovered set up outside the post office to monitor peoples’ faces and their license plates as they drive to and from the post office. Within an hour of the story breaking, the surveillance cameras were removed…

Becoming Omniscient – Internet Surveillance

Government Liking Status

The internet is effectively broken. Unless you take active measures and use strong encryption online, the government knows about whatever you do and is watching you. To give you a feel for just how serious this is, consider these words from security expert Bruce Schneier:

“Web search data is another source of intimate information that can be used for surveillance. (You can argue whether this is data or metadata. The NSA claims it’s metadata because your search terms are embedded in the URLs.) We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members. We always tell it exactly what we’re thinking about, in as clear words as possible.

Google knows what kind of porn each of us searches for, which old lovers we still think about, our shames, our concerns, and our secrets. If Google decided to, it could figure out which of us is worried about our mental health, thinking about tax evasion, or planning to protest a particular government policy. I used to say that Google knows more about what I’m thinking of than my wife does. But that doesn’t go far enough. Google knows more about what I’m thinking of than I do, because Google remembers all of it perfectly and forever.

I did a quick experiment with Google’s autocomplete feature. This is the feature that offers to complete typing your search queries in real time, based on what other people have typed. When I typed “should I tell my w,” Google suggested “should i tell my wife i had an affair” and “should i tell my work about dui” as the most popular completions. Google knows who clicked on those completions, and everything else they ever searched for. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt admitted as much in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.””

The NSA has easy access to all of this data. Through their PRISM surveillance program, the NSA can perform “extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information,” including on email, video and voice chat, photos, voice-over-IP chats (such as Skype), file transfers, and social networking details. Thousands of low-level analysts can access this data without any need for supervisor approval, a warrant, or anything like that. They want to eavesdrop on your Skype calls? No problem. From Wikipedia:

“…the NSA databank, with its years of collected communications, allows analysts to search that database and listen “to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future.””

The NSA is able to do this because they have direct access to the servers of major internet giants, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. And while many of these tech giants are willing to cooperate closely with the intelligence community, it is clear that the government valued this program heavily and were willing to fight for it. In fact, they threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 per day if they would not comply.

Another NSA program harvests “hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans.”

Obama Civil Libertarians

And their internet surveillance isn’t politically agnostic, either; in fact, internet surveillance plays a critical role in the government’s war against WikiLeaks. In fact:

“By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.”

But perhaps most disturbing of all is the NSA’s war against internet security, which is covered in a fascinating article on Der Spiegel. The NSA has a program deliberately designed to crack anything and everything on the internet, and to weaken the encryption standards of numerous internet protocols. Keep in mind that doing so creates vulnerabilities that anyone can exploit, including malicious hackers or foreign governments.

The NSA has completely cracked Skype and VPNs, which are not secure against their prying eyes. Even more scarily, https connections also aren’t secure, and these are the types of connections people use for financial services, e-commerce, webmail, etc. They’ve cracked the Secure Shell protocol (SSH), which is used by system administrators to log into employees’ computers remotely. Basically, they’ve cracked almost everything.

Regarding VPNs:

“According to an NSA document dating from late 2009, the agency was processing 1,000 requests an hour to decrypt VPN connections. This number was expected to increase to 100,000 per hour by the end of 2011. The aim was for the system to be able to completely process “at least 20 percent” of these requests, meaning the data traffic would have to be decrypted and reinjected. In other words, by the end of 2011, the NSA’s plans called for simultaneously surveilling 20,000 supposedly secure VPN communications per hour.”

Regarding https:

“The NSA and its allies routinely intercept such connections — by the millions. According to an NSA document, the agency intended to crack 10 million intercepted https connections a day by late 2012. The intelligence services are particularly interested in the moment when a user types his or her password. By the end of 2012, the system was supposed to be able to “detect the presence of at least 100 password based encryption applications” in each instance some 20,000 times a month.”

The silver lining of the report is that there are still some pieces of software that it appears the NSA has trouble cracking, including Tor, Truecrypt, and OTR instant messaging. Of course, this was from years ago, and it is quite possible they have discovered vulnerabilities since then.

Building An Economic Profile – Financial Surveillance

As in other areas, surveillance of financial records by the US government is total. As an American, you can no longer have any expectation of financial privacy. This means that any purchases you make, any money you transfer, or any investments you have, are known to the NSA.

As usual, most of what we know regarding this surveillance comes from documents released by Edward Snowden. Some of these documents were made public via Der Spiegel, and this is how ZeroHedge frames their revelations:

“They also know how much anyone in the world has spent on credit card-based purchases, what the source of that money is, and what the purchase was. In other words: absolute monetary and financial surveillance. And since SWIFT is involved, it likely also means a full blanket coverage of who buys what stock, and furthermore, leaves open to abuse the knowledge of which equities or FX pair the Fed, for example, is buying ahead of time in order to prevent yet another daily stock market plunge.”

This brings up an important point – gathering all this financial data could be quite profitable for those who are appropriately positioned to use it! Of course, that would never include people like you and me. And it’s also easy to see how having your personal financial info in a database somewhere could be inimical to freedom. Perhaps you don’t want people to know the things you’ve purchased or invested in.

But how widespread is this surveillance, really? Is it actually that bad? According to more documents from Der Spiegel, it is:

“Indeed, secret documents reveal that the main NSA financial database Tracfin, which collects the “Follow the Money” surveillance results on bank transfers, credit card transactions and money transfers, already had 180 million datasets by 2011. The corresponding figure in 2008 was merely 20 million. According to these documents, most Tracfin data is stored for five years.”


“The classified documents show that the intelligence agency has several means of accessing the internal data traffic of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a cooperative used by more than 8,000 banks worldwide for their international transactions. The NSA specifically targets other institutes on an individual basis. Furthermore, the agency apparently has in-depth knowledge of the internal processes of credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard. What’s more, even new, alternative currencies, as well as presumably anonymous means of payment like the Internet currency Bitcoin, rank among the targets of the American spies.”

There’s no escape (note that bitcoin has never been anonymous, nor is it an “internet” currency)! In the past, perhaps you could have counted on some discretion by using offshore banks in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands. But then the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) happened, and financial privacy is now completely dead.

FATCA gives the IRS broad powers to force foreign financial institutions to give your info to them (and that info is available to be shared with other agencies in the government, such as the NSA/CIA/FBI). Many foreign banks will no longer take US customers or are shutting down American’s accounts because of the difficulty complying (and not complying comes with a 30% penalty).

Most people have never heard of FATCA. But it is a critically important piece of legislation, and I strongly suggest you read more about it here. While the stated intent is to prevent financial “crimes” such as tax evasion, the real purpose is about collecting your financial information:

“If FATCA’s sole purpose were to “recover” tax revenues from assets squirreled away offshore by American “fat cats,” it seems odd that it targets only individuals and specifically exempts reporting on accounts held by U.S. corporations. On the other hand, targeting individuals makes a lot of sense if FATCA’s purpose is directed towards something else: adding to U.S. government agencies’ global electronic “map” of personal information.”

Put simply, unless you conduct your financial affairs entirely in cash (or perhaps some anonymous cryptocurrencies like Darkcoin), whatever you do is being documented and stored in some massive government database.

Even if you don’t think that all this financial surveillance is out of line because you believe it’s “worth it” to sacrifice privacy for security, you should still be concerned, because the IRS is notoriously bad at protecting peoples’ data:

“Former Internal Revenue Service employees have access to your sensitive financial information. So do current employees who aren’t authorized to see such data. Even some visitors to IRS facilities may have access to sensitive material.”

“Note that the GAO report comes after revelations that the IRS has a habit of rehiring people it fired for snooping through data or otherwise misbehaving on the job. That may help to explain why its employees are regularly exposed as identity thieves and filers of fraudulent returns. The tax agency also improperly turns over sensitive data about taxpayers to law enforcement agencies.”

Yeah, pathetic. And horrifying.

Taking Your Measurements – Biometric Surveillance

Biometric surveillance technologies are being rapidly developed, and there is simply no way I can cover this as thoroughly as it deserves to be covered here.

Not only that, but biometrics tend to interface with all of the other methods of surveillance mentioned thus far. For instance, the drones that can recognize faces, and so on. Nevertheless, I did want to provide some examples of what would – if used appropriately rather than for mass surveillance – be considered really cool technology. All kinds of neat things fit in this category, from facial and voice recognition software to fingerprint scanners. Some of this starts to almost delve into the realm of science fiction. For a great overview of biometric technology and some of the issues with its use, see this paper from the EFF.

Where else can I start but with the revelation that the GCHQ and NSA intercepted 1.8 million webcam images (that many in just six months!) from Yahoo webcam chats, mostly from people who were not under any suspicion of wrongdoing, and stored them in a database with the intention of using facial recognition technology to identify terrorists using the service to communicate. Up to 11% of that webcam imagery was “undesirable nudity.”

Facial recognition technology has been used to great effect in Iraq  and Afghanistan, where the US has created massive databases of facial scan data.

“Information about more than 1.5 million Afghans has been put in databases operated by American, NATO and local forces. While that is one of every 20 Afghan residents, it is the equivalent of roughly one of every six males of fighting age, ages 15 to 64.

In Iraq, an even larger number of people, and a larger percentage of the population, have been registered. Data have been gathered on roughly 2.2 million Iraqis, or one in every 14 citizens — and the equivalent of one in four males of fighting age.”

Using these databases, the military is able to see if the people that they capture in the field are known terrorists, escaped prisoners, or the like. This kind of information can prove invaluable on the battlefield.

The real problem comes from when this use of the technology is brought back home. And unfortunately, this is happening at an alarming rate.

For instance, the Boston police had a dry run of their facial recognition software and spied on everyone who attended a local music festival. In and of itself, this wasn’t a huge deal; the problem is that the Boston PD tried hard to cover it up.

“Like many surveillance programs, this uses the assumed lack of an expectation of privacy as its starting point. But this assumption only works one way. The public can only expect a minimum of privacy protections in public, but law enforcement automatically assumes a maximum of secrecy in order to “protect” its investigative techniques.”

Most of the facial recognition data from this was posted online – a massive security issue.

But that is nothing compared to what is happening on a national level. As reported by the New York Times, the NSA is harvesting images from the internet and feeding them into its facial recognition database.

“The agency intercepts “millions of images per day” — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” — which translate into “tremendous untapped potential,” according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.”

“It is not clear how many people around the world, and how many Americans, might have been caught up in the effort. Neither federal privacy laws nor the nation’s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images.”

In other words, your Facebook photos are giving the NSA biometric data which they can then use to identify you elsewhere.

And an article on Newsweek shed some more light on the scope of the biometric surveillance that is going on, along with some reasons to be concerned.

“…the federal government has been quite busy with biometrics. This summer, the FBI is focusing on face recognition with the fourth step of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, a $1.2 billion initiative launched in 2008 to build the world’s largest biometric database. By 2013, the database held 73 million fingerprints, 5.7 million palm prints, 8.1 million mug shots and 8,500 iris scans. Interfaces to access the system are being provided free of charge to local law enforcement authorities.

Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney for the privacy-focused Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), notes there were at least 14 million photographs in the NGI face recognition database as of 2012. What’s more, the NGI database makes no distinction between criminal biometrics and those collected for civil service jobs. “All of a sudden, your image that you uploaded for a civil purpose to get a job is searched every time there’s a criminal query,” Lynch says. “You could find yourself having to defend your innocence.”

Through a federal lawsuit, EFF obtained redacted NGI documents that it will soon publish. documents show that by 2015, the FBI estimates that NGI will include 46 million criminal face images and 4.3 million civil face images. The vendor building the face recognition system, MorphoTrust, was asked to design it to receive up to 55,000 direct photo enrollments per day and 2,300 per hour, as well as process 34,000 photo retrievals per day and 1,400 per hour. The statistics hint at the sheer scale of the face recognition infrastructure under construction—in one year, over 20 million Americans could be put into the system.

…any time citizens have their photo taken in a governmental capacity, whether it’s a background check or a driver’s license, their faces are liable to be analyzed by NGI.

“What would a world look like with comprehensive biometric surveillance? “If cameras connected to databases can do face recognition, it will become impossible to be anonymous in society,” Lynch says. That means every person in the U.S. would be passively tracked at all times. In the future, the government could know when you use your computer, which buildings you enter on a daily basis, where you shop and where you drive. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of Big Brother paranoia.

But anonymity isn’t going quietly. Over the past several years, mass protests have disrupted governments in countries across the globe, including Egypt, Syria and Ukraine. “It’s important to go out in society and be anonymous,” Lynch says. But face recognition could make that impossible. A protester in a crowd could be identified and fired from a job the next day, never knowing why. A mistaken face-print algorithm could mark the wrong people as criminals and force them to escape the specter of their own image.” [emphasis mine]

This brings up an important point. The increasing ease by which police departments can identify people in specific locations makes it far easier for the government to mask civil liberties violations and abuses. Rather than arresting every protester at a public protest, the police could use facial recognition technology to selectively arrest or detain the leaders or organizers of the protest. Clearly, this could destroy it before it even has a chance to get off the ground.

Biometrics are starting to be secretly used in the US, largely by Customs for immigration/border crossing purposes. Right now, these are more in an experimental phase, but surely it won’t be long before this is the standard. Here are three biometric programs that have been revealed by leaked documents that were acquired by Motherboard:

  • Facial recognition at Dulles Airport. The intention of this program is to catch “impostors,” or people who are using passports that aren’t their own. Customs officers are allowed to “randomly” select people to take aside for a mug shot, and if selected, they are not allowed to opt out. This picture is then compared with their passport photo and is scored on how well they match up.
  • Fingerprint scans in Atlanta. When foreign nationals exit the US, they will have their fingerprint scanned and matched with their entry records to see if they have spent more time in the US than allowed.
  • Iris scans and facial recognition at the US-Mexico border. This is an experiment to test the viability of these technologies in terms of adding extra layers of security to the border crossings.


This is how it begins. First, they are unveiled for the fairly noncontroversial idea of improving border security. But soon enough, these technologies will be used everywhere – when you buy things, when you enter buildings, when you are driving, and so on.

I want to close this section with a very short sampling of the insane new technologies being developed in this area. These are just a handful of the creepy things I’ve found, but I’m sure there are a gazillion more.

  • Voice recognition technology allows investigators to recognize and analyze your voice, even when background noise makes the recording itself inaudible. Imagine this, combined with the ability to remotely turn on your phone, car, or computer’s microphone.
  • New spy tech lets investigators retrieve your “voice imprint” from physical objects. Using this technology, researchers “could detect speech from an object photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass, as well as analyze video recordings and extract the data from objects in a room even when the people targeted were off camera.”
  • Fingerprint scanners can capture and analyze your fingerprint from up to 20 feet away. This could streamline the process of walking into the gym, but it could also be deployed to get a much larger fingerprint database of innocent people.
  • Soon, scientists may be able to read your memories. So far, this has only been done on rats, but humans could be next. Don’t worry, the technology for this is still likely many years away – but we are on track to develop it eventually.
  • Similarly, scientists may soon be able to read your mind. Again, this is a long way off, but scientists can already get some crude information on your thoughts via brain scans.

These technologies have legitimate uses, and could solve some very real problems. But used inappropriately, they could lead to an incredibly dystopian future.


Technology And The Future Of Surveillance

The modern iteration of the surveillance state is already quite impressive, as you have just seen. But technology is advancing rapidly, and certain trends may lead us into a world even beyond the wildest ideas of Orwell’s 1984. If these trends continue along a certain path, life in America could be a lot like living in an open-air prison. Consider people who are on house arrest who are made to wear GPS trackers – except that everyone will be subject to it, and it will be literally impossible to cut it off.

The Internet Of Things

“Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation Internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing.” – Former CIA Director, David Petraeus

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects embedded with electronics, usually connected to the internet, in order to get some kind of additional benefits or functionality based on the ability for these objects to communicate with each other, with you, and with their manufacturer. IoT offers us unprecedented benefits in terms of convenience and lifestyle improvements, but is also a massive threat to our privacy.

As more and more physical devices become connected to the internet, more and more pieces of data become easily gathered and transmitted. Some estimate that there will be 30 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020. Most people are willing to allow this to happen without a peep, and without any concern for their privacy, because they are willing to trade it for some added convenience. In fact, one in four professionals aged 18-50 have stated that they would like to connect their brains directly to the internet if possible.

Before diving into the more terrifying aspects of this, let me make clear that the IoT does in fact promise massive benefits to society. If implemented with proper security and without government surveillance involvement, it would be one of the most incredible advancements for humanity that I can imagine.

Consider just some of the mundane applications of this. As you start coming home from work, your refrigerator reminds you that you need to pick up milk, so it tells your car the best route to get to the store where milk is sold cheapest. As you pull into your driveway, the thermostat turns up the heat – remembering the temperature that you like. And when you step inside, there’s already a hot cup of coffee ready for you; because of some files open on your laptop, it figured you might be burning the midnight oil.

Yes, the Internet of Things offers unprecedented amounts of convenience, but it comes at a serious cost. And we are collectively marching forward with this without giving enough thought to the consequences. You can opt out of using the internet/cyberspace on your computer, but you cannot “opt out” of your home gadgets in the same way. “Always on” connectivity means that these appliances can continue collecting and transmitting data even when they appear to be off, so it could be almost impossible to protect yourself. Soon, people will need to choose whether they want these appliances or not, but people who rent likely will not have that option. And at some point, “smart” devices may be all that are available on the market.

In theory, so long as there is some demand for devices that are not connected to the IoT, there should be some that are sold and available. But don’t be surprised if these kinds of devices become mandated as standard for “safety” reasons. You must have a self-driving car, because of the risk of human error. You must have a smart refrigerator in order to prevent you from getting food poisoning, or to prevent food from being wasted. You must have a smart thermostat, because it will be better for the environment.

We don’t even need to bring government into the picture before this becomes a bad idea. There are massive security risks to the Internet of Things, and these absolutely need to be addressed. IoT technology is highly susceptible to hackers, government or otherwise; a recent HP study found that 70% of internet connected devices are vulnerable to attack. Most of the data transmitted from current “smart” appliances is unencrypted – in other words, anyone can easily get access to it. For more detailed analysis of the cyber threats posed by the IoT, see this.

According to security expert Claude Baudoin, IoT devices are susceptible to three main kinds of attack:

  • Listening in on the data or the commands could reveal confidential information about the operation of the infrastructure.
  • Injecting fake measurements could disrupt the control processes and cause them to react inappropriately or dangerously, or could be used to mask physical attacks.
  • Sending incorrect commands could be used to trigger unplanned events, to deliberately send some physical resource (water, oil, electricity, etc.) to an unplanned destination.

In other words, not only can data be stolen, but the actual physical integrity and operation of these devices can be compromised as well. This can be particularly scary when you think about your car; if hackers or government operatives can take control of your vehicle, it would be very easy to, say, murder you and make it look like suicide. And the terrorist attacks of the future could be catastrophic, like that portrayed in Live Free or Die Hard.

charlottes webcam

There are already some unsettling examples of the IoT in practice, and others where it is easy to envision them being used in a creepy or dangerous way:

  • Children’s toys. There is a Barbie doll that records what your children are saying, sends that audio over the internet to a third party, and uses their words to come up with a response. Children tend not to have much of a filter, so who knows what kind of potentially incriminating things they could say? And children have always been used as spies in totalitarian regimes…
  • Smart TVs. The Samsung smart TV recently got some attention because it is recording your conversations, is able to conduct a voice analysis, and then transmits this audio to a third party. It’s also logging your website visits, and is equipped with a camera for facial recognition. Perhaps even worse is the LG smart TV, which also transmits voice recordings. Not only that, but it tracks when you change the channel, and it transmits file metadata from your USB sticks. In other words, your TV knows about your files stored elsewhere. Finally, even when you turn the “collection of watching info” setting off (it is on by default), it continues to collect your data.
  • Baby monitors. These things have terrible security, and there have been multiple instances where hackers have taken control of them and started yelling at peoples’ babies from across the world.
  • Health “wearables”. These devices offer some incredible benefits, like allowing doctors to remotely monitor your health (“OnStar for the body”). But what happens when, under a socialized medical system, this information is used to enforce doctors’ orders?

But this is just the beginning. Much has been written about the Internet of Things and how it spells the end of privacy. I can’t possibly reproduce it all here. I highly recommend reading this fictional account of an IoT future from Wired reporter Mat Honan, from which the following is excerpted:

I wake up at four to some old-timey dubstep spewing from my pillows. The lights are flashing. My alarm clock is blasting Skrillex or Deadmau5 or something, I don’t know. I never listened to dubstep, and in fact the entire genre is on my banned list. You see, my house has a virus again.

Technically it’s malware. But there’s no patch yet, and pretty much everyone’s got it. Homes up and down the block are lit up, even at this early hour. Thankfully this one is fairly benign. It sets off the alarm with music I blacklisted decades ago on Pandora. It takes a picture of me as I get out of the shower every morning and uploads it to Facebook. No big deal.”

I also suggest reading this article by Matthew Harwood and Catherine Crump regarding the dangers of IoT surveillance. Some excerpts:

“…Apple introduced iBeacon last year.  It’s a service based on transmitters that employ Bluetooth technology to track where Apple users are in stores and restaurants. (The company conveniently turned on Bluetooth by default via a software update it delivered to Apple iPhone owners.) Apps that use iBeacon harvest a user’s data, including his or her location, and sometimes can even turn on a device’s microphone to listen in on what’s going on.

Another company, Turnstyle Solutions Inc., has placed sensors around Toronto that surreptitiously record signals emitted by WiFi-enabled devices and can track users’ movements. Turnstyle can tell, for instance, when a person who visited a restaurant goes to a bar or a hotel. When people log-on to WiFi networks Turnstyle has installed at area restaurants or coffee shops and check Facebook, the company can go far beyond location, collecting “names, ages, genders, and social media profiles,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The danger of the rise of Big Data and the Internet of Things is straightforward enough. Whenever data is perpetually generated, collected, and stored, the result is going to be a virtual ATM of user information that government agencies can withdraw from with ease. Last year, for instance, local, state, and federal authorities issued 164,000 subpoenas to Verizon and more than 248,000 subpoenas to AT&T for user information, while issuing nearly 7,500 subpoenas to Google during the first half of 2013.”

This last point is critical. If the Internet of Things really takes hold, there will be unlimited amounts of data at the government’s fingertips. They will be able to know everything about you, and they will potentially be able to control nearly everything that you interact with. I’d like to close this section with some words from security expert Bruce Schneier:

“In the longer term, the Internet of Things means ubiquitous surveillance. If an object “knows” you have purchased it, and communicates via either Wi-Fi or the mobile network, then whoever or whatever it is communicating with will know where you are. Your car will know who is in it, who is driving, and what traffic laws that driver is following or ignoring. No need to show ID; your identity will already be known. Store clerks could know your name, address, and income level as soon as you walk through the door. Billboards will tailor ads to you, and record how you respond to them. Fast food restaurants will know what you usually order, and exactly how to entice you to order more. Lots of companies will know whom you spend your days — and nights — with. Facebook will know about any new relationship status before you bother to change it on your profile. And all of this information will all be saved, correlated, and studied.”

Mass Surveillance And DNA Databases

My final warning regarding the dystopian future we may be heading towards is about DNA databases.

DNA Testing

DNA contains almost limitless amounts of information about you, and it is something you will never be able to change. Not only can your DNA be used to identify who you are, but it also can tell you what you look like (there’s even a company that creates “mug shots” for police based on DNA samples), who you are related to, your health history, your likelihood of contracting certain illnesses, and your likelihood of behaving in certain ways. This information could be incredibly valuable to a government looking to control its subjects.

The Obama administration has already proposed forming a massive genetic database containing the DNA of American citizens. So far, the proposal is only asking for 1 million volunteers, but as with all areas of government, there could easily be “mission creep” and have the scope widened drastically. And the government is legally allowed to collect your DNA without your permission or knowledge. In Raynor vs. Maryland, it was determined that leaving your genetic material behind is like leaving a fingerprint, and the government can do what they want with it. In this case, a rape suspect refused a mouth swab, but the police simply collected DNA off the chair he was sitting on. This sets a dangerous precedent, because as the scientist Leslie Pray says:

“We all shed DNA, leaving traces of our identity practically everywhere we go. Forensic scientists use DNA left behind on cigarette butts, phones, handles, keyboards, cups, and numerous other objects, not to mention the genetic content found in drops of bodily fluid, like blood and semen. In fact, the garbage you leave for curbside pickup is a potential gold mine of this sort of material. All of this shed or so-called abandoned DNA is free for the taking by local police investigators hoping to crack unsolvable cases.”

This DNA is ripe for getting picked up and included in any governmental DNA database. And it can get picked up in many other ways, too. For instance, during drunk driving checkpoints, or for that matter, any arrests or police interactions, even if not convicted. And it is certainly plausible that one day, DNA samples may be required in order to get a driver’s license, when entering government buildings, when applying for jobs, and so on. Even today, there are government rules mandating that hospitals collect the DNA of all newborn babies, without requiring parental consent or even that the parent knows about it. Soon enough, everyone’s DNA will be on file. There may even be mosquito-esque drones flying around extracting DNA samples.

As John Whitehead notes:

“With the entire governmental system shifting into a pre-crime mode aimed at detecting and pursuing those who “might” commit a crime before they have an inkling, let alone an opportunity, to do so, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which government agents (FBI, local police, etc.) target potential criminals based on their genetic disposition to be a “troublemaker” or their relationship to past dissenters.”

And researchers have shown that DNA evidence can be fabricated – perhaps these free thinkers will even be framed for crimes preemptively. Or the database could be used to implement a eugenicist program. The possibilities for abuse are almost unfathomable.



Obama I Spy

While you may believe you “have nothing to hide,” you have every reason to value your privacy and to fear and fight back against the surveillance state. Mass surveillance is not about stopping terrorism; it is a tool to control the population and to secure the interests of an elite group of aristocrats.

Mass surveillance can lead to all kinds of dangers for both individuals and the wider community. There can be witch hunts based on certain information, people will be considered guilty until proven innocent based on predictive analytics, and due process will be a thing of the past. Laws will be inequitably enforced, everyone will be suspicious of everyone else, and society will lose its moral cohesion. And the potential for totalitarian government is simply too strong to ignore, even in countries that most consider a part of “the free world.”

The degree of surveillance going on already is staggering, but the public outcry has been almost non-existent. Sure, a few people have listened to Edward Snowden, but half of America thinks he is a traitor and should be killed! And regardless of what the rest of us do, the government has been ignoring our outrage.

How can we stop this? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. Ultimately, I believe the solution lies in technology; what we need is for strong encryption to become easy to use and the default way we communicate. And we need a cultural transformation, where people who care about their privacy aren’t immediately viewed as “suspicious.”

But until then, there are things you can do to protect yourself. You should always stay up to date on the privacy and security world and it’s technology, because these things change rapidly. A great start is with Laura Poitras’s white paper, detailing the methods she used to securely communicate with Snowden.

Conspiracy Theory In America

conspiracy theories

Let’s say that a man marries a wealthy woman, take out a life insurance policy on his wife, and then a few months later, the woman dies in a freak accident at home. The man then marries another wealthy woman, and several months later, she also dies under similar circumstances.

The account I’ve given you here doesn’t provide any real evidence of anything, but I’m confident that you’ve already formulated in your mind a potential culprit. Who wouldn’t think that the first person to investigate ought to be the husband? In fact, if the police who were investigating these deaths didn’t look into the husband, nearly everyone would consider them woefully incompetent.

This is all quite rational. The evidence is purely circumstantial, of course. There would need to be real evidence that the man was involved before he could be convicted. Regardless, there would be near universal agreement that something suspicious was happening, and the man was likely involved.

This is the exact opposite of the way Americans respond to what are typically called “conspiracy theories”, according to Lance deHaven-Smith, author of the book Conspiracy Theory in America, which is without a doubt the most thought-provoking book I have read in years. Once something has been labeled a conspiracy theory, all rational evaluation of the circumstance in question flies out the window.

In fact, the popular conception of conspiracy theories is that they amount to a kind of impaired thinking, analogous to a mental illness or a superstition. A more accurate definition would be that conspiracy theories are any theory of official wrongdoing that have not yet been substantiated by public officials themselves.

The use of the term “conspiracy theory” is a relatively recent phenomenon. It essentially came into existence in 1964 as a catch-all for disagreements with the Warren Commission report on the JFK assassination – and the popularity of the term has exploded since. According to Global Research:

“A LexisNexis search of news program transcripts for the dates March 1, 2011 to March 1, 2014 reveals 2,469 usages of the “conspiracy theory/theories” term. Probing the surveyed time span reveals CNN (586 transcripts) and MSNBC (382) as the foremost purveyors of the phrase, with Fox News (182) a distant third. The US government’s transcript service, US Federal News, comes in at fourth, suggesting persistent strategic usage of the label at federal government press conferences and similar functions to drive home official positions and dispel challenges to them. Programming on National Public Radio ranks fifth, with 115 instances.”

In what some might consider an ironic twist, the term “conspiracy theory” was popularized by a CIA media infiltration campaign beginning in 1967 that was designed to discredit critics of the Warren Commission and paint them as kooks. While you may not believe me, this is not a controversial point, and the plan was outlined in CIA document 1035-960. And it’s not as though there isn’t a long history of CIA manipulation of the media, which has been thoroughly documented by Carl Bernstein.

In other words, you could say that the origin of the term “conspiracy theory” was in itself a conspiracy!


Conspiracies Are Real

In the minds of the majority of Americans, a conspiracy theory is something so “out there” that it is too wacky to even contemplate, and is beyond the range of normal, polite discourse.

This is odd, because we know for a fact that conspiracies can and do happen: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Fast and Furious, and the systematic lying about the weight of evidence or Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, to name just a few of the confirmed ones.

Since clearly some “conspiracy theories” are true, is it not pure nonsense to dismiss all theories of elite criminality as false?

A common response to this line of argument is that “someone would talk”, meaning that conspiracies can never be kept secret because someone will inevitably spill the beans.

Oftentimes, someone does talk; people just don’t listen. They are too busy accusing them of being a conspiracy theorist! Or someone will talk, but people won’t care. How else can we explain that 49% of Americans believe Edward Snowden to be a traitor, despite his making public conclusive evidence of massive government crimes involving illegal surveillance?

But the idea that “someone would talk”, that it would be impossible for public officials to successfully hide their conspiracy, is fundamentally flawed. After all, the government has been able to keep secrets. For instance, the Manhattan Project, which involved multiple agencies and thousands of people, was somehow kept a secret from the public until Truman used nukes on Japan. Even Truman himself was unaware of the program until a full week after becoming President, despite occupying the office of VP for years!

Not only that, but the Watergate and Iran-Contra conspiracies were only exposed because someone got caught, not because someone talked. Better operational security could have resulted in both of these scandals remaining secret, which ought to make you wonder how many conspiracies have managed to remain under wraps!

And then there are false flag attacks, or covert operations designed to trick people into believing that the operation was perpetrated by a different entity, which are routinely admitted to being used by governments around the world. See here for instances where governments have openly admitted to using false flag attacks…it is disturbing. And those are only instances where people have come forward – again, how many more have gone undiscovered?

In any case, the immediate dismissal of anything considered a “conspiracy theory” is shocking in light of American history. After all, America was literally founded on the conspiracy theory that King George had intended to establish “an absolute tyranny over these states”, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. That’s what the separation of powers was about – if powers were unchecked, they could more easily be abused. Of course, it is worth noting that the colonists lived under far less onerous restrictions than we do in modern America.

Clearly, the way modern Americans interpret the term “conspiracy theory” is massively out of line with reality.


“Conspiracy Theory” and Perceptual Silos

Perceptual Silos

I began this post by describing a situation where on two distinct occasions, a man’s wife dies under suspicious circumstances soon after getting a large life insurance policy, and how most people would respond to the story. It seems clear that most people would draw a connection between the two occasions, and would consider the husband to be the prime suspect.

But when something is dubbed a “conspiracy theory”, most people will tuck it away into what deHaven-Smith calls a “perceptual silo”. In other words, we tend to automatically assume that any “conspiracy theory” is an isolated incident.

For instance, when you think of the Kennedy assassination, you immediately think, specifically, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The assassination of Robert Kennedy is considered a completely different scenario, despite glaring similarities. They were brothers with similar ideologies, murdered within a few years of each other, who were both political rivals of Richard Nixon and hated by Lyndon Johnson. Both were assassinated while campaigning for president, and both seemed likely to win. These similarities prove nothing, but any elementary investigator should be looking for ways to link the two events together, just as they would for the deaths of the two wives.

Let’s compare this with the events of September 11th, which were closely followed by a series of anthrax attacks across the country. As the anthrax attacks were happening, I recall the public discussion assuming that the attacks on the Twin Towers and the anthrax letters were related, and al-Qaeda being blamed for both. Today, these two events are cognitively disassociated. What happened?

Well, the FBI discovered that the strain of anthrax used in the letters was developed at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland…by the U.S. Army. Shortly after the anthrax attacks were discovered, the FBI had authorized the destruction of rare anthrax samples at Iowa State University, making it significantly more difficult for scientists to connect the anthrax in the attacks to domestic labs where they were created. These discoveries should have sent alarm bells off in the minds of the public, suggesting that perhaps the U.S. military was in some way connected to the 9/11 attacks. Instead, discussion of the anthrax attacks stopped, and was “sealed off cognitively” as a completely separate and distinct situation. Once investigators found that the anthrax was developed in Maryland, the case was closed, and that was that.

A “conspiracy theory” is an isolated event. When these types of events are related, they are considered organized crime instead. The Mafia may do many of the things that “conspiracy theorists” accuse the government of doing, but they are considered an organization, not a conspiracy. This distinction between conspiracy theory and organized crime creates these perceptual silos. This silo effect makes it far less likely that people will even begin to look for connections between these kinds of events.

That’s not all. To find a connection between two or more “conspiracies” requires one to have an initial suspicion of political elites in the first place. But this very suspicion is one of the primary norms implicit in the negative connotation that the designation of “conspiracy theorist” holds. If you try to find connections between these events, the act of doing this investigation earns you the label of “conspiracy theorist”, entitling everyone else to ignore you, regardless of the strength of the evidence for your claims.


The Dangers and Psychology of the “Conspiracy Theory” Label

Tinfoil Hat

Perceptual silos are but one of the psychological aspects involved in the idea of conspiracy theory. There are other aspects that make the “conspiracy theory” label even more effective at achieving its goal, which we’ll get into in a moment.

First, let’s consider the Martha Mitchell Effect. Martha Mitchell was the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, and had told her psychiatrist that top White House officials were engaged in illegal activities. Her psychiatrist chalked this up to mental illness – but we know now that Watergate really happened. The Martha Mitchell Effect is the tendency for people (mental health professionals specifically, but it could apply to anyone) to label as “delusional” any claims which they feel are improbable and haven’t taken the time to look at the evidence for. In psychiatry, this can result in misdiagnosing patients as mentally ill, but laypeople tend to go through a similar thought process for “conspiracy theorists”.

And then there is the famous Rosenhan experiment, where a psychologist and other mentally healthy volunteers checked themselves into mental institutions while claiming to be having auditory hallucinations. Once checked in, they all acted normally and claimed to be fine and feeling better. The idea was to see how long these sane people could remain in a mental institution before it was discovered that they were, in fact, sane. The “patients” were never found out, and stayed for an average of 19 days (range: 7 to 52) before being discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in remission. In the end, Rosenhan asked:

“Do the salient characteristics that lead to diagnoses reside in the patients themselves or in the environments and contexts in which observers find them?”

The evidence, of course, points to the latter. And as you can imagine, the label of “conspiracy theorist” has quite a bit in common with the designation of someone as mentally ill. When someone is diagnosed as a “conspiracy theorist”, this tends to say a lot more about the environment, including the person making the diagnosis, than it does about the “conspiracy theorist” himself.

And just as the “patients” were never discovered to be sane regardless of the evidence, the label of “conspiracy theorist” prevents people from registering doubts about public officials, regardless of the evidence.

Perhaps you think this comparison with mental illness is a bit forced. Then you would be forgetting that in the Soviet Union, the regime would denounce anyone who disagreed with the government as crazy and then send them to insane asylums. While the US is not (yet) institutionalizing people for questioning their official narrative of history, the use of the term “conspiracy theory” has a nearly identical effect without directly using coercion.

(As an aside, a resistance to authority is starting to be considered a mental illness in America. The DSM-IV contains Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which according to Wikipedia, can be characterized by “behaviors such as unpopular dissent, non-aggressive resistance, deliberate disobedience to authority, abstaining from widely accepted norms, or refusal to comply with any request in a particular setting.” How long do you think it will be before this kind of diagnosis is used for nefarious purposes?)

In fact, researchers Ginna Husting and Martin Orr found that:

“In a culture of fear, we should expect the rise of new mechanisms of social control to deflect distrust, anxiety, and threat. Relying on the analysis of popular and academic texts, we examine one such mechanism, the label conspiracy theory, and explore how it works in public discourse to “go meta” by sidestepping the examination of evidence. Our findings suggest that authors use the conspiracy theorist label as (1) a routinized strategy of exclusion; (2) a reframing mechanism that deflects questions or concerns about power, corruption, and motive; and (3) an attack upon the personhood and competence of the questioner. This label becomes dangerous machinery at the transpersonal levels of media and academic discourse, symbolically stripping the claimant of the status of reasonable interlocutor—often to avoid the need to account for one’s own action or speech. We argue that this and similar mechanisms simultaneously control the flow of information and symbolically demobilize certain voices and issues in public discourse.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself! The label of “conspiracy theorist” (which, remember, was pushed by the CIA in order to discredit people who questioned the official narrative of the JFK assassination) is used in order to bypass peoples’ rational and objective appraisal of the evidence.

Why Do People Criticize “Conspiracy Theories”?

Criticisms against conspiracy theories and theorists, therefore, are not based on evidence of the theory/theorist being incorrect; rather, they are based primarily on sentimental feelings towards political leaders and institutions. People want to believe the official narrative, because they want to believe that their leaders are generally good people. Deriding “conspiracy theories” is one way to help reduce the cognitive dissonance that would occur if one were to actually look at the evidence.

If sentimental feelings towards their leaders were the only reason why people tend to criticize anything labeled as a conspiracy theory, then I don’t think it would be particularly effective. After all, most people would come around if they were presented with serious evidence of a conspiracy, right?

That’s part of the “beauty” of the conspiracy theory label! A conspiracy denier will lump together all unofficial accounts of the situation in question, and judge the whole group of them by the ones with the least evidence. There is a false dichotomy between the official theory and so-called conspiracy theories. The denier doesn’t look at each theory on its own to evaluate its merit.

For instance, the claim that 9/11 was an inside job or that it was the result of official incompetence are lumped together, despite differing levels of evidence for each, and having very different implications. On a wider scale, the term “conspiracy theory” includes ideas like JFK being assassinated by forces from within the government as well as ideas like the government hiding evidence of extra-terrestrial life. These are wildly different scenarios, yet they are grouped together and dismissed as “conspiracy theory” together. So long as you don’t believe that lizard-like aliens have taken over Dick Cheney’s body, you will also not believe that there is more to 9/11 or the JFK assassination than has been presented officially.

There is also a more “academic” justification for criticizing conspiracy theorists. Cass Sunstein (one of my all-time least favorite public figures, on par even with Paul Krugman!) and Adrian Vermeule wrote a famous paper that alleges that conspiracy theories are “self-sealing”:

“Conspiracy theories generally attribute extraordinary powers to certain agents – to plan, to control others, to maintain secrets, and so forth. Those who believe that those agents have such powers are especially unlikely to give respectful attention to debunkers, who may, after all, be agents or dupes of those who are responsible for the conspiracy in the first instance.”

In other words, conspiracy theorists attribute so much power to those agents involved in the conspiracy that they must also have the power to hide or manipulate any evidence of it. Therefore, a conspiracy theorist will ignore all the evidence of the official narrative, and imagine that this is just propaganda or exactly what the conspirators want us all to believe.

I don’t doubt that this argument is true enough for some people who are dubbed conspiracy theorists, but it is simply false if Sunstein and Vermeule mean to say that this is an inevitable condition. In fact, implicit in this description is just more of the same psychology behind the ridicule of conspiracy theories in the first place. What is assumed in their argument is that conspiracy theories are wrong (they do acknowledge this in the paper, to be fair), and that people who arrive at these conspiratorial conclusions are ignoring evidence. But why must that be the case?

In other words, this argument only works if you start from the assumption that the conspiracy theory is already incorrect. But since the only way to know if any given theory – official or otherwise – is right or wrong, one would need to examine the evidence anyways. But anyone, conspiracy theorist or not, can look at the evidence selectively, perhaps with an eye towards reinforcing a conclusion they’ve already come to. In fact, nearly everyone does – this is called cherry picking or confirmation bias.

Conspiracy Hypocrisy

When you actually start to think about it, the whole modern notion of “conspiracy theory” is incredibly hypocritical.

Anyone who invests a few minutes looking at the evidence in the JFK assassination would come to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald almost certainly could not have acted alone, and thus that there must be some other explanation – whatever it may be – for the assassination. In fact, a full 61% of Americans believe that others must have been involved, and this is the lowest percentage in decades. Could all of these people just be nutty, raving conspiracy theorists?

In fact, official accounts of most events that have some number of conspiratorial explanations for them are equally implausible, if not more so, than the “conspiracy theories” themselves. Almost always they involve bumbling bureaucrats (well, I guess that is believable!), incompetent intelligence agencies, a wildcard “lone gunman”, or faulty voting machines. You could even regard the official explanations as coincidence theories – and as these coincidences pile up, it becomes ever more likely that there is something deeper and more suspicious afoot.

Conspiracy deniers will ridicule any individual who believes in a conspiracy theory, but they unquestioningly accept institutionalized conspiracy theories. No one was ridiculed during the McCarthy era, when official “wisdom” was that commies had infiltrated every major institution, top government posts, and were taking over the world. And no one was ridiculed for believing that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11. Why not?

There is a very dangerous tendency in America to automatically trust the narrative that the government and mainstream corporate media present. Perhaps I’m just paying better attention now, but I’ve noticed a considerable uptick in this over the past year and a half, and would like to go over just a couple of the more egregious instances where the Obama administration has crafted its own narrative, or “conspiracy theory”, to suit its geopolitical ends.

Remember how in August of 2013, Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad used sarin gas on his own people in the town of Ghouta? This crossed a “red line”, and nearly led to the US intervening in Syria’s civil war in order to oust Assad and save the Syrian freedom fighters. It’s a great story, repeated endlessly in the mainstream media…except that it likely isn’t true (and see here for a more balanced analysis of that piece of investigative journalism), and Obama knew it at the time. According to an MIT study, the rockets that were used as the delivery mechanism could not possibly have come from areas controlled by the Assad regime. Many in the intelligence community doubted the Obama administration’s claims, but this was only discussed in alternative media. You may not believe me – take a look at the evidence and make your own judgment.

It gets worse. The US government has clearly not given up in its goal to topple Assad, and has continued to rely on propaganda and lies to manipulate the American public into supporting this goal. In the summer of 2014, as ISIS began to carve out its “Caliphate” across the Middle East, Obama and the neocons saw their opportunity to further intervene in Syria, but needed to gather public support. How? By inventing the Khorasan group, a fictional group even more brutal and evil than ISIS itself, and claiming that they are planning “imminent” attacks against the US “homeland”. Talk of the Khorasan group was all over the news for a few weeks, long enough for the US to begin launching airstrikes without a declaration of war (of course, nobody cares about such formalities anymore). And then it completely stopped, and nobody has heard of Khorasan since. Then in November, the infamous “Syria hero boy” video went viral. This video depicted a young boy rescuing his sister from a hail of bullets allegedly coming from Assad’s forces. What an evil man, shooting at children! Of course, as you probably know by now, that video was a fake, despite “experts” immediately “verifying the authenticity” of the video.

All of this is just a conspiracy theory created by the US government – crafting an image of Assad and of the terrorists as even worse than they really are – yet very few people are ridiculing the government the way they ridicule individuals accused of “conspiracy theorizing”.

And what about the conspiracy theory that Russia has been agitating in Ukraine, invaded the Crimean peninsula, and shot down the civilian airliner MH17? I’ve been following this one from the beginning, and it’s truly incredible that the US government has managed to get away with developing a conspiracy theory this complex and deceitful, but yet again, it goes largely unquestioned and un-ridiculed. Let’s start with the fact that the “democratic uprising” in February 2014 was a US-orchestrated coup. George Friedman, the head of Stratfor (a massive, private intelligence firm – not a source to take lightly), has even acknowledged that this was “the most blatant coup in history”. In fact, Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught red handed with her famous “Fuck the EU” call, where she and the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussed who they would be installing as the next Ukrainian leader (listen to recording here and read the transcript here). The government and the media have consistently downplayed the role that neo-Nazi militias have played in the coup and the ensuing bloodbath and ethnic cleansing of Russians in Eastern Ukraine.

Well what about the shooting down of MH17? Wasn’t that done by Russia or Russian-backed “separatists”? The US government and its compliant media immediately made the claim, but (what didn’t make the news) admitted that their evidence was entirely based off YouTube clips and social media posts. As recently as October, the chief investigator of the MH17 incident says there is no conclusive evidence, despite media reports to the contrary. In fact, Western governments and media have made a concerted effort to suppress any evidence that would suggest other, more reasonable explanations. I urge you all to follow the links, look at the evidence, and draw your own conclusions (perhaps different from mine, but without a doubt understanding the conspiracy theory hypocrisy).

And then finally, to round out the Ukraine narrative/conspiracy theory, much has been made of the claim that “Russia has invaded Crimea” (and even Ukraine itself!). Due to a 1997 treaty between Russia and Ukraine, Russia had the “right” to station up to 25,000 troops in Crimea, a number they did not even reach. And predictably, over 90% of Crimeans voted to join Russia and leave Ukraine – something you would expect a group of Russian speaking people in a state that had just banned the Russian language and began ethnic cleansing of Russians. Imagine if there was a vote in the US to ban English – don’t you think at least 90% of Americans would vote against it? If your only sources of information regarding Crimea are statements by the US government and Western media, then everything you know about Crimea is just a conspiracy theory.

Here’s an even more timely example: North Korea’s alleged hacking of Sony. The FBI continues to insist that, without a doubt, it was the North Koreans who hacked Sony. This is pure conspiracy theory, and luckily more people seem to recognize it this time around than with many other examples. There is near-unanimity among security professionals that there simply is no evidence that would implicate North Korea, and it is far more likely the work of a disgruntled Sony employee (see here and here for evidence, plus more all over the internet). Nevertheless, the mainstream media regurgitates everything that the government says unquestioningly, turning the government’s conspiracy theory into a plausible narrative for most of the American public. We may never know who is actually behind the hack (and it could be North Korea), but there can be no question that the US government has taken advantage of the situation to demonize an enemy regime and push for stricter control over the internet.

Despite all this, the US government is never accused of conspiracy theorizing. Not when making over 900 false statements during the lead up to the Iraq war, and not when accusing other governments of committing war crimes and acts of war. No, when the government does it, it’s merely “bad intel”.

The Dangerous Consequences of the “Conspiracy Theory” Label

Conspiracy Theory Dangers

Propaganda has clearly come of age, and this makes the term “conspiracy theory” incredibly dangerous. It’s not just a matter of making it vastly more difficult to find truth (although it certainly does that), but it puts our liberties and our lives in serious danger.

In the Wired article regarding North Korea allegedly hacking Sony linked to above, we can see how the demonization of “conspiracy theorists” may proceed:

“There are some, however, who believe that nothing will satisfy the skeptics.

Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist for FireEye, the company hired by Sony to help investigate and clean up after the attack, told the Daily Beast: “I don’t expect anything the FBI says will persuade Sony truthers. The issue has more to do with truthers’ lack of trust in government, law enforcement, and the intelligence community. Whatever the FBI says, the truthers will create alternative hypotheses that try to challenge the ‘official story.’ Resistance to authority is embedded in the culture of much of the ‘hacker community,’ and reaction to the government’s stance on Sony attribution is just the latest example.””

In other words, if you don’t believe the government’s claims, that can only be because you are the kind of person who would never believe the government’s claims. Therefore, you are irrational and not worth listening to. Worse still, you are someone who is not just wrong, but you are resistant to authority. Since the government is good and right, you are therefore bad and wrong – and causing trouble.

Once having been designated a “conspiracy theorist”, a person is obviously subject to ridicule and ostracism by the public. More importantly, however, is that this person would be considered subversive. Someone who has an inherent suspicion of the powers that be is naturally going to be a threat to said powers.

It’s not a stretch to imagine the government taking action against these subversive elements, these “conspiracy theorists”. In fact, that’s exactly what Sunstein and Vermeule suggest in their paper:

“…we suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.”

In other words, the government ought to conduct psy-ops against those groups of individuals who don’t buy into the official narrative in order to introduce “cognitive diversity” (strange, but doesn’t the idea of cognitive diversity suggest not trying to destroy alternative beliefs?). The absurdity of this idea should be obvious, but I’ll let deHaven-Smith spell it out:

“But what could be more dangerous than thinking it is acceptable to mess with someone else’s thoughts? Sunstein and Vermeule’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. They would have government conspiring against citizens who voice suspicions about government conspiracies, which is to say they would have government do precisely what they want citizens to stop saying the government does. How do Harvard law professors become snared in such Orwellian logic? One can only assume that there must be something bedeviling about the idea of conspiracy theory.”

Some of you may think it disingenuous of me to be crafting an argument merely based on a paper by some academics that nobody cares about. Actually, Cass Sunstein served as the Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama for several years. The reason you’ve never heard of this agency is because it exercises its immense powers largely in secret. They basically rewrite huge chunks of government regulations while exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests and with all but the top two officials on staff being completely anonymous. In other words, we ought to take seriously what this guy says. So, where were we? That’s right, “cognitive infiltration”…

“How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups, including the groups that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology. Hearing only conspiratorial accounts of government behavior, their members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts. Informational and reputational cascades, group polarization, and selection effects suggest that the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity. We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”

Never mind the fact that “conspiracy theorists” have, basically by definition, been exposed to contrary ideas. How can you rail against the official narrative if you don’t even know what the official narrative is?

More importantly, note the repeated references to “conspiracy theorists” being “extremists”. I challenge you, dear reader, to pay special attention to the term “extremist” while you follow the news over the coming months. You will notice that we are less and less fighting a war against “terrorism”, and more and more against “extremism”. That’s because terrorism is fairly limited to Islamic radicals in the public mind, but extremism can take on many forms. For instance, you would be considered an “extremist” if you don’t automatically accept the bogus conspiracy theories that Washington has been churning out.

Many who read this may think I’m just a paranoid, raving loon. But the FBI has already said that their #1 “terrorist” threat are sovereign citizens, and those who talk negatively about Big Government (yes, more so than Islamic fundamentalists). And it is surprisingly easy to be considered an “extremist” or a “potential terrorist” in America today, solely based on your beliefs – as in, a complete lack of violent tendencies is irrelevant. Here is a list of 72 ways someone can be considered an “extremist” according to official US government documents, including:

  • People who talk about individual liberties
  • People who say they “want to make the world a better place”
  • People who fear gun control or weapon confiscation
  • People who complain about bias
  • People who are frustrated with mainstream ideologies
  • Returning veterans
  • People involved in the prepping or survivalist community (perhaps this will soon be expanded to anyone who watches Walking Dead)
  • People who believe in a right to bear arms
  • People who are “anti-nuclear”
  • People who support political movements advocating for increased autonomy

I didn’t include the half-dozen references to “conspiracy theories” that are already on that list. But you should be able to see a pretty clear picture here. Anyone who is opposed to increased centralization of government power is now an “extremist”, which means that they may be a “domestic terrorist”, and thus need to be spied on and “cognitively infiltrated”.

And thanks to documents released by the heroic Edward Snowden, we know that this “cognitive infiltration” is already happening. While these documents pertain to the GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA), it is hardly a stretch to imagine that this kind of manipulation is happening on both sides of the Atlantic. What are they doing? Among (many) other things, government spooks are manipulating the results of online polls, artificially inflating page view counts for certain websites, censoring “extremist” material, creating fake “victim” blog posts to destroy peoples’ reputations, spying on people who visit WikiLeaks, hacking email accounts, and planting false flag attacks to discredit those with opinions they do not like.



“Members of informationally and socially isolated groups tend to display a kind of paranoid cognition and become increasingly distrustful or suspicious of the motives of others or of the larger society, falling into a “sinister attribution error.” This error occurs when people feel that they are under pervasive scrutiny, and hence they attribute personalistic motives to outsiders and overestimate the amount of attention they receive. Benign actions that happen to disadvantage the group are taken as purposeful plots, intended to harm. Although these conditions resemble individual-level pathologies, they arise from the social and informational structure of the group, especially those operating in enclosed or closely knit networks, and are not usefully understood as a form of mental illness. The social etiology of such conditions suggests that the appropriate remedy is not individual treatment, but the introduction of cognitive, informational, and social diversity into the isolated networks that supply extremist theories.” – Sunstein and Vermeule

The fact that anyone can suggest this in our current world of constant surveillance, where the FBI/CIA/NSA and other agencies are known to harass, intimidate, infiltrate, and spy on civil rights and anti-war groups, and where even the author is suggesting “cognitive infiltration”, seems absurd on its face.

Nevertheless, this is what we face today. People who seek truth and liberty are marginalized and ridiculed as “conspiracy theorists”, while those who make up absurd lies and push them through their corporate media allies are revered and highly respected.

I would consider Lance deHaven-Smith’s book, Conspiracy Theory in America, an absolute masterpiece. The book presents the theoretical framework that is necessary for fully understanding many of the issues that were raised in this article. It’s only about 200 pages and it’s cheap, so if you have even a passing interest in this subject matter, you should read it.

Implicit in the term “conspiracy theory” is a systematic attempt to discredit anyone who questions existing power structures. This attempt has proven wildly successful over the past 50 years. Those of us who love liberty need to spread the word and counter this psychological manipulation.

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Charlie Hebdo: Terrorist Acts Are Just Criminal Acts, So Let’s Treat Them That Way

Charlie Hebdo

The recent Charlie Hebdo attacks were despicable, and have been rightly denounced by the international community as well as the Muslim community. Unfortunately (and predictably), the reaction to this attack has been the usual response to any act of terrorism: more fear-mongering, and more excuses to restrict our freedom.

On the right, we have people saying we need to shut down our borders, support the troops, give the government more surveillance powers, and eradicate radical Islamic beliefs. On the left, we have people saying that “we’ll never give up our freedom of speech!” all while advocating censorship for the sake of political correctness.

Meanwhile, the US killed hundreds of Muslims in drone strikes in 2014. The media dutifully and falsely reports that nearly all of them are “militants” or “terrorists”, which in this case is defined as a young male who hasn’t been proven to not be a terrorist. We rightly express moral outrage at the attacks in Paris, but refuse to turn that critical eye back on our own government. (See this great article comparing the media coverage of drone strikes to that of the Paris ones).

There are plenty of reasons for this perceptual double standard, but a particularly nefarious one is the term “terrorism” itself. Since 9/11, we’ve been involved in a “war on terror” – a war that, like all other war-on-adjectives (war on drugs, war on poverty, etc.), can never be won. We are endlessly warned of “the terrorist threat”, told that “we will never give in to terrorism”, or that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

There is no doubt that the acts that most in the Western world consider “terrorism” are in fact immoral, barbaric acts. But what is it that makes the act an act of terrorism as opposed to, say, a criminal act, such as any other mass murder? There is little, if any; the term “terrorism” is simply a propaganda device.

When you call a criminal action “terrorism”, it causes a change in peoples’ psyches. Most people tend to interpret a “terrorist act” completely differently from that of an equivalent criminal act that has not been dubbed the same way. It makes people afraid, which is exactly what all parties involved want (except for innocent civilians, of course). A scared population is easy to control.

“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.” — Herman Göring at the Nuremberg trials

The deaths of a dozen cartoonists and other media personnel is a tragedy, and the perpetrators should be brought to justice. There is a part of me that feels ashamed to “use” their death as an opportunity to get on my soapbox, but it is merely to counter the sadly much more effective way these deaths are being used in the mainstream.

Because this was a “terrorist” act, we will be reminded that “they hate us for our freedom”. There will be no mention of their hating us because we invade their countries, bomb their weddings and funerals, and support their dictatorial regimes, despite them making that clear.

Because “they hate us for our freedom”, we will be told that it is necessary to grant the NSA, FBI, and CIA more latitude to spy on us and torture us. Out one side of the mouth we will be told that we must never give up our freedom of speech to these monsters, and out the other side they will continue to arrest and jail people for having certain opinions.

Of course, all of this is just a repeat of the bitter cycle that has plagued us since 9/11. The end result is a downward spiral into more and more tyranny and aggressive, unjust warfare.

It needs to stop. If we want to defeat “terrorism”, we need to start treating it the same way we treat all criminal acts. We can still express moral outrage over crimes, but most crimes don’t result in us collectively losing our wits.

People respond to crime by taking action in order to minimize their risk of being a victim – buying locks, getting a gun for self-defense, not walking alone late at night. These are common sense behavioral changes that will reduce, but can never eliminate, the risk of being a victim of crime.

With acts of “terrorism”, people get whipped up into a frenzy and demand to eliminate the risk, for instance, by trying to annihilate the ideology of “Islamofascism”. Of course, it is an impossible task to eliminate the risk, and any attempt to do so just tosses cost-benefit analysis out the window. (As an aside, the risk of dying in a terrorist attack is already very, very low).

The fact is, by responding to terrorism the way we have continually done for the past 13 years or so, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy that terrorism works:

“The attacks of September 11 were a spectacular success. Is there any other honest interpretation? They were a success not because of the Americans they killed that day, but because we chose to spend the next decade mired in hopeless, counterproductive global wars that cost us trillions of dollars and killed thousands more Americans and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Terrorists wanted to show the world that we were brutal and unjust, and we did our best to help them do that. Terrorists wanted a war, and we gave them one. And we lost. We lost by giving them the stupid, fearful, angry response that they wanted…

…Our collective insistence on treating terrorist acts as something categorically different than crime—as something harder to understand, something scarier, something perpetrated not by humans but by monsters—feeds the ultimate goals of terrorists. It makes us dumb. It makes us primitive. It is our boogeyman, and no amount of rational talk will drive it out of our minds.”

Precisely. Remember that there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq until we toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. And Juan Cole has some more penetrating analysis, suggesting that al-Qaeda is just trying to “sharpen the contradictions” in France:

“The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”

By drawing an arbitrary and false distinction between terrorist acts and acts of crime, we play right into their hands. We are drawn into adopting precisely the policies that lead to more terrorist attacks. These are the very same policies that destroy our civil liberties and cause us to lose the moral high ground by stooping to their level and butchering many more innocent people in aggressive wars.

My condolences go out to the families of those who died in this tragedy, as well as all the rest who will suffer as a consequence of this act.

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NYPD: Please Continue Making Arrests Only “When We Have To”


After having their colleague get away with murder, many in the NYPD have basically decided to stop working, alleging that mayor de Blasio isn’t doing enough to ensure their safety. Just as everyone would have predicted, Vladimir Putin has seen his opportunity and annexed Manhattan.

Kidding. But the police have indeed taken a nice little vacation from work. As a result:

  • Citations for traffic violations fell 94%
  • Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination are down 94%
  • Parking violations are down 92%
  • Drug-related offenses are down 84%
  • Arrests in general are down 66%

In other words, the “thin blue line” has been largely erased with respect to victimless “crimes”. And despite “law and order” conservatives’ #1 fear, I’ve yet to hear a single report about a drugged-up commie speeding in the wrong direction on a one way street while shooting heroin at our children.

So…what happened?

“The Post obtained the numbers hours after revealing that cops were turning a blind eye to some minor crimes and making arrests only “when they have to” since the execution-style shootings of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.”

Note the key words: “when they have to”. There is so much meaning to extract from this phrase, but somehow I get the feeling that most Americans will not quite grasp the significance.

If the NYPD is currently only making arrests “when they have to”, does that not imply that the majority of arrests that they typically make are completely unnecessary? And any reasonable, non-fascist person should recognize that making unnecessary arrests is a wholly unjustified use of police power.

It’s quite clear that we have a problem with the police in this country. The police monopolize the business of “protection” services in a given geographical area, and as with any monopoly, this leads to a lower quality and higher cost product. Worse still, these monopolies are backed with the force of the state, and are thus only very rarely held accountable for their actions.

The only real, true solution to this problem is to completely change the model of policing by privatizing the provision of defense. Unfortunately, I do not foresee an anarcho-libertarian society replacing our current one in the immediate future. In the meantime, we ought to fight the myth that without militarized police forces crawling through our towns and cities looking for small amounts of marijuana, the world would descend into a Hobbesian jungle.

Luckily, there is more than enough evidence that the “thin blue line” is not what separates our relatively civilized modern lifestyles from a Walking Dead style societal collapse. This should make it considerably easier to spread the word around and send that myth to the trash heap.

Recently, there were protests near Washington D.C. regarding the lack of justice in the murder of Eric Garner. The head of D.C.’s protection racket lamented that she would have to pull cops out of neighborhoods and towards the protestors, alleging that these cops won’t be around to prevent homicides and other real crimes. So, what happened without the police there?

“In the week of Dec. 13 through Dec. 20 — the week when most of these protests happened, dragging MPD away from the neighborhoods —no homicides were reported. Not a single one. Only one homicide happened in D.C. in the two weeks following the grand jury decision to not indict the New York City police officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold — police say it happened on a Tuesday morning.

As a NYC cop pointed out to me, on Sept. 11, 2001, there was no upswing in crime. Nor immediately after Hurricane Sandy.”

In other words, while the police were busy monitoring protestors, the average resident of D.C. didn’t suddenly morph into a psychopath.

Of course, that was merely a temporary diversion of police forces elsewhere. Surely, you say, without police protection for an extended period of time, crime will run rampant.

Not necessarily.

Consider Acapulco, Mexico, where the police had gone on strike this past spring. The consequences? People started treating red lights as though they were yield signs and became generally happier. So much so, in fact, that they don’t even want the police to return to work!

Without a doubt, there is a demand for security services. But security is about protecting private property, not destroying or stealing it. In other words, committing highway robbery for driving at a certain speed, forcefully preventing people from engaging in voluntary interactions because someone didn’t get a “permit”, and kidnapping people who happen to be carrying certain kind of plants – these are things that are not in demand when it comes to a security service.

But they are the vast majority of what we get with government police. In fact, 86% of the federal prison population consists of people convicted of victimless crimes. Police kill hundreds of innocent people every year, and almost always get away with it.

In an ideal world, you should have nothing to fear if you actually “have nothing to hide”. I don’t know about you, but if I’m driving and a cop pulls up behind me, fear is my primary emotion, even if I’m not speeding or knowingly violating any laws. This is not security. It is chaos.

And since police legally under no obligation to protect citizens, why do they even exist?

I find it amusing that conservatives are such supporters of police and “law and order” while typically considering socialism inefficient and evil. If state interference in the economy is so bad everywhere else, then why would it work any better with policing? To most people, the idea of any non-socialist arrangement for the production of security is laughable…but why?

After all, there are already three times more private security personnel than federal, state, and local police officers, and there are private security firms that have demonstrated their proficiency. Then there are the volunteer groups and neighborhood watches, such as the Oath Keepers, who helped protect private property in Ferguson for free while the police stood by and watched looters destroy peoples’ businesses.

If you want a cost-effective and just solution to the problem of providing security, you are far better off with a private organization. Take the Threat Management Center, for example. They have been providing security to clients in Detroit when the government isn’t around to “help”. In fact, they have been providing much of their services for free, because they have made enough profit from contracts with wealthier individuals and businesses – so much for only the rich being able to afford it.

Then there are organizations like the Community Security Service, which helps train individuals in Jewish communities in security practices. While not a perfect example (much of what they do involves working with government police), there is certainly a market for services that will train community members to provide their own security.

Despite these examples, I don’t expect most people to be immediately convinced. If you are interested in fairly brief explanations of why privatized security services are superior to government ones, see here or here. For a fantastic discussion on how socialism in law enforcement doesn’t work, see here.

We can only hope that the NYPD continues to arrest people only “when they have to”. Even better, this ought to be the new national standard for police work. Better still, have government police get out of the way and allow superior private protection services to flourish.

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A Neoconservative Response to the Senate Torture Report


The Senate has released its report about enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA, and predictably, the liberal media is up in arms about the “failure” of these techniques.

Their arguments basically amount to the following:

  1. “Torture” goes against “American values”,
  2. Innocent people were “tortured”, and
  3. These techniques provided no useful intelligence.

Dick Cheney, one of our nation’s leading patriots, has rightly called this “a bunch of hooey”. As anyone who has watched the TV show “24” knows, sometimes you need to use some brutal techniques if you want to save lives.

I intend to respond to each of the three points above and show why they are indeed “hooey”. Let’s start with the first one.

What are “American values”? While different people may have different answers to this question, the ONLY true answer would be those values embodied by our founding document, the Constitution. Most relevant for our purposes is the 8th Amendment, which reads:

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Read that again. No “cruel and unusual punishments” can be inflicted upon US citizens. The terrorists that were detained in Guantanamo and other sites were a direct threat to the lives of every patriotic American. It would be cruel and unusual punishment (and thus a violation of the 8th Amendment) to put these Americans at further risk of terrorism by not doing everything in our power to protect them. If that includes torturing terrorists, then we must torture terrorists in order to uphold the Constitution.

Frankly, it boggles the mind how the liberal media can claim to have a monopoly on determining what “American values” are without even consulting our Constitution.

Equally absurd is the idea that innocent people were tortured. Look – the CIA doesn’t just torture anyone. Who would know better whether they were innocent or not than the people who have been interrogating them? The ACLU? The liberal media? Diane Feinstein (D-ISIS)?

But of course, I’m being silly. Everyone knows that so-called “progressives” can read minds, and have super human powers of judgment. That’s how we can know beyond a reasonable doubt that these Muslims are somehow “innocent”.

Anyone with more than half a brain can see that the claim that “innocent” people were tortured is liberal propaganda, pure and simple. It is a claim designed by Barack Hussein Obama in order to divide us and make America look weak in front of our enemies. Our brave law enforcement officers and intelligence agencies don’t simply hurt the innocent – they protect the innocent from the bad guys!

But far and away the most ridiculously absurd of the claims made by liberals is that we didn’t get good intelligence from so-called torture. Where do I even begin with this one?

For starters, people keep calling the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques “torture”. Torture – really? The “rectal feeding” regimen that they had these terrorists on sounds more like some kind of fad diet you’d see in San Francisco than torture.

Then there’s the oh so famous waterboarding. Waterboarding is just simulated drowning. As in, nobody actually drowns! How are people missing out on this crucial fact? It’s hardly different from the first time you learned to swim – not the greatest time in the world to be sure, but you get over it.

And what about sleep deprivation? It’s nothing that Boobus Americanus doesn’t do to themselves so they can catch up on the latest antics of the Kardashian family. And the loud noises? Well, most of these terrorists are young men in their 20s. This is exactly the demographic that loves rocking out to heavy metal anyways – I wouldn’t be surprised if they had requested it themselves, and the kindly CIA interrogators were all too accommodating!

I’m no psychic – I don’t know for a fact what kind of intelligence was gleaned from our enhanced interrogation techniques. Perhaps the liberals are right, perhaps we didn’t get any actionable intelligence, and no lives were saved. But if that’s the case, it is purely due to the incredible restraint shown by the brave men and women who were involved in this program.

Yes, they could have broken out the thumbscrews, the electric shocks, and so on – but they didn’t. The ridiculous constraints put on them by terrorist-lovers like the ACLU stopped them from doing what they needed to do. We were not brutal enough, and the release of this report is only going to make this worse.

If making them stay awake for 180 hours isn’t enough to get good intelligence from these terrorists, then how are more “humane” interrogation techniques supposed to work? The answer isn’t to throw our heroic men and women in uniform under the bus – it’s to give them more latitude to do what needs to be done to keep the rest of us safe. It is their service, their sacrifice, that has kept us alive this long. When 180 hours doesn’t work, let’s try 280 hours!

There is a fact of life that the liberal media never seems to learn. If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break some legs.


In case you couldn’t tell, the above was satire. That being said, I’ve seen and heard variants on these arguments by neoconservatives over the past couple weeks. It’s terrifying.

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4 Lessons From Ferguson

Ferguson protests

The grand jury trial of Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has come and gone. Predictably, a police officer is getting off scot free despite murdering an unarmed teenager (check out a prior post regarding the police “license to kill”). If you want to catch yourself up about the events surrounding the case, check out The Intercept’s thorough account here.

The events in Ferguson can provide Americans with numerous interesting lessons, particularly about the evolution of our burgeoning police state, and the steps that people should be taking right now to protect themselves.


Political Action Changes Nothing

After Michael Brown was gunned down in the street on August 9, 2014, there was a very noticeable public backlash to the rapidly advancing militarization of local police forces in America.

A whole slew of articles were published in mainstream publications decrying what we civil libertarians have been bringing up for years: the increased militarization of police forces, largely a consequence of the drug war, is helping to wither away the purported freedom that we have as Americans.

A national discussion regarding the Pentagon’s 1033 program that gives away military surplus weapons and vehicles to local police departments across the country began (with an explicit obligation to use those weapons within one year or be forced to give them back). Obama has even called for a multiagency review of the program, and a bill to put restrictions on (but not eliminate) these federal transfers was penned. But what has come of all this? Nothing.

Of course, this is not the least bit surprising. It’s been a year and a half since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA’s unconstitutional surveillance of innocent Americans. Despite a large public outcry, nothing has happened on that front either.

In other words, despite having wide public awareness and proof of almost unfathomable government wrong-doing, political avenues for change have failed to do anything.

This is because democracy in America is a sham; in reality, a handful of wealthy oligarchs and special interests decide how the coercive levers of government should be employed. Popular opinion holds very little sway over government behavior. The fact that people actually believe in the utopian system that is called democracy is beyond me.

The events in Ferguson should make it clear beyond all doubt to a wider audience of Americans that we are living under occupation, and we have no say in matters that have a huge impact on our lives. Rest assured, despite the media interest and some light discussion in Congress, one year from now the advance of police militarization will have continued unabated. Ten teenagers have already been shot (and five killed) by Chicago police since Michael Brown was killed, and yet there is no interest in these attacks. We can reasonably expect the body count to pile up, but the media, the politicians, and the US public will forget about the whole thing.


Divide and Conquer is a Major Method of Social Control

Ferguson also provides a brilliant window into the idea that governments retain control of the population using the classic strategy of “divide and conquer”. As is frequently the case nowadays, racial incitement is one of the primary means of dividing people who would otherwise share a common interest.

While I wouldn’t claim that the whole Ferguson fiasco was a staged event, it is pretty clear that the powers that be have used the Ferguson situation to secure a PR advantage using principles of divide and conquer. From the beginning, this case has been framed as an issue of race – a white cop shooting a black citizen. Go ahead and do a Google search on Ferguson. You’ll see that, aside from a number of articles about police militarization in mid-August, nearly all the coverage of these events is primarily about race.

It may be true that the shooting was racially motivated, but this is of secondary importance; the significant act was that of a police officer shooting a civilian in general. And yet police officers have shot several thousand innocent civilians over the past decade (many instances of which were white cops shooting black people), and numerous after Michael Brown’s death. Yet these cases receive little to no public attention. Why?

Already we can see how the media and its focus on race is being used as a way to advocate for even greater social control and entrenchment of the state apparatus. Take this article from The Economist, which is largely about the lack of “racial harmony” in America and how black people feel marginalized, using Ferguson as evidence. Here are some of the author’s proposed solutions:

“Smaller cities should stop using their police forces and courts as tax-collectors. Police shootings should be taken much more seriously, and the federal government should stop enabling small police forces to buy military-grade weapons. Proper gun control laws would help: policemen who fear they will be shot are more likely to kill suspects. In their absence, body-mounted cameras might constrain police behaviour.

Efforts should also be made to increase voter turnout. Ferguson, like many small cities, holds its municipal elections at odd times in odd-numbered years, when little else is on the ballot. If they coincided with national elections, more people would be paying attention. And attempts to restrict voting—by banning Sunday polls, restricting voting hours and requiring people to produce ID—should be resisted.”

The appeals to greater police accountability are certainly well founded, but the gun control comment is a laughable instance of blaming the victim, and voter turnout is irrelevant. Notice how the focus on race makes it easy to distract from the core issue – police brutality – and redirect the reader’s attention to enhancing democracy and increasing government control.

I want to clarify that I’m in no way claiming that racism isn’t a problem, but rather that it is being deliberately used to foster a specific agenda. Racial tensions are deliberately spun into a narrative that suits elite interests. Rather than being an issue of over-militarized police being an occupying army, the whole thing amounts to racism. Racism is something we are all used to hearing about and know is going on, so we no longer need to ask the tough questions about police use of force in general. Instead, it is a specifically racist phenomenon.

At this point, it is easier to direct and control peoples’ anger. In fact, the rioting that has taken place in Ferguson may ultimately be used to increase public approval of police state tactics. From the linked article (emphasis in the original):

“The Ferguson saga will be nationally remembered as a police officer using justified force to remove a bad guy from the streets using textbook self-defense. The public will remember that people rallied behind a robber, bemoaned police brutality with little to no evidence, then burned their own city to the ground. Ferguson will be pointed out as a reason why police should be decked out with armored vehicles and elaborate measures to disperse crowds.

From a purely consequential perspective, Ferguson was a gift to supporters of the police state — wrapped and tied with a bow.  While a legitimate case against police brutality can certainly be made, its presentation in Ferguson was an utter failure. This speaks to the importance of carefully choosing political battles and vetting the evidence before taking action. Unfortunately, in this case, the picking the wrong battle will ultimately leave people biased more toward police power than they were before, and the righteous opponents of actual misconduct will be lumped in with violent maniacs who have no respect for the rights of others.”

Amidst speculation that perhaps the chaos we’ve seen in Ferguson is being partly orchestrated or at least allowed to occur by the powers that be, it is clear that the behavior of the rioters and looters goes a long way toward discrediting those who want to reduce police powers.


Social Stability is Very Tenuous in America Right Now

In Ferguson, a suburb of just over 20,000 people, the streets descended into chaos less than 24 hours after the shooting of Michael Brown.

Something like this can happen anywhere, anytime. Clearly, you need not be living in a big city in order to see the social fabric dissolve into chaos. While significant “black swan” events are always possible, I would argue that the social structure of modern America is making societal collapse increasingly likely.

When I talk about societal collapse, I don’t mean to claim that there will be a zombie apocalypse level breakdown of society. For the people and business owners of Ferguson, it was irrelevant that there wasn’t major looting all across the US. What mattered is that there was civil unrest where they live. Most people haven’t dealt with serious unrest (I sure haven’t) and imagine it to be impossible, but Ferguson is proof positive that we are all at risk.

Historically, race has been a significant factor in riots in the US. And I don’t expect race-baiting to die down anytime soon. The underlying racial tensions in America are a tinder that could catch fire at any moment and lead to widespread chaos.

But race is only one part. In my opinion, the economy will be the main driver of unrest over the coming years. Given the insane behavior that we witness every Black Friday, just imagine the chaos that would ensue if there was more at stake than a cheap TV. If people are willing to trample and be trampled for some cheap Christmas gifts, it’s scary to picture what will happen when people are experiencing food shortages, blackouts, or serious inflation.

Ferguson is certainly an instructive preview of these types of events for most of us, but it is not the only one. Remember what happened in Atlanta during last winter’s crazy snow storm? The inconvenience of several days without power was enough to have people pulling guns on each other over basic supplies and ransacking grocery stores. If there were an event that led to unrest for more than just a few days, the chaos would have been far more serious and far more widespread.

Perhaps even more instructive is what happened when there was a glitch in the EBT system (food stamps) that caused it to go down for a few hours. Chaos ensued at Wal-Marts and other establishments that cater to food stamp users.

What happens if people stop receiving their welfare payments? What happens when the trillions of dollars of money that have been created out of thin air over the past few years start circulating? Or when productive Asian countries stop buying US debt and start competing with American consumers to purchase American goods and services? Or if hackers take down the banking system or the electrical grid?

It as a question of when, not if, the US will go into default. When this happens, you can expect the 50 million Americans with EBT cards and over 100 million who collect some government benefits to be very hungry and very angry. Societal decay is already evident (see here), and mass poverty certainly isn’t going to help.

A clear implication of all this is that we should take steps to be prepared for social unrest in America. Now, I’m not exactly a “prepper” and can’t claim to have any authority to advise people on how to prepare for these situations. But I have found what looks to be very solid advice here, and you’d do well to be familiar with it.

And on that note…


People Cannot Count on the Police to Protect Them

It is already well established that in US law, police have no duty to protect individual citizens. In other words, if you are in need of assistance, the police are under no obligation to provide it.

While police will occasionally take advantage of this lack of legal obligation under normal circumstances, you’d better believe that police will be useless at best during a time of civil unrest. Of course, providing “law and order” in these kinds of circumstances is one of the primary justifications people have for justifying the existence of a state security apparatus. But when security is really needed, the police are nowhere to be seen.

The situation in Ferguson has made this exceedingly obvious, and I can only hope people will learn this lesson. Back in August, the police did nothing to stop the looting that was occurring at the time, despite being out in force. They were deployed only to quell the nonviolent protests that were happening, and to protect government buildings and assets. Private businesses, on the other hand, have been burned to the ground without a police response, even when specifically asked to help. In fact, local police made statements that Ferguson residents should get guns because the police will not be helping them.

The role of the police is not to protect the rights of the populace; it is to enforce the wishes of the ruling class. Rioters, who nonsensically attacked private businesses which had nothing to do with Michael Brown’s shooting, were allowed to run rampant. Meanwhile, the government gets to do a macho show of force and increase the justification for more militarization.

But the market is a magical thing. As soon as the failure of the government to provide security became evident in Ferguson, peaceful residents took action to protect themselves, without resorting to coercion and violence. Gun sales skyrocketed leading up to the grand jury’s verdict. More significantly, private security organizations have taken a significant role in protecting peoples’ lives and assets.

For instance, gun owners and jewelers have paid contractors to help relocate many of their assets until the chaos blows over. The nearby town of Clayton saw private businesses bringing in a veritable army of private security contractors to protect their assets.

Private security is generally too expensive for most, and is certainly out of reach for the lower income residents of Ferguson (and elsewhere). Of course, these services would be vastly cheaper were it not for the already existing state police forces, but I digress. A volunteer organization called the Oath Keepers has been protecting peoples’ homes and property for free across Ferguson. Well, they had been, until the police stopped them from providing this valuable service.

That just about lays it bare. Volunteers who had come from all over the country to help protect small businesses and homes were threatened with arrest by the very same cops who refused to offer that protection themselves. It’s almost too absurd to believe. But I think that Ryan McMaken’s fake letter from the government about police protection sums it up perfectly (the whole article is short and well worth reading on this subject):

“Dear Citizen, we are going to tax you heavily for a police force that will focus on extracting even more revenue from you, and will exist primarily to harass motorists and other who commit petty traffic infractions. All the while, we will claim we are putting our lives on the line to protect you. But of course, we will do little to recover your stolen property, investigate thieves or those who trespass or destroy property. If you’re a small business owner who has ever had his shop broken into, you know this already. Yes, politics requires that we do investigate rapes and murders, but we’d rather not do that.Those criminals are dangerous! Let’s face it, the police force is a union shop, and is unaccountable to you, the tax payer. The police are mostly concerned with ensuring more and more government spending on huge pensions for police officers who will retire at age 45 and collect $80,000 or $90,000 per year as a retiree. All paid for by you.

You will also pay those police to issue you citations for jaywalking, opening unauthorized lemonade stands, or growing vegetables in your front yard. If you resist, we will shoot you.

Citizen, all this being said, you should know that in case any civil unrest or actual threat to your property, you’re on your own. The Supreme Court has ruled that we have no duty to protect you, and in case of any true conflagration, the police will protect the government’s property and nothing else. Smart people will hire private security for this. If you cannot afford private security, your lack of “protection” is your own fault for not wanting to pay higher taxes.

Have a nice day.”



What happened to Michael Brown is a tragedy. Unfortunately, it is a tragedy that occurs all too often.

Until there are radical changes to the way policing works in this country, incidents like this will continue, and likely become even more common. Smart individuals will learn from this experience and take steps to protect themselves.

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Terrorism Is A Propaganda Device


If you listen to the Western media and political establishment, you would have likely concluded by now that ISIS/ISIL/IS, the “Islamic State”, is a terrorist organization.

However, this is false.

At least according to the US Department of State’s official definition of “terrorism”: premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

The members of IS are hardly clandestine. While they have certainly committed numerous atrocities, they have done so openly and without fear of getting “found out”.

Nor are they a subnational group. The Islamic State is, in fact, a state. They have monopolized the use of force (pacified) a particular geographic area. In any reasonable meaning of the term, they have formed a government in northern Iraq and parts of Syria.

Don’t get me wrong. When I say that members of IS are not terrorists, I am not claiming that their actions are morally acceptable. On the contrary, they are a reprehensible group of people who are brutally murdering innocent people.

But they are not terrorists – not by the State Department’s definition, at least. In reality, there are quite a few definitions of terrorism, and surely the Islamic State qualifies for some of them.


What is Terrorism?

But what would it be that makes militants of the Islamic State “terrorists”? Is it that they kill people? Is it that they kill a lot of people? Is it that they are genocidal? Is it that they actively try to sow fear among their enemies? Is it that they try to extract political concessions from their opponents or other nations?

Many people, acting alone or on behalf of many other organizations, kill people. If a man catches his wife cheating and kills her in a crime of passion, nobody calls this terrorism. The man has committed a murder, but he is not a terrorist.

But what about someone who kills a lot of people? Take the various school shootings that have happened over the past few years in America. We tend to call the perpetrators “mass murderers”, which is an accurate term. We would label many of these people as psychopaths, but the term “psychopath” is only occasionally used in reference to terrorists.

Or maybe it is the genocidal aspirations of IS? Is it the fact that they are specifically targeting “infidels” like Christians and the Yazidis? But nobody calls the Nazi regime a “terrorist” one. The Hutus of Rwanda were not “terrorists”. Genocide is a horribly deplorable act, but it is not what constitutes terrorism.

What about the fear they are creating? No, this doesn’t hold either. Machiavelli said that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved, and many politicians to this day heed his advice. Fear is used as a tool all the time, sometimes even with positive intent and effect (such as making a child fearful of talking to strangers in vans who promise puppies and candy).

Is the defining feature of terrorism that the intent is to change the political scene somehow? But almost everyone tries to influence the political scene. By voting, you are trying to influence political outcomes. This doesn’t make you a terrorist. Lobbying organizations exist for the sole purpose of influencing politics. They are not terrorists either. And they often use fear as a tactic toward this end, too.

It seems to me that “terrorism” is something that people simply recognize without it possessing any specific characteristics. This is incredibly problematic, since the term is used in such important ways. The rights of innocent citizens can be taken away instantaneously upon mere suspicion of being a “terrorist”. With so much at stake, ambiguities are unacceptable.


The United States – Terrorist Organization?

The State Department’s definition of terrorism above excludes governments. This is necessary, because once you allow governments to be considered terrorist organizations, you’ve opened up a whole can of worms.

For you see, the government of our very own United States (and all other governments) would become a terrorist organization if we didn’t include that qualification.

Does the United States kill people? Check.

Does the United States commit “mass murder”? Let’s see…three recent wars in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Libya, drone wars in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, and so on. Even on US soil, you’ve got Ruby Ridge and Waco. These are just a couple of the big ones from recent years.

In these cases, an unfathomable numbers of casualties have been innocent civilians. In Iraq, by the end of major combat (April 30, 2003), the US killed over 7400 civilians. To date, over 130,000 civilians have died as a direct result of the invasion of Iraq by the US government. Since 2001, between 18,000 and 20,000 Afghani civilians have died as a direct result of the invasion by the US government. While not all of these people were murdered by Americans, it was a predictable consequence of conscious decisions made by US policy makers. Lowball estimates say that over 400 civilians in Pakistan, over 100 in Yemen, and a handful in Somalia, have been slaughtered in drone strikes. The true numbers are likely vastly higher.

Compare that with the Islamic State, which is being blamed for over 5500 civilian casualties in Iraq in the first six months of 2014. And when you consider that Islamic extremists were nonexistent in Iraq until the US government took out Saddam, and how the US government has been providing training and weapons for IS fighters, it is hardly a stretch to say that the US is at least partly responsible for these deaths as well.

What about genocide? Thankfully, the United States government has yet to commit a genocide on the scale of, say, the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. But that doesn’t make them any less culpable for what was arguably a genocide against the Native Americans. Without a doubt, the Trail of Tears should be considered an act of genocide by any reasonable human being. And, while not a genocide, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, along with multiple unnecessary nuclear attacks on the Japanese, should count for something.

Does the US government attempt to create fear in its enemies? Duh.

Does it deliberately try to affect political outcomes in other nations? I don’t even know where to begin. Documenting all of the meddling that the US government has done in other nations’ affairs would take volumes upon volumes. This Wikipedia article on covert regime changes is a start, but it hardly scratches the surface.

Beyond all of this, the US government tortures people – just like IS. And the US government offers huge amounts of material support to the Saudi government – the same Saudi government that committed 345 beheadings between 2007 and 2010. How many people has the Islamic State beheaded?


What is Terrorism – Revisited

As we’ve seen, terrorism is a tricky term. We all “know” who the terrorists are, but we can’t seem to pin down any particular meaning. At least not one that is consistent with who we “know” are or are not terrorists. So how did we come to our conclusions of what it means from someone to be a terrorist?

The term “terrorist” is a politically loaded one, and works to garner public opinion against any organization or individual accused of being one. Members of the Afghan resistance were considered “freedom fighters” when they fought against the Soviet Union, but the exact same people are considered terrorists today. Consider how differently Americans think about these people now than they did in the 80s.

The fact is, the US government will label people as “terrorists” in order to demonize them. This is exactly what is happening with the Islamic State today. The goal of the US government is to create terror in Americans in order to support increased domestic spy powers and decrease resistance to war.

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