Don’t Vote

stop talking about the election

“The strong are always free by virtue of their superior strength. So long as government is a mere contest as to which of two parties shall rule the other, the weaker must always succumb. And whether the contest be carried on with ballots or bullets, the principle is the same; for under the theory of government now prevailing, the ballot either signifies a bullet, or it signifies nothing. And no one can consistently use a ballot, unless he intends to use a bullet, if the latter should be needed to insure submission to the former.” – Lysander Spooner, No Treason No. 1 Vol. 1, 1867

If there is one silver lining to the 2016 presidential election, it’s that it should make abundantly clear to many more individuals that politics is a sham, merely a clownish show where the biggest liars on Earth compete to see who can be the most deceitful while making less of an ass out of themselves than their opponents.

I mean, come on. For a while, it seemed like there might be a battle royale between the House of Clinton and the House of Bush – luckily for us, Jeb Bush had the good sense to drop out early. If only the rest of them had. At the time that I write this, the remaining (noteworthy) candidates are Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans (Note: This article was written in February 2016).

If anyone but Trump ends up winning, the first Jewish, woman, or Hispanic president will have, at long last, been elected. What a triumph for social justice! And if Trump wins, then we’ll be blessed with the first president who is basically a cartoon character; in fact, back in 2000, The Simpsons predicted that Trump would become president and ruin the country.

It’s incredible that any of these people have made it this far. Bernie Sanders is 74 years old, so perhaps dementia is preventing this self-described socialist from remembering the abject failure of socialist nations around the world, and getting in the way of an understanding of basic economics.

Ted Cruz has been accused of enjoying the music of Nickelback, and he failed to renounce this position when asked. Somehow, this has not derailed his campaign.

Hillary Clinton is actively under investigation by the FBI for running her own private email server from home while head of the State Department – an immense security issue, if there ever was one. That’s just one of the many controversies surrounding her. Oddly enough, she’s the biggest warmonger of the lot, substantially more interested in military adventures abroad than the Republican front-runners. And she near single-handedly destroyed the country of Libya – the same Libya that has become the major “home away from home” for the Islamic State.

Donald Trump (aka Tronald Dump) has said so many boneheaded things that he hardly requires introduction. If anyone were to bring back internment camps, such as those used to house Japanese-Americans during World War 2, it’d be him. Don’t think it won’t happen again.

One of these dipshits will almost certainly become the next POTUS. And unlike many of you, I will have nothing to do with it. For you see, I have elected not to vote. In this post, I hope to convince you to do the same.


Your Vote Is Meaningless

I hate to break it to you, but your vote is meaningless. This is simply the reality, and there is no use in trying to deny it.

First of all, your vote has a truly negligible chance of swaying an election (and as the population increases, this chance becomes worse and worse with every election). But even if, mathematically speaking, your vote were to be the “deciding” one, the election would ultimately be decided in some shady, back-room deals. Worse still, that doesn’t even matter, since you elect politicians who have no obligation to abide by their campaign promises, and are far more likely to be swayed by their corporate cronies than by “the will of the people.” Besides, the candidates are nearly identical in most important ways, so it’s as though you had no choice at all.

This narrative conflicts with most peoples’ utopian views of democracy and its value. This doesn’t make it any less true. Your vote simply will not decide an election, as I’ve said before:

“In order for your vote to determine anything, the outcome of the election (excluding yourself) would need to either be a tie, or have a one vote difference, with your vote being for the candidate who was losing (thus making it a tie).

The chances of this happening in a national election are negligible, and for other elections, still miniscule. For instance, take a look at this list of close elections throughout the world. There were a handful of ties or elections determined by a single vote, but nearly all of these were more local elections within sparsely populated Canadian territories. Every one of these elections had less than 40,000 total votes cast, most with well under 10,000.”

Even the most optimistic of academic estimates that your vote will be the deciding factor in a national election are between 1 in 10 million and 1 in 100 million depending on the state you live in. The mathematics of voting are so clear that it is hardly worth belaboring the point, but I do want to say that you are literally more likely to die on your way to the polling station on election day than to have your vote matter (and for more on the math, see this).

But even in the unlikely event that your vote almost makes a difference, it still simply won’t matter. There’s no need for “kooky” conspiracy theories to see this. Consider the close call in Florida in 2000. Multiple recounts occurred, none of which ended in a tie. And the process, of course, got shadier and shadier as the counting went on. And now that we have electronic voting machines, there are many reasons to be skeptical of the integrity of elections. Voting machines that have been used in real life elections are highly susceptible to hacking and having votes changed. There is statistical evidence that voting machines have been tampered with and had vote counts changed across numerous election cycles. For more on how crappy electronic voting is, see Ross Anderson’s “Security Engineering”, section 23.5 (free PDF). Among many examples provided in that section:

“Many problems were reported in the 2002 elections [551]; then, the following summer, the leading voting-machine supplier Diebold left its voting system files on an open web site, a stunning security lapse. Avi Rubin and colleagues at Johns Hopkins trawled through them found that the equipment was far below even minimal standards of security expected in other contexts. Voters could cast unlimited votes, insiders could identify voters, and outsiders could also hack the system [731]. Almost on cue, Diebold CEO Walden O’Dell, who was active in the campaign to re-elect President Bush, and wrote ‘I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year’ [1320].”

It’s not as though voting fraud is unheard of; it became significant under Lincoln and during the “Reconstruction”.

“Lincoln was known to instruct his military commanders to furlough registered Republicans while keeping Democrats (and any others) in the field, where they could not vote. In border states like Maryland, where there was powerful opposition to the war, federal soldiers flooded the cities on election days and were instructed to vote, even though they were not residents of those states.”

“Almost all Southern males were disenfranchised, while virtually all of the male ex-slaves were registered to vote (Republican). No Southern male could vote who participated in the war effort in any way, including contributing food or clothing to the Confederate army. Voter registration required one to publicly proclaim that one was on the side of the federal armies during the war, something that no sane southerner who valued his life would do.”

Today, a well-known problem is gerrymandering, or creating odd borders for districts to sway elections based on known voter demographics. This stuff is common. Plus, as Robert Epstein showed in a brilliant essay, big tech companies like Google and Facebook have the power to sway elections by changing what we are exposed to, and we would never know. Do you think these big companies are looking out for the “public interest” or their bottom lines? Research shows that big business and special interests are the real factor that influences government policy, as I’ve stated in the past:

“…the most robust of modern research on the topic has concluded that even mass groups of voters have a minimal effect on public policy. Rather, it is interest groups and powerful business interests that control policy outcomes. How else would incumbents win in Congressional elections over 90% of the time, even in a year like 2010 where people were particularly unsatisfied with their representatives?”

no difference between democrats and republicans

Whoever wins the election – even in the off chance that they are truly public spirited, Leslie Knope-esque individuals – will be forced by their position to adjust their policies to conform to the whims of those powerful interests. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the two major candidates are nearly identical on most major issues, making the whole election an absurd political circus. As Jesse Ventura said of our two-party system,

“[W]hat you have today is like walking into the grocery store and you go to the soft drink department, and there is only Pepsi and Coke. Those are the two you get to choose from. There is no Mountain Dew, no Root Beer, no Orange. They’re both Colas; one is slightly sweeter than the other, depending on which side of the aisle you are on.”


Why Politicians Act Like Scumbags

“What is any political campaign save a concerted effort to turn out a set of politicians who are admittedly bad and put in a set who are thought to be better. The former assumption, I believe is always sound; the latter is just as certainly false. For if experience teaches us anything at all it teaches us this: that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.” – H.L. Mencken

Your vote is meaningless, and politicians know this. And voting is a fundamentally different process than that of market forces, which leads to predictable behavior on the part of politicians, as documented by Mark Brandly.

Consider how the free market works: in the market, consumers decide exactly what they want to buy. Each consumer can buy completely different things and there is no reason for conflict, because my buying a blue shirt doesn’t impose the blue shirt on you, and you buying a red shirt doesn’t impose that red shirt on me. Each consumer can get whatever he wants, and doesn’t get anything he would prefer not to have. Each consumer has an incentive to be informed about the products he is buying, because he is spending his own money on them. Researching the possible items, particularly big ticket items, makes an actual difference in a consumer’s life. None of this is true in the political “market”.

“Choosing between two candidates is analogous going to Walmart and being presented with two shopping carts already filled with items. Everyone will leave the store with the same cart of goods. Each cart contains products that a person may want and products that one wouldn’t choose to have, but the voter is not able to take anything out of either cart.”

Also…the two carts are very similar. They contain many of the same items, the items that are different are still similar (e.g., both carts contain a shirt — one red and one blue), and the two carts cost about the same amount. In addition, each taxpayer will end up paying for one of the carts even though he wouldn’t voluntarily purchase this basket of items.

…when you are presented with the two carts, you are allowed to vote on which cart you want. However, you vote infrequently, say, once every four years, and your vote doesn’t matter. You will end up with the same cart regardless of your vote. In fact, even if you don’t vote, this will not affect the bundle that you receive in your cart.”

Democracy is even worse than this analogy suggests. A candidate can promise certain policies and completely renege on them when elected. With the shopping cart, you at least know that if something is in there, it’s in there. So how does the structure of political democracy encourage politicians to misbehave?

“The point, so far, is that in an election voters are faced with bundled choices, they vote infrequently, no individual’s vote will affect the election, voters have little incentive to be highly informed about the candidates’ policy positions, and the winning candidate is not obliged to deliver on his promises. Candidates who understand these simple facts about an election will have an advantage over political opponents who do not understand the nature of elections.

Realizing this, candidates need to make two important decisions. First, a candidate must consider which bundle of policies will give him the best chance of winning the election, and second, a candidate must devise a strategy that will give his supporters an incentive to vote in spite of the fact that no individual vote matters.”

First, candidates will tend to pick positions that are more centrist in order to appeal to the bulk of voters, who cluster around less “extreme” views. This means that both candidates will have very similar policies.

“The last two presidential administrations demonstrate this point. Even though they represent different political parties, many of the foreign-policy and financial advisors of the Bush administration would be comfortable in the Obama administration and in some cases the same individuals are in both administrations. Bush and Obama both support the welfare state and the military empire. They both have proposed budgets greatly expanding the budgetary size and legal reach of our federal government.”

This means that candidates are inclined to deceive the public about their positions in order to appeal to this median voter. But it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

“In order to gain political power in our system, a candidate must win two elections, the primary election and the general election. The difficulty for a candidate is that he needs to appeal to a different set of voters in each election. In order to win the primary election, a candidate must attract the median voter of his party’s primary voters. Then the candidate must change his position to gain the support of the median voter in the general election.”

This is tricky, but there are some strategies that politicians can employ to make this easier. Two keys to winning include being the first to accuse your opponent of flip-flopping, and buying favors with government power. These favors should have the costs dispersed among as many people as possible, but the benefits accruing to smaller groups of rent seekers who are more likely to organize on your behalf. You can also hide the costs, as in the Social Security system, where half of the tax is paid by the employer, even though that cost is ultimately borne by the employee anyways. Basically, candidates have strong incentives to lie to the voters. Candidates who are averse to being deceitful are at a huge disadvantage in an election.

“…a candidate will never claim that his main goal is to acquire political power so that he can enrich himself. He will use pet phrases that hide the true nature of his policies. No matter what policy he is defending, he may claim that the program is “for the children,” or that it will “strengthen the family.” Other possibilities include asserting that the policies will “grow the economy” or “help the environment.” In the current political atmosphere, saying that you are “fighting terrorism” will blind many people to your actual intent. The point is that simple platitudes will fool many people.

Another lie we hear is candidates’ assertion that (even though they would take similar positions when in office) there are major differences between them. Each will claim that their policies will lead to prosperity and security, and that their opponent’s positions will result in impoverishment and ruin. Convincing supporters that there is a major difference between the candidates will make it more likely that they will vote. A candidate needs to continually push his supporters to go to the polls.

A common tactic for gaining support is fear mongering. Fear often trumps logic. Voters can be scared into believing that there will be dire consequences if their candidate loses the election. A candidate can appeal to his followers by claiming that if the other candidate wins the election we will be attacked by terrorists, or our taxes will be raised, or we may lose our jobs, or our children will not get a good education, or we will run out of oil, or we may not get adequate health care, or the environment will be destroyed. While some of these claims may be correct, they are true regardless of which candidate wins the election, because either winning candidate will implement policies that will do us much harm. In making such claims, candidates rely on the fact that voters will not recognize that the candidates largely agree on the major issues regarding government policy.”

This also explains why politics tends to be so negative, and attack ads are used so frequently despite people generally being “against” them. Ultimately, this just leads to divisiveness and conflict.

“Selling your product in the private sector requires a customer to cast an affirmative vote to buy it. Just convincing a potential customer that a rival product should not be purchased does not mean a sale for you.

This is because a sales prospect can choose from among several sellers, or he can choose to not buy at all. But those options are unavailable in an election with only two major parties, where customers are effectively forced to “buy” from one of them.

In an essentially two-party election, convincing an uncommitted voter to vote against the “other guy” by tearing the opponent’s position down is as valuable to a candidate as convincing that voter of positive reasons to vote for him; either brings him a vote closer to a majority. That is not true in the private sector, as only votes for you–purchases–help you.

Similarly, talking a voter committed to a rival to switch to your side is worth two votes, since it adds one to your vote column and subtracts one from your rival’s. But you would only benefit from the single additional purchase/vote for you in the private sector. Further, in an election, finding a way to get someone who would have voted for your rival to not vote at all is as valuable as getting one more voter to vote for you.

This is why negative campaigns that turn voters off from political participation altogether are acceptable in politics, as long as a candidate thinks he will keep more of his competitor’s voters away from the polls than he will his own. In the private sector, such an approach would not be taken, as it would reduce, rather than increase, sales.“

I suspect that most people intuitively understand how messed up this all is, but have resigned that this is simply the way things are.

““Well, that’s the way the game is played,” I sometimes hear. “If you don’t fight dirty, you aren’t going to win, so even the good ones have to fight dirty. An honest candidate couldn’t win.” But if you have accidentally (let us hope) established a political system that excels at elevating psychopaths to positions of power and authority, maybe the answer is not to hope for a flock of honorable people who can impersonate psychopaths long enough to climb into power, but to stop propping up a process that installs psychopaths as your rulers, and, once these psychopaths have been successfully identified by their success in the electoral process, to stop giving them so much power to do evil.” – David Gross


The Ethics of Voting

“The state — or, to make the matter more concrete, the government — consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” – H.L. Mencken

You may or may not believe that voting is a decision in the realm of ethics, but there are serious moral considerations involved with the decision to vote or not. Most people do not fully consider the moral ramifications of the act of voting.

It helps to first consider what government is in the first place. A commonly accepted definition offered by famed sociologist Max Weber is that government is an institution that holds a monopoly on the legitimated use of force in a geographic area. While I would dispute the notion that governments’ use of force is in fact morally legitimate, I cannot deny that the force of government at least seems legitimate to most people. What this means is that, while you or I are not allowed to steal from each other, the government can steal from us (“taxation”). And while you and I are not allowed to kidnap people for behaving in ways that we don’t agree with, the government can imprison people for engaging in officially prohibited behaviors.

This is important. When a new law is created, that means a new instance of institutionalized violence has been born. Real people will be stolen from (“fined”, “taxed”) or sent to jail because of it. Even if nobody is directly stolen from or imprisoned, the law creates a threat of violence, which isn’t that much better.

When seen in this light – whether you view the law or government as legitimate or not – the moral implications of voting become somewhat more clear. If you vote for a political candidate and that person then helps to create or enforce laws, then you are in part responsible for the violence that ensues. Stated differently (emphasis mine):

“Voting is an act of consent…When you vote you agree to abide by the rules of the game and accept the outcome. By voting, the voter endorses the governmental system under which he or she lives and those in control of it. Each voter is saying: It is right and proper for some people, acting in the name of the State, to pass laws and to use violence to compel obedience to those laws if they are not obeyed regardless of the morality of those laws.

Note the crucially important clause “regardless of the morality of those laws.” If you vote, and then your government starts aggressive foreign wars, kills people without due process in drone strikes, imprisons nonviolent drug users, etc., then you have consented to and encouraged this needless violence. You are in part morally responsible for acts of violence done by an agent operating on your behalf (government) despite almost certainly never being willing to commit comparable acts of violence directly.

In this way, and many others, politics turns us into worse human beings.

“…politics doesn’t just make the world around us worse. It makes us worse, as well. When we participate in politics—by seeking office, by voting—we take part in a system where we attempt to decide for others while they attempt to decide for us, and where those decisions, whoever makes them, are backed by violence or, at the very least, the threat of violence. It’s a system where the participants say to each other, “I know what’s best for you, you need to do what I say, and if you don’t, these men with guns will threaten you or take your money or lock you in a cage or kill you.” Such a system encourages us to deal with each other in ways beneath the standards of behavior we ought to reach for, and it encourages us to see each other not as friends and companions and fellow seekers of the good life, but as enemies and rivals and obstacles in the way of finding happiness.

Politics inculcates pettiness, short-sightedness, Manichean thinking, tribal feuds, selfishness, and rage. It discourages reason and respect and a basic appreciation of the dignity of others, especially those who seek lives different from our own. It makes us less likely to find virtuous mentors or learn from the virtuous actions of others, because everyone we encounter will themselves suffer from its corrosive influence. Politics encourages extreme reactions instead of careful seeking of the proper, measured response. Politics distances decisions from local knowledge and so limits moral wisdom by making it less likely we will act to bring about virtuous outcomes even when motivated by virtuous impulses.”

The violence of government and the nature of democracy do bring up an interesting question though: can we vote in self-defense? After all, while we don’t normally condone shooting innocents, most people agree that it is okay to shoot someone who is shooting at you. In the same way, can we vote in order to counteract people who are voting “at” us?

Reasonable people can disagree on this question. For specific referendums on political questions, I believe the answer is yes, you can vote in self-defense. Usually, this means voting “no” to prevent some sort of aggression, but in rare circumstances, you may be able to vote “yes” to remove an existing aggression. For instance, I believe that you can vote to decriminalize drugs, prostitution, or other victimless crimes.

But what about elections for politicians? Is it self-defense to vote for “the lesser of two evils”? Libertarian Wendy McElroy tackles this question:

“But a libertarian senator would be a lesser evil, it is argued. He would be a good politician. Nonsense. It is not the particular man that is objectionable; it is the position of power itself. Moreover, a successful libertarian politician would take an oath to uphold massively unjust laws. Either he would be lying then or he would have been lying beforehand when he claimed to be libertarian. In either case, he is another lying politician.”

More theoretically,

“Voters defend themselves against a politician who would be more draconian than the candidate they favor. Instead of firing a bullet in self-defense, they fire a ballot to knock out worst alternatives. The problem is that a defensive bullet can be narrowly aimed at a deserving target. A ballot attacks innocent third parties who must endure the consequences of whichever politician is assisted into a position of unjust power. Innocent people will bear the brunt not only of government actions but also of being robbed to pay for them. Every voter bears moral responsibility for this injustice.”

Voting, therefore, is not analogous to other instances of self-defense. If someone were shooting at you, voting would be like shooting back at them – and all of the other people in the room. Obviously, voting does not have the same moral intensity as shooting people, but it is still immoral.


Reasons To Vote, Debunked

Despite the moral and practical reasons not to vote, countless platitudes are trotted out each election season in order to encourage people to vote. Most are just ridiculous appeals to “patriotism”. Some are mentioned so frequently and yet are so patently absurd that they need to be addressed individually.

 “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”

This is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard, and it should only take a moment of thought to understand why. George Carlin does a great job of explaining it at around 2:10 into this video:

I hope that when people use this excuse for voting, they do not quite mean it literally – after all, everyone has a right to complain. That’s freedom of speech. Perhaps they mean that those who participate in some enterprise have a more legitimate grievance when things aren’t going well.

“In his 1851 book Social Statics, the English radical Herbert Spencer neatly describes the rhetorical jujitsu surrounding voting, consent, and complaint, then demolishes the argument. Say a man votes and his candidate wins. The voter is then “understood to have assented” to the acts of his representative. But what if he voted for the other guy? Well, then, the argument goes, “by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.” And what if he abstained? “Why then he cannot justly complain…seeing that he made no protest.” Spencer tidily sums up: “Curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted—whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this.””

By making the argument that not voting waives your right to complain, you essentially argue that nobody has a right to complain in the political realm! If anything, it is far more intuitive to assert that the act of voting forfeits your right to complain in the way that both George Carlin and Herbert Spencer mentioned above – you have provided consent to the system by voting. Don’t get me wrong though, everyone has a right to complain and should complain about politicians at every available opportunity. But the act of voting makes your opinion matter just a little bit less.

“People have sacrificed their lives for your right to vote!”

This is another curious one, considering how no major war was ever fought defending your right to vote. America has even lost some wars, but this hasn’t stopped voters. After Saigon fell in 1975, how have we managed to elect politicians since?

It’s even sillier to make this claim in light of the defeats during the 1930s of the Ludlow Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required a national referendum in order to declare war, except when attacked first. Despite massive public support (75% of the population supported it), it was unable to gain traction in Congress and died in committee. I suspect that if enacted, this amendment would have made little difference (for instance, the US would still have entered Vietnam despite the Gulf of Tonkin incident being completely fabricated). That being said, how can we say that people have fought for our right to vote when we don’t even have a right to vote on the wars that they fight in?

And surely, even if people had died defending the right to vote, they would have supported the right to abstain as well. Especially if all of the options for who to support are evil.

 “Vote for the lesser of two evils.”

There is so much that is wrong with this “advice” that it makes me recoil a little bit when people recommend to “vote for the lesser of the two evils.” Imagine you are confronted with the following choice:

  • Endorse murder
  • Endorse rape
  • Abstain from endorsing either.

Clearly, we ought to abstain. But the person who suggests voting for the lesser evil may respond in this absurd, self-righteous way: “Oh, you don’t vote? Well I guess that means you would let murder win! I, on the other hand, support rape, the lesser of the two evils!”

When you vote for any evil, you are in part responsible for the evils that are then committed on your behalf. And if being evil doesn’t stop politicians from being elected by voters, then the quality of candidates will continuously degrade as they realize that they can get away with whatever they want.

I love the way Frank Chodorov frames this in his book Out of Step.

“Particularly was I impressed by the candidates’ evaluations of one another. Neither one had a good word to say of his opponent, and each was of the opinion that the other fellow was not the kind of man to whom the affairs of state could be safely entrusted. Now, I reasoned, these fellows were politicians, and as such should be better acquainted with their respective qualifications for office than I could be; it was their business to know such things. Therefore, I had to believe candidate A when he said that candidate B was untrustworthy, as I had to believe candidate B when he said the same of candidate A. In the circumstances, how could I vote for either? Judging by their respective evaluations of each other’s qualifications I was bound to make the wrong decision whichever way I voted.

Admitting that there is no difference in the political philosophies of the contending candidates, should I not choose the “lesser of two evils?” But, which of the two qualifies? If my man prevails, then those who voted against him are loaded down with the “greater evil,” while if my man loses, then it is they who have chosen the “lesser evil.” Voting for the “lesser of two evils” makes no sense, for it is only a matter of opinion as to which is the lesser. Usually, such a decision is based on prejudice, not on principle. Besides, why should I compromise with evil?

If I were to vote for the “lesser of two evils” I would in fact be subscribing to whatever that “evil” does in office. He could claim a mandate for his official acts, a sort of blank check, with my signature, into which he could enter his performances. My vote is indeed a moral sanction, upon which the official depends for support of his acts, and without which he would feel rather naked.”

Again, voting has ethical ramifications. When you vote for a candidate, you are not voting for a reduction of evil, but rather a continuation of it.

“Vote! It’s your civic duty.”

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this means. I suspect that most people who use this platitude do not understand what they are saying either. Presumably, we must vote in order to be considered a “good citizen.” Unfortunately, elevating the importance of elections in this way tends to encourage people to conceive of these elected offices as ones that ought to hold great power.

“Those who exaggerate the importance of elections (usually as part of their campaign pitch about how important it is for you to vote, and in a particular way) also tend to exaggerate the power of office-holders and the abilities (and propensities) of the politicians who hold office. This has the unfortunate effect of getting people accustomed to the idea that these offices ought to have great powers concentrated in them, and ought to be looked on to solve our problems, create miracles, provide for our needs, and so forth. This in turn makes the psychopaths in power more dangerous.”

It not only makes those in power more dangerous, but it also makes your fellow citizens into dangerous enemies to be vanquished, rather than merely individuals with whom we have a difference of opinion. Politics and voting are not your “civic duty” – rather, they are an institutionalized mechanism which causes social chaos and divisiveness among good people.

“It’s not difficult to understand why politics plays such a central role in our lives: political decision-making increasingly determines so much of what we do and how we’re permitted to do it. We vote on what our children will learn in school and how they will be taught. We vote on what people are allowed to drink, smoke, and eat. We vote on which people are allowed to marry those they love. In such crucial life decisions, as well as countless others, we have given politics a substantial impact on the direction of our lives. No wonder it’s so important to so many people.

Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a given policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we—as a community, as a nation—will teach children creation or evolution.”

These disagreements are a waste of time, and could easily be resolved by allowing voluntary communities to determine their own rules on such matters. Instead, these disagreements are elevated to a battle between Good and Evil, Virtue and Vice.

“What’s troubling about politics from a moral perspective is not that it encourages group mentalities, for a great many other activities encourage similar group thinking without raising significant moral concerns. Rather, it’s the way politics interacts with group mentalities, creating negative feedback leading directly to viciousness. Politics, all too often, makes us hate each other. Politics encourages us to behave toward each other in ways that, were they to occur in a different context, would repel us. No truly virtuous person ought to behave as politics so often makes us act.”

So no, voting is not your civic duty. No reasonable definition of a civic duty can require us to engage in behaviors that create a social war of all against all. If anything, you have a duty to abstain from voting in order to avoid fostering additional conflict.

“Voting is a way to speak your mind and let your voice be heard!”

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” – H.L. Mencken

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” – H.L. Mencken

Or, a closely related slogan: “vote for change!” For some reason, this last one seems to work best on the young and ignorant; I recall the 2008 election where the majority of this demographic almost religiously got in line behind Obama, leading to creepy things like this song, “I believe in Barack Obama” by the Hush Sound.

Despite Obama doing things just about the same as Bush did, this same demographic has overwhelmingly been supporting Bernie Sanders with the same vigor. I suspect that if Bernie is elected, we’ll have about the same amount of “change”.

But by far the “best” variant on the “let your voice be heard!” argument is one that I read on this handout from an organization called the Partnership for Safety and Justice (emphasis in original):

“Last but not least, because it gives you credibility! Often times, we voice our concerns to elected officials, but if we aren’t voting, our concerns may not matter at all to them. Voting can actually give you the credibility to make your concerns a top priority for legislators.”

Read that again. Apparently, your vote captures your opinions about how the country should be run and the politicians are listening to you! Oh, come on now. As discussed above, your vote is meaningless, your concerns actually don’t matter at all to politicians – not when there are special interests to please.

In the market, there are ways to “let your voice be heard” that do not involve forcing your opinions on others. Voting can even be a decent method for this, such as members of an organization voting on proposed rules, or a group of friends voting on where to go for dinner. Voting in political elections is nothing like this.

“So what do I mean by “politics?” I mean the act of deciding for others via the mechanisms of the state. Choosing for others, and then getting government to make them go along with our choices. Granted, when we make decisions via those mechanisms—by, say, voting—we expect the outcome will apply to ourselves and not just to other people. But it’s misleading to say we are “deciding for ourselves” when we vote, because if what we vote for is something we would’ve done anyway, we could always choose to do it independent of a vote. If I think contributing money to a cause is worthwhile, I don’t need the state to make me do it. I can cut a check any time. By voting, by shifting from the personal and voluntary to the political and compulsory, we call for the application of force. A vote is the majority compelling the minority to comply with the majority’s wishes. Thus politics is a method of decision-making where choices are moved from individuals choosing privately to groups choosing collectively, and where the decisions those groups arrive at are backed by law and regulation. It’s this last aspect—the backing by the force of law—that distinguishes politics from, say, five friends voting on where to go for dinner.”

Contrary to what many say, voting is not a way to voice your opinion. It is a way to legitimize the rule of others. Two brief stories will help drive this point home. First, consider Wendy McElroy’s recitation of a parable by Larken Rose:

“The anarchist Larken Rose presented a realistic view of slaves voting in his parable, “The Jones Plantation.” Slave-owner Jones laments to slave-owner Smith about risking the disobedience of his slaves by pressing them to work harder. Smith offers a solution. He gathers the slaves and declares them to be free men who will work for themselves henceforth. He advises them to stay on the plantation, however, as slave-owning neighbors would recapture them immediately. He adds: Since only Jones has experience in running a plantation, Jones will remain as administrator. The ‘former’ slaves go to work in the cotton fields with the renewed vigor of free men.

The next day, a handful of ‘former’ slaves become supervisors to ensure the rules are followed in order “to benefit all equally.” The rest work with renewed vigor.

On day three, a man named Samuel is whipped for holding back some cotton for his own use; this is called “stealing” from everyone else. When Samuel complains there is no difference between freedom and slavery as long as Jones makes all the rules, Smith gathers the ‘former’ slaves and tells them there will be an election every three months in which either Jones or Jones’s cousin will be voted administrator; the ‘former’ slaves are in control. Moreover, everyone now has two minutes in which to speak out at each gathering.

Eventually, Samuel uses his two minutes to say that nothing has changed. Jones and his cousin are exactly the same; they take the wealth and leave next to nothing for the ‘former’ slaves. The other workers turn against Samuel.

Rose presents some of the key elements of voting, especially in the context of slavery. Voting provides an illusion of freedom, a delusion of control to which the slaves cling. It turns them against each other both as supervisors and as workers who are either pro-Jones or pro-cousin. It turns the slaves against the one man who speaks the truth in protest. And nothing, nothing about the conditions of slavery change…except the words describing it. Voting is called “freedom,” “democracy,” “civic responsibility,” or “self-defense.”“

Voting gives the masses a sense as though they have some control or freedom, but this is just an illusion.

A similar parable is Robert Nozick’s “Tale of the Slave”, from his award winning book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

“Consider the following sequence of cases… and imagine it is about you.

  1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.
  7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
  8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?”



I don’t expect this essay to convince many. Those who believe that one “should” vote are unlikely to be pursuaded by reason. But hopefully I have at least planted the seed of understanding in some readers, such that one day, upon becoming fed up with the political process, they will awaken to the idea that perhaps participating in this charade is a waste of time.

The politicians and the democratic process that legitimizes their power will chug along just fine without you. As Frank Chodorov remarked,

“All in all, I see no good reason for voting and have refrained from doing so for about a half-century. During that time, my more conscientious compatriots (including, principally, the professional politicians and their ward heelers) have conveniently provided me with presidents and with governments, all of whom have run the political affairs of the country as they should be run — that is, for the benefit of the politicians.

Why should any self-respecting citizen endorse an institution grounded on thievery? For that is what one does when one votes. If it be argued that we must let bygones be bygones, see what can be done toward cleaning up the institution of the State so that it might be useful in the maintenance of orderly existence, the answer is that it cannot be done; you cannot clean up a brothel and yet leave the business intact. We have been voting for one “good government” after another, and what have we got?”

For those of you who vote despite this, I agree with George Carlin’s sarcastic quip: I’m sure that the country will improve dramatically after your guy gets elected.

Political Obligations: Are We Morally Obligated To Obey Our Governments?

A man without a government is like a fish without a bicycle

Imagine you live in a town, and there is a problem.

Perhaps the problem is crime – some people do bad things like steal, murder, and rape. Or maybe you think that the moral fabric of your town is being corrupted by homosexuals, drug users, prostitutes, payday lenders, unscrupulous merchants, or people who look at you funny.

One day, you decide to do something about it. Sick of all the criminals in town, you begin to investigate crimes yourself, apprehend the criminals, and then lock them up in your basement. Then you walk over to your neighbor’s house and say “Hey there! I’ve been locking away the criminals in our town, and this is a mighty costly endeavor. Since I’ve provided this service to you, it’s time for you to pay your fair share. Please provide me with a check for $500.”

How do you think people would react to you? I’d venture a guess and say that people would slam the door in your face and laugh.

Having just been rejected, you knock on their door again. When they answer, you say “Hey now. I’m locking up the criminals in our town, and if you don’t pay up, I will consider you a criminal. Give me my money, or you’ll spend the next five years living in a cage in my basement.”

Morally speaking, is this justified? Of course not! What you are doing is robbing someone and threatening to kidnap them – actions that we can agree are morally wrong.

Nearly anyone would recognize this. And yet, when the government does exactly the same thing, it is almost universally considered “taxation” and “criminal justice,” things that most believe are morally legitimate actions for a government to take. And that very well may be true – but since our moral intuitions about the actions a private individual can do and what the government can do reveal a double-standard, it is necessary for the state to have some kind of moral authority that enables it to legitimately do things that you and I cannot. To justify a law, one must justify the use of physical coercion against those who violate the law. Causing harm to others is prima facie wrong, so some account must be given to why governments are allowed to violate our common sense moral intuitions.

This is the problem of political obligation, which is the moral property that gives governments the right to coerce people in a way that these people cannot themselves, and in which the subjects of a government are obligated to obey its dictates despite individuals not normally being required to obey other people. In other words, what makes a state morally unique and differentiated from the individuals who comprise it (and everyone else)?

For centuries, political philosophers have discussed this problem and have proposed theories justifying political obligations. My intention in this essay is to show why the most prominent of these theories of political obligation fail. The arguments presented here are drawn from two wonderful books, and if you are curious to see them fleshed out in more detail, you can do no better than to check them out:

Alright, let’s get started!


The Problem of Political Obligation

When you have an obligation to do something, that obligation is not an absolute moral claim on your actions. If you have an obligation or duty to do something, that is a very good reason for acting in a particular way, but not a conclusive reason for doing so. In other words, obligations don’t override other moral considerations for acting.

Let’s say we agree to meet for lunch. I now have an obligation to go to lunch at the agreed upon time and location. But if on my way to lunch I come across a child drowning in a pond, my obligation does not mean that I ought to let the child die and continue to lunch. Clearly, other moral considerations dominate the obligation to meet for lunch.

What this means is that even if it can be established that political obligations exist and bind us to our governments, that does not mean that we are morally required to obey the government in all cases. It would provide a very strong prima facie reason to do so – but if obeying the law meant that some significantly greater harm would occur, the morally correct action is to disobey. This is an important bound to what I am attempting to prove in this article: the existence of political obligations does not automatically entail counterintuitive results such as “supporting the Nazis was morally correct for Germans.” What it would mean is that there was a good reason to support the Nazis (or any government), but it was (heavily) outweighed by other moral considerations.

With that out of the way, let’s define obligations with more precision. An obligation is a moral requirement satisfying the following conditions:

  1. An obligation is a requirement generated by the performance of some voluntary act or omission. This is contrasted with duties, which can exist without performing some special action.
  2. An obligation is owed by a specific person to a specific person or persons. Duties, by contrast, are owed by all people to everyone else. That’s why you can “fulfill” your obligations, but cannot ever discharge of a moral duty.
  3. Every obligation that is generated establishes a corresponding right that is generated at the same time. If person A has an obligation to do X for person B, then person B has a right to the performance of X by A.
  4. It is not the nature of the required act that generates the obligation, but rather the nature of the relationship between the obligor and the obligee. Just because an act is moral or praiseworthy does not make the act obligatory.

These conditions help separate the concept of “obligations” from the very similar concept of “duties”. Most of this post will focus on obligations, but John Rawls proposed a “natural duty of justice” which will also be discussed in a later section.

An important concept is that of a “positional duty” – a duty that arises due to the nature of a position itself. For instance, a part of a soldier’s positional duties would be to shoot at an advancing enemy when the commander says so. Positional duties of this sort do not have moral weight. To say that someone has a positional duty is to say that, because of some position that the agent is in, the agent is required to do something specified by that position. But this says nothing about the nature of that position, which could be a Nazi guard who has a positional duty to aid in the extermination of Jews. If a positional duty is in fact morally binding, it is because of some other grounds for morality that is not related to the position. Therefore, we do not have a duty to obey the government simply in virtue of the fact that we are citizens of that government; something else must explain this duty. What most people would call “legal obligations” are thus morally neutral. Just because the legal obligation of a Nazi guard is to help exterminate Jews, this does not make murdering Jews morally justified.

slavery and government

Similarly, just because a particular institution exists and its rules apply to someone does not mean that they are morally bound to that institution. Tyrannical governments are not morally entitled to the support of those who live under them.

In this essay, I will not assume any particular moral theories are correct. But before moving on, let’s consider utilitarianism, which offers a different approach to generating obligations than that outlined in this article. Utilitarianism, very roughly, is the doctrine that the morally correct action is always the one that maximizes “utility” or “happiness”. Utilitarian deliberations can at times lead us to conclude that we are obligated to obey the government, but just as easily in other cases that we are not obligated to obey. As such, there is no utilitarian approach to creating a moral requirement to support or comply with a given political institution. Since utilitarianism bases the moral rightness of something on a single condition, it doesn’t seem that it is capable of leading to a theory of obligation in general. Any potential obligation is immediately superseded by concerns about utility. Any obligations generated from utilitarian calculations is due to the amount of utility that results from one’s actions, not due to the nature of political institutions themselves.

A common concern that many people have with this result can be phrased as the question: what if everyone disobeyed the law? This brings us to rule-utilitarianism, which stipulates that we ought to act in accordance with rules that, if generally adopted, would lead to the greatest utility. But our decisions are somewhat independent of each other. For instance, if I decide to become a math teacher, this seems fine. But what if everyone became a math teacher? Everyone would starve. That doesn’t make becoming a math teacher morally wrong. To phrase it all as a rule: “I can break the law when the content of the law isn’t independently morally required (don’t murder, for example), provided that there are not too many people breaking the law.” Therefore, rule-utilitarianism, like act-utilitarianism, is unable to generate an account of political obligation.

Furthermore, as Huemer points out,

“Presumably, if individuals are obligated to maintain social order, the state is similarly obligated. If disobedience to any law risks causing a collapse of social order, then the state, in making laws that are not necessary to maintaining social order and that are likely to be widely disobeyed, is itself threatening social order far more than a single individual who disobeys one of these laws. Furthermore, asking the state to renounce its desire to make such unnecessary laws is more reasonable and less onerous than asking an individual to renounce his personal liberties.”

So, what would a successful account of political obligations look like? According to Huemer, it must satisfy the following five conditions:

  1. The state’s authority applies to citizens generally. The great majority of individuals should have political obligations, and the state must be justified in using coercion against the majority of its citizens.
  2. The state’s authority is limited to those citizens and residents within its territory.
  3. The state’s authority is not tied to the content of its laws or other commands. Even if a law is “bad”, citizens must have obligations to obey. An account of political obligation should explain why citizens ought not to jaywalk because the state says so. Of course, as discussed earlier, citizens might be morally required not to act in accordance with this law, if other moral considerations outweigh it.
  4. The state is entitled to regulate a broad range of human activities, and individuals must obey the state’s directives within this range.
  5. Within the sphere of action that the state is entitled to regulate, it is the final and highest human authority.

Let’s explore condition (2) for a moment. This is what Simmons dubbed the “particularity requirement”. We are only interested in moral requirements that make an individual bound to a particular political community or institution in order to create obligations based upon citizenship. Let’s say we had an obligation to support just governments (however defined). While living under a just government, I would be obliged to support it. I would be equally obliged to support every other just government to the same degree. But political authority is supposed to explain why we are bound to “our” particular government, not governments in general.

With this in mind, let’s tackle the most important theories of political obligation.


Consent Theories And The Social Contract

Consent theories of political obligation are those that argue that no man is obligated to support or comply with any political power unless he has personally consented to its authority over him. In other words, political obligations are grounded in the citizen performing some voluntary act in order to deliberately undertake the obligation.

This is a very popular theory, and is supported by philosophical heavyweights such as John Locke. Consent theory is attractive because it prevents man from being bound to a government which he does not choose. It respects our belief that men should determine the course of their own life as much as possible. It protects an individual’s freedom to determine which particular institution will get his political allegiance.

The major assumptions behind consent theories are:

  1. Man is naturally free. The “state of nature”, therefore, is discussing men during a time prior to them having voluntarily acted in a way that morally binds them.
  2. Man gives up his natural freedom only by voluntarily providing a clear sign that he intends to do so.
  3. The method of consent protects man from injury by the state. Only a government which has been “chosen” by the individual has any legitimate power over them.
  4. The state is an instrument for serving the interests of its citizens. Neither the state nor another individual can determine what is in the interests of another; one must provide consent that would indicate that the individual considers his interests served by the government.

Prior to the existence of governments, man lives in the state of nature, where he can do whatever he wants. But then he performs some kind of act which binds him to a government by signaling his consent. If he does not consent to the government, than that government does not have legitimate authority over him. However, he may choose to become bound to a state if he believes it would serve his interests.

A consent theory would hold that only unanimous consent by the citizens would make that government a legitimate political authority. This is clearly implausible. The solution to this problem that many political philosophers have provided is “tacit consent”, primarily via residence. This seems problematic as well, since it would suggest that all governments are legitimate. Consent theorists need to find some kind of “sign of consent” that we can reasonably assume most men have undertaken.

This sign of consent must be given knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily. If “consent” is given because of a direct threat or while under duress, it isn’t really consent now, is it? Nor is it consent if the actor didn’t know that he was providing “consent”. The fact is, most of us have never been in a position to express consent to a government authority, let alone actually performed such an act. Here’s where the importance of tacit consent comes into play, where the consent is signaled by remaining silent or inactive.

Under what conditions can silence be taken as a sign of consent, and thus justify political obligations for the consent theorist?

  1. It must be clear in the situation that consenting is appropriate and the individual is aware of this.
  2. There must be a definite period of reasonable duration where objecting is appropriate, and the methods to object must be known to a potential dissenter. The method to object must pertain to goods that people have rights over.
  3. The point at which dissent is no longer possible must be made obvious.
  4. The means acceptable for signaling dissent must be reasonable.
  5. The consequences to a potential dissenter mustn’t be extremely detrimental to the dissenter.

Consider a board meeting, where the chairman says that he will change the time of the meeting unless anyone has any objection. If the meeting attendees remain silent, then they have tacitly consented to the time change. If the chairman does not make clear that he is seeking consent, then this violates condition (1); since the attendees don’t realize that this is a situation where they can provide consent (or not), then they have not even had the opportunity to tacitly consent. Clearly, there is no deliberate and voluntary aspect to this “consent”.

By changing the example slightly, we can show why the above conditions are necessary. Let’s say the chairman says “If you do not support the time change, you can let us know by paying $5.” Because the chairman does not have a preexisting right to this money, then failing to pay cannot signal genuine tacit consent, because it violates condition (2).

Condition (3) guarantees that the attendees’ silence is not simply a reflection of a misunderstanding regarding how much time they have to dissent. The chairman cannot consider the attendees to have consented by claiming that whatever dissent that has occurred past the deadline doesn’t count, when no explicit deadline was provided.

Now, let’s say that the chairman says “If you don’t accept the time change, you can let me know by playing a round of Russian roulette.” This violates condition (4) – clearly, one cannot be considered to have provided tacit consent when the means to do would be so unreasonable. The vagueness in the term “unreasonable” should not impact the strength of the arguments in this section.

Finally, the chairman might say “If you do not accept the time change, I will lock you in a cage in my office.” This violates condition (5). “Consent” that is given due to coercion isn’t really consent, and cannot generate obligations.

Huemer adds several other conditions that must be satisfied for an agreement, or contract, to be considered valid. Explicitly dissenting from an agreement trumps any implicit acceptance. If I go into a restaurant and tell the waitress that I will not pay for my meal but want it anyways (and then she brings it to me), I am not obligated to pay. Normally, ordering at a restaurant would make you obligated to pay, but by explicitly stating that you will not, the waitress could (and should) have simply not served you. Additionally, an action can only be taken to signal consent if the actor can assume that, without performing that act, the scheme would not be forced upon them anyways. If the chairman says “I want to switch the meeting time, and will do so regardless of whether you disagree or not,” then it is not a valid agreement. Finally, a contractual obligation is mutual and conditional; if one side fails to live up to the agreement, then the obligations stemming from it are considered void.

Any possible “social contract” must fulfill these conditions, but it appears to fail on all of them. Explicit dissent doesn’t seem to trump implicit consent, as every anarchist knows. As Huemer puts it:

“…the state’s well-known refusal to recognize explicit dissent calls into question the validity of any tacit consent allegedly given by even those who have not explicitly expressed dissent. Even for those who would not in fact wish to dissent, it remains true that they were not given the option of explicitly turning down the social contract.”

The state will apply the same laws and taxes to you even if you object to government, use its roads, vote, etc. Therefore, failing to object, or agreeing to take part in the political process or accept benefits from government cannot be said to signal consent.

Social contract

A social contract would imply that the state has some obligations toward its citizens (or else the contract isn’t mutual). Presumably, one of these is that the state protects citizens from crime. Suppose you are the victim of a crime that the state could have prevented had it made a reasonable effort to do so. In this case, isn’t the state failing in its mutual obligation? This is exactly the situation we have in the US, where police have no obligation to protect citizens from crime.

Clearly, the social contract would violate our common sense intuitions about contracts and agreements in general.

But let’s return to the idea of tacit consent. Can we even say that most individuals have tacitly consented to their government’s rule? For Locke and many others, tacit consent can be signaled by voting, residing in a state, using public roads, etc. But this means that living within a tyrannical society would still result in individuals being bound to that government. North Koreans perform these actions just as readily as Americans do, but we don’t consider North Koreans to be morally bound to their government.

Here it is important to draw a distinction between an act being a “sign of consent” and an act “implying consent.” When an act “implies consent” it does not necessarily mean that the actor intended to consent or that the act would normally be taken as an attempt to signal consent. Here are ways to imply consent:

  1. An act can lead us to conclude that the actor would consent if the right conditions arose. If he had been asked to, he would have consented.
  2. An act might commit an actor to consenting. Spending hours going on a rant about how anyone who doesn’t consent to their government is an idiot would under normal conditions imply that this individual consents to be governed.
  3. An act might morally bind the actor to the same performance to which he would be bound if he in fact did consent. Joining a baseball game would imply consent to abide by the rules and dictates of the umpires.

These kinds of acts were not necessarily performed as deliberate or intentional acts of consent, and thus we cannot merely assume that they were intended as acts of consent. Remember: an act of consent must be a deliberate undertaking, otherwise any benefits that consent theory has for political obligations no longer exist.

People like Locke would argue that things like using public roads or voting, which imply consent, can be grounds for political obligations. But these instances of implied consent are not typically deliberate undertakings. Although participating in the political process might imply consent, under current arrangements, it is not a sign of consent. The average man votes with minimal awareness and no intention of having it be an act of consent to anything. If these types of actions could ground political obligations, then this would be within the realm of some other theory, not consent theory.

Let’s also note that an attitude of approval does not signal consent and is irrelevant to political obligations. Merely approving or having a positive attitude towards government is not a sign of consent; again, a sign of consent must be a deliberate undertaking. When a man consents to something, he is morally bound, regardless of his attitudes.

It is clear that very few individuals today have signaled (tacit) consent to governmental authority (even if that is only because most people have not had the opportunity to do so), which makes it unsuitable as a general grounds for political obligations. It would show that in most modern states, a trivial fraction of the citizens of any state would be morally bound.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to the argument that continued residence within a specific territory qualifies as providing consent. “Love it or leave it,” as they say. For continued residence to qualify as consent, there would need to be some kind of choice presented which allowed people to voice their dissent, otherwise conditions (1)-(3) above would be violated. For instance, at a particular age, every citizen can be asked whether they agree to be bound by political obligations, and would be allowed to leave without punishment if they do not. In general, residence as a potential signal of consent violates condition (5), that the consequences of dissent must not be too extreme. Man’s most valuable possessions, such as family and friends, would need to be left behind to leave a state, placing a very significant weight in favor of continued residence. As Simmons asks:

“Does a man choose freely to remain in prison because he has a knife with which he can wound himself seriously enough to be removed to a hospital?”

Surely not! The choice procedure specified in order to make continued residence a signal of consent may never be able to overcome condition (5), though theoretically there is room for it to do so. But the onus is on the consent theorist to propose a choice procedure that can be designed to fulfill the above conditions. In addition, the “love it or leave it” argument presupposes that the government has a valid property right over the property within its borders, or else the request to leave involves demanding of someone to sacrifice something they have rights over (like the chairman who insists people pay $5 to dissent).

At this point, we can see that consent theories ultimately come up short.


Hypothetical Social Contracts

Another strand of justifications for political obligation would be appealing to a hypothetical social contract. Proponents of these theories argue that people would consent to the state’s authority under certain hypothetical conditions.

In order for this line of argument to succeed, these theorists must show that not only would people consent, but that the hypothetical consent has moral significance that generates obligations. For instance, an unconscious patient is rushed to the hospital and cannot give explicit consent to treatment, but it is reasonable to believe that the patient would consent if he were conscious. Is our consenting to be bound to our governments analogous to this situation?

For hypothetical consent to apply, obtaining actual consent must be infeasible (for reasons other than peoples’ unwillingness to consent in the first place). If a patient is conscious, then the doctors must get their actual (not assumed) consent. Also, the parties’ hypothetical consent must be consistent with their relevant pre-existing values and beliefs. If an unconscious patient had a religious objection to some kind of surgery (that the doctor knew about), we cannot say they have hypothetically consented to surgery just because they are unconscious and cannot make it explicit.

It is possible for the state to get explicit consent to its rule, since (most) of the people that it rules over are not unconscious or otherwise incapable. In addition, there are individuals who have values that are against certain types of government (or government in general), so hypothetical consent cannot be assumed for these individuals. For instance, some people might only consent to a government that is a direct democracy, but if living in a representative democracy, they would not.

One might argue that a hypothetical social contract is valid if all “reasonable” people would consent to it. This consent need not apply to every detail of the state, but it should at least include consent to the basic forms and structures of that government. But there is no reason to think that all reasonable people will reach agreement on the basic principles of government any more than all reasonable people agreeing to the same religion or ethical theory.

The hypothetical social contract theorist must hold that one may coercively impose an arrangement on individuals when they would be “unreasonable” to reject the arrangement. If someone offered you a job that was better in every way than your current job, you might be “unreasonable” to reject it; nevertheless, most people wouldn’t say that this gives the employer the right to coerce you into accepting the job. The unreasonableness of rejecting an offer in the private sphere clearly does not generate a license to coerce, and yet the unreasonableness of rejecting the social contract is enough for many theorists to (inconsistently and incorrectly) claim that the terms of a social contract can be forced on its citizens.

Rawls’s Natural Duty of Justice

John Rawls is without question the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, so it is worth investigating his arguments more explicitly.

Rawls imagines a hypothetical “original position,” where individuals select the basic social structure that they would like to live under. They do this from behind the “veil of ignorance” – nobody in the original position is aware of their characteristics in the real world. The parties negotiating the principles are unaware of their race, sex, religion, social status, talents, and so on. Rawls says that all reasonable people behind the veil of ignorance would agree to certain principles of government. The cause of disagreements, according to Rawls, are the influence of irrationality, personal biases, and ignorance – all factors that disappear under the veil of ignorance.

anarchy frightens people

But given that reasonable people disagree over many philosophical issues for intellectual reasons, why should we assume that disagreements would be explained away in political philosophy? There is no reason to think that (reasonable and rational) anarchists disagree with Rawls’s principles because of their knowledge of their position in society. While Rawls may have identified certain necessary conditions (people should be rational, free from personal biases, etc.), it is not clear that these conditions are sufficient. But even if one could identify all of the conditions necessary for persuasive moral reasoning, it is possible that the conclusions that Rawls draws are not accurate. For that to be the case, it would be necessary for everyone in the original position to have the complete and correct values – but the correct moral values are highly contentious in philosophy. Therefore, it becomes difficult or impossible for Rawls or any other theorist to determine what principles people would actually agree to.

That is enough to render Rawls’s theory inadequate, but let’s assume away those problems for a moment. Rawls claims that the natural duty of justice binds each member “irrespective of his voluntary acts, performative or otherwise.” (Note that it is this factor that makes it a duty rather than an obligation, but I digress).This duty of justice has two parts:

“First, we are to comply with and do our share in just institutions when they exist and apply to us; and second, we are to assist in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist, at least when this can be done at little cost to ourselves.”

But what does it mean for an institution to “apply to us”? We shouldn’t be required to go along with just any institution that forces itself upon us, or which applies to us because of descriptions that we happen to meet. The NAACP doesn’t “apply to” all black people. The Writer’s Guild doesn’t “apply to” me merely because I am a writer. Birth is not an act that I perform or am responsible for, so being born in an area shouldn’t make that institution “apply to” me in a morally significant way.

One must consent or accept benefits or something along those lines in order for the institution to “apply to” me in a morally significant way. The acts that a citizen must perform in order to have the institution “apply” to him in this stronger sense are ones which would generate obligations anyways (under consent or fair play theories, coming up next). What if we tried to get rid of the “application” clause in Rawls’s natural duty of justice? Then we would be obligated to comply with and support every just institution, wherever it exists – an implausible demand, to be sure, and one which violates the particularity principle.


The Principle of Fair Play

The principle of fair play suggests that the beneficiary of some kind of scheme has a moral obligation to do his “fair share” to shoulder the burden of the scheme. Others who have cooperated in this scheme have a right to the beneficiary’s submission to the rules.

Obligations stemming from this principle can arise when the following conditions hold (Simmons):

  1. There must be an active scheme of social cooperation.
  2. Cooperation under the scheme involves at least a restriction of one’s liberty.
  3. The benefits yielded from the scheme can be, at least in some cases, enjoyed by someone who does not cooperate (related to public goods/free rider problem).

Under this conception of obligations, citizens are considered to stand in a cooperative relationship with their fellow citizens rather than in an adversarial relationship with their government (as consent theories seem to suggest). This sentiment might be reflected in some common statements that people will make, such as “we are the government.”

In order to assess this argument, we must draw a distinction between merely receiving benefits and accepting benefits. To accept a benefit, one must have wanted it when it was received, or have made an effort to get the benefit, or at least not have actively attempted to avoid getting it. This is the difference between you sneaking onto my lawn while I’m away and mowing it (I receive a benefit), or asking me if you could come by to mow my lawn (I accept a benefit). It would be silly to claim that I “accept” the benefit of you mowing my lawn if you did it while I was completely unaware. And it would also fly against our intuitions to say that we owe this phantom lawn-mower for their services provided. What if I were growing it out for some reason?

With this distinction in mind, we have the choice of saying that the principle of fair play applies to either all beneficiaries of a scheme, or merely all of those who have accepted the benefits of that scheme. Is it enough for someone to have merely received the benefit? Robert Nozick, in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” provides a thought experiment that convincingly demonstrates that receiving a benefit is not sufficient to bind someone under considerations of fair play.

“Suppose some of the people in your neighborhood (there are 364 other adults) have found a public address system and decide to institute a system of public entertainment. They post a list of names, one for each day, yours among them. On his assigned day (one can easily switch days) a person is to run the public address system, play records over it, give news bulletins, tell amusing stories he has heard, and so on. After 138 days on which each person has done his part, your day arrives. Are you obligated to take your turn? You have benefited from it, occasionally opening your window to listen, enjoying some music or chuckling at someone’s funny story. The other people have put themselves out. But must you answer the call when it is your turn to do so? As it stands, surely not. Though you benefit from the arrangement, you may know all along that 364 days of entertainment supplied by others will not be worth your giving up one day. You would rather not have any of it and not give up a day than have it all and spend one of your days at it. Given these preferences, how can it be that you are required to participate when your scheduled time comes? It would be nice to have philosophy readings on the radio to which one could tune in at any time, perhaps late at night when tired. But it may not be nice enough for you to want to give up one whole day of your own as a reader on the program. Whatever you want, can others create an obligation for you to do so by going ahead and starting the program themselves? In this case you can choose to forgo the benefit by not turning on the radio; in other cases the benefits may be unavoidable. If each day a different person on your street sweeps the entire street, must you do so when your time comes? Even if you don’t care that much about a clean street? Must you imagine dirt as you traverse the street, so as not to benefit as a free rider? Must you refrain from turning on the radio to hear the philosophy readings? Must you mow your front lawn as often as your neighbors mow theirs?”

We conclude that in order to have obligations derived from fair play, one must accept the benefits of the scheme, and not merely receive the benefits. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

It also appears that considerations of fair play would only arise if the beneficiary is also a participant in the cooperative scheme (for instance, Canadians benefit from the rule of law that the American government provides, but they are not obligated to pay US taxes). To be a participant, one must a) pledge support or tacitly agree to be governed by the scheme’s rules, or b) play an active role in the scheme after it is instituted.

In other words, fair play would only bind “insiders” of the scheme. This means that it would only bind those who have already become bound to do their part as “insiders,” leading the principle of fair play to collapse into a theory of consent. But this critique no longer holds once we define a participant as someone who has agreed to accept benefits. One can accept benefits from a scheme without signaling consent, and this would still make that person a participant (“Yes, I’m accepting the benefits of government, but I will NOT pay for it! It is a terrible idea!”). Thus, the theory no longer collapses into consent theory. Bummer.

Let’s return to the idea of accepting benefits. Benefits that we actively resist getting, we get unknowingly, or in ways in which we had no control, appear to be benefits that we did not accept. To accept the benefit, we must have tried (and succeeded) to get the benefit or taken the benefit willingly and knowingly. We cannot regard the benefits as having been forced upon us against our will or think that they were not worth the price we must pay for them. Let us define an “open” benefit as one that cannot be avoided without a change in lifestyle, such as the PA system example that Nozick provides (we can contrast this with “readily available” benefits that can be obtained easily, but require some kind of action to benefit from). In the case of open benefits in a cooperative scheme, in order to be considered to have “accepted” the benefits, one must have understood that the benefits were provided by the scheme itself (as opposed to just being free for the taking, entitlements, etc.).

Most benefits of government are “open,” and thus it is difficult to see how anyone has really accepted them. Many citizens likely don’t believe that the benefits that they receive are worth the price they must pay. Most people don’t think it is worth it to buy loads of bombs and get involved in wars, to pay for police to fight the “drug war,” or otherwise spend money interfering in peoples’ personal lives. And most people regard these benefits not as something arising from the cooperative effort of their fellow citizens, but rather as something that they have “purchased” from the government with their taxes. As Simmons says,

“Even among the thoughtful and “morally aware”, it must be a rare individual who regards himself as engaged in an ongoing cooperative venture, obeying the law because fair play demands it, and with all of the citizens of his state as fellow participants.”

As such, the principle of fair play cannot generate political obligations for the majority of individuals, and is thus not a sufficiently general principle of political obligation. But before moving on to the next theory, we should take a moment to reflect on our intuitions regarding fair play.

As a thought experiment (Simmons provides this example), imagine that homeowners in a given area create a scheme to have everyone maintain their own yards during the week and do some yard work in the communal areas on weekends. Two individuals, Oscar and Willie, refuse to partake in this scheme. Oscar hates clean yards, so he isn’t really benefiting from the scheme. The residents in that area don’t feel like he is freeloading (though they would prefer he leave the community), because he is not benefitting from the arrangement at all.

Willie, on the other hand, does like well-kept yards. But he would prefer to live in an ugly neighborhood than to spend his weekend cleaning. The rest of the residents feel that Willie is obligated to help and that he is not fulfilling these obligations.

scared of those who believe in authority

But then there is Sam, a businessman who comes into the neighborhood for much of the week and benefits just as much from the scheme as Willie does, but also does not contribute. Anyone who would accuse Sam of avoiding obligations would be laughed at. But neither Willie nor Sam has accepted the benefits or made any sort of commitment to the yard-cleaning scheme – they appear to be in largely the same position relative to the scheme. So why is Willie accused of failing to discharge his obligations while Sam is not?

The answer is that peoples’ intuitions about Willie are wrong. Sorry guys. We are born into our political communities (or schemes, as I’ve been calling them), which seems qualitatively the same as having the scheme built up around you, as in the examples of Willie and the PA system.


The Principle of Gratitude

Perhaps political obligations are generated from the receipt (and not necessarily acceptance) of benefits of government due to the principle of gratitude, which stipulates that we repay our benefactors. This principle might apply, for instance, to say that we owe our parents because of the benefits they have provided us.

For starters, it is an open question whether or not considerations of gratitude are relevant to moral theory at all. The triviality of most potential debts of gratitude makes it seem as though it would fall under etiquette rather than morality. Nevertheless, let us consider the possibility that debts of gratitude could be morally significant.

There are at least five necessary conditions for an obligation of gratitude to be generated. These conditions are necessary, but likely not sufficient.

  1. The benefit must be granted by means of some effort or sacrifice. If someone benefits us by merely going about their business-as-usual, it is difficult to see how any kind of special debt would be generated.
  2. The benefit must not be given unintentionally, involuntarily, or for any other disqualifying reasons (selfishness, for instance).
  3. The benefit must not be forced (unjustifiably) against the beneficiary’s will.
  4. The beneficiary must want the benefit, or the beneficiary would want the benefit if certain impairing conditions were corrected (for instance, if the person were not drunk).
  5. The beneficiary must not want the benefit not to be provided by the benefactor (they would want the benefits to come from someone else), or the beneficiary wouldn’t feel this way if impairing conditions were corrected.

Let’s say that all of these conditions (and any other necessary conditions) were satisfied with respect to the benefits we receive from government. Even in the case where we are bound by a debt of gratitude to our government, this would not imply that we ought to obey the government, since other countervailing considerations could predominate in that moral deliberation.

Darth Vader not guilty

But political obligation requires a very specific kind of “payment” to the government. Namely, it requires obedience. But while obedience to the law and support for government institutions are one way of discharging a debt of gratitude, they are not the only way. And even if a debt of gratitude required fulfilling a particular need of the benefactor (obedience is something the state needs to exist), this does not mean we must do everything in our power to fulfill this need. Obeying the law most of the time would fulfill this need, so we don’t need to obey the law all the time. But it also isn’t clear why a benefactor having a particular need implies that the beneficiary must fulfill this need in the first place. Therefore, the best that the principle of gratitude can do is to require that citizens do something for their governments, but that something is not the same as a political obligation. It could just mean that we are morally required to say “thank you” to politicians.

But it is also clear that the necessary conditions above are not met by our relationship with our government. For starters, a citizen who honestly claims that he did not want the benefits that government provided, or that he didn’t want to receive them from his government, would have no political obligations under the gratitude account.

Furthermore, condition (1) fails because the government is hardly making any sacrifice or effort on my behalf. The marginal cost of providing me benefits must be negligible. And the state’s money comes from tax revenue (other citizens), so it is not really sacrificing at all. Additionally, condition (2) fails because government rarely if ever has the proper motivations that a debt of gratitude would require. Even in the best states, so much of the benefit that is received is about vote-buying, dispensing political favors, and so on.

We are forced to conclude that the principle of gratitude is unable to generate political obligations.



The arguments presented in this essay demonstrate that the most significant accounts of political obligations ultimately fail to accomplish what their proponents want. How can we reconcile this with the clear empirical fact that the majority of people seem to believe that political obligations do in fact exist? Popular opinion would seem to provide at least prima facie evidence that political obligations exist. For the majority of people to be wrong, a cognitive malfunction with the same end result must occur in a large percentage of people. Can we identify a systemic bias that would lead to the vast majority of individuals to draw the wrong conclusions about political obligations?

It seems to me that we can. Numerous psychological principles would tend to steer many individuals in this direction. For instance, the Milgram experiment showed that people are far more likely to obey perceived authority figures than they would have thought, and certainly more than could be thought justified. Obedient subjects rationalized their behavior as “just following orders.” In this experiment, psychologically healthy individuals administered fake electric shocks to someone, despite that person complaining of a heart condition, crying out in pain, and eventually becoming nonresponsive. All it took was for someone in a lab coat to tell them that they should continue administering shocks. Despite showing signs of anxiety and resistance, a full 65% of subjects completed the experiment, thinking they were sending 450 volts of electricity through a presumably lifeless or unconscious body.

People also tend to adjust their beliefs and values in order to make their own choices appear better and deal with the “cognitive dissonance” that arises from acting in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs. And since we generally obey governments, pay taxes, etc., we may rationalize this action by appealing to political authority. It is nicer to imagine that we are caring and conscientious people who are just doing our duty in society than it is to imagine we are authorizing coercion on our behalf.

There is also the “status quo bias”, where individuals tend to consider any change from a baseline state (the status quo) to be a loss. This creates a tendency to imagine that what our society practices must be true and good.

Finally, a citizen’s relationship with his state fulfills the conditions that psychologists have shown to cause Stockholm Syndrome, where captives develop an attachment or even love for their captors. This is a defensive mechanism that may have survival value in extreme situations, and it might partly explain our acceptance of state power or even generate a certain love and attachment to the state. This issue deserves further exploration, but as I have written about it before, I will leave it at that for now.

Your confidence in your beliefs is too damn high!

Together, these systemic biases can explain the popular support for the idea of political authority, and this support does not provide additional evidence that political authority exists. Even if all governments are illegitimate and political obligations don’t exist, it is quite likely that we would still feel as though they were and do.

A lack of political authority means that we are not obligated to obey the law merely because it is the law (we have other moral reasons not to murder or steal, though), and that agents of the state are not morally entitled to coerce citizens in ways that private citizens are morally prohibited from doing. I’ll close with a great summary from Huemer:

“For any coercive act by the state, we should first ask what reason the state has for exercising coercion in this way. We should then consider whether a private individual or organization would be justified in exercising a similar kind and degree of coercion, with similar effects on the victims, for similar reasons. If the answer is no, then coercion by the state is not justified either.”

War Is Evil

Injured child

Image courtesy of

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

(The Latin phrase is roughly translated as “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”) – William Owen, a British soldier who died in the trenches just seven days before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918

Of all the things that I find frustrating and despicable about modern American society, it is the cavalier attitude towards war exhibited by the vast majority of Americans. There are some pockets of genuine anti-war sentiment on the fringe left and the “isolationist” Old Right and libertarians. But there is a bipartisan agreement, in deed if not in word, that war is tolerable, acceptable, good, or even morally required in an increasing number of cases.

I wasn’t always the whack-job libertarian that I am now; up until about my junior year in high school, I looked at the world as though it was a chess board, with America and her allies being “the good guys.” At the time, war had merely seemed like a means to an end. To make the world safe, America needed to be the dominant power at all costs. And since we were America – the “indispensable” nation, the “exceptional” nation, and the clear occupants of the moral high ground – we could do no wrong. Sure, innocent people will die in war, but it’s for The Greater Good. The Iraqi people may not believe it right now, but once we’ve dealt with some bad apples and established a functioning democracy there, surely they will come around and appreciate the favor we have done for them.

It’s hard for me to believe now that this is the way I felt back then. I was probably even more pro-war than the average American. But it does give me some perspective on why people are so deluded about war, and reinforces my belief that ending foreign aggression in all its forms is the single most important thing that we as activists must be working toward.


America – Reluctant Fighter Of “Just Wars”

It is very difficult to garner support for wars of conquest in a modern, liberal democracy. In the past, religion was often used to justify war (“Kill the heathens!”), but this justification has lost much of its appeal.

But while that justification is no longer so effective, the need for the elite to wage war and line their pockets with the proceeds hasn’t ceased. A new way of deluding the public was necessary.

Westerners love to think of themselves as advanced, progressive, humanitarian, and morally righteous. This is true all across the political spectrum (that’s right, liberals. Even the neocons believe that they are doing a good thing, as silly as that sounds). In order to get your average American to support war, you just need to convince them that it is for humanitarian reasons: the enemy is evil, slaughtering his own people, and a new “Hitler.” We can use our military might to change the enemy, to liberate the people who are victims of some monster, and to bring them democracy and responsible governance.

I can do no better than to cite David Swanson from his book War Is A Lie here (you can read chapter 1 here, and I strongly suggest you do):

“The long-standing tradition of making war on foreigners and converting those not killed to the proper religion “for their own good” is similar to the current practice of killing hated foreigners for the stated reason that their governments ignore women’s rights. From among the rights of women encompassed by such an approach, one is missing: the right to life, as women’s groups in Afghanistan have tried to explain to those who use their plight to justify the war. The believed evil of our opponents allows us to avoid counting the non-American women or men or children killed. Western media reinforce our skewed perspective with endless images of women in burqas, but they never risk offending us with pictures of women and children killed by our troops and air strikes.”

If there is a positive intention behind any given war, many Americans will support it almost unquestioningly. Invading Afghanistan = Liberating women and catching Osama. Bombing Libya and/or Syria = saving the people from a ruthless dictator. These justifications are even used to revise the past; many people consider World War 2 to be a paradigmatic example of a just war because it ended the holocaust. Of course, there were many opportunities to save the Jews without going to war, and saving the Jews was never used as a part of World War 2 propaganda at the time (which was mostly focused on dehumanizing the Japanese).

On a slightly more academic level, pundits and philosophers have tried to ascertain what conditions can be used to determine whether a potential war is, in fact, a just war. Damon Linker elaborates:

“[There are] six criteria just war theorists…use to determine when a war is morally justified. The war must be undertaken with the intention of establishing a just peace. It must be defensive. It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. It must have a reasonable chance of success. It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority. And it must be undertaken as a last resort. If the war meets these six criteria, it can be considered morally justified.”

In theory, this would sound highly limiting. Very few, if any, wars would actually fulfill each of these criteria. And yet Americans can justify practically every single war based on these criteria.

“We always have a moral rationale for undertaking military action. We always consider our actions defensive (even if the aggression hasn’t happened yet) and aimed at protecting the innocent. We always think we have a reasonable chance of success. We always consider ourselves to be a competent authority. And we always claim to have waited as long as possible to act.”

We delude ourselves into believing we have great reasons to act, that if we don’t act now, something horrible will happen, and that we are just protecting ourselves and the helpless, downtrodden victims of whoever the enemy-of-the-day is. If anything, “just war” theory simply provides a self-righteous justification for whatever war the elite are planning. Not only that, but it grants the United States government and her allies the moral “authority” to play judge, jury, and executioner as the world’s policeman (incidentally, this seems to be the way actual police in America are behaving as well).

Americans fail to realize that their government is not acting defensively, and certainly does not have a moral rationale for much of the military adventurism that is obediently and unquestioningly supported.

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.

Interventions Map

And while the United States has often attempted to take down truly evil people, this is a red herring. For every petty dictator the US tries to overthrow, there are more who the US emphatically supports. The US is even backing the fascist, neo-Nazi government in Ukraine, and supporting the use of child soldiers in South Sudan. For all the railing against ISIS and how barbaric they are to behead people, the United States stands firmly behind Saudi Arabia, which beheads far more people for such “crimes” as sorcery and pleading not guilty of a crime. Better yet, the US government itself has been supporting ISIS, I kid you not.

Of course, America can do no wrong, so Americans routinely ignore these inconvenient facts. The illusion must be maintained that it is only the enemy who commits atrocities. David Swanson provides this example:

“It is as important, in selling a war, to deny or excuse one’s own atrocities as to highlight or invent the enemy’s. President Theodore Roosevelt alleged atrocities by the Filipinos, while dismissing those committed by U.S. troops in the Philippines as of no consequence and no worse than what had been done at the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, as if mere mass murder were the standard of acceptability. One U.S. atrocity in the Philippines involved slaughtering over 600, mostly unarmed, men, women, and children trapped in the crater of a dormant volcano. The General in command of that operation openly favored the extermination of all Filipinos.”

This type of hypocrisy, buttressed by massive propaganda efforts, is so standard that it boggles the mind. Once you begin to recognize it, you see it everywhere. You see it in so many places that you wish you did not. Occasionally I question my own sanity when I observe the absurdity of Americans continuing to believe the same lies and ignore the same hypocrisies over and over and over again.

Take the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance. To justify this war, we were repeatedly told that Saddam Hussein had been using chemical weapons on his own people. This is certainly true. What is universally ignored is the fact that the United States supplied Saddam with chemicals weapons during the 80s in order to use against Iran (and supplied him with intelligence so he could use them more effectively). Just one of many reasons why the Iranian government doesn’t trust us.

That’s a sin of omission. How about a sin of commission?

“On October 9, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl told a U.S. congressional committee that she’d seen Iraqi soldiers take 15 babies out of an incubator in a Kuwaiti hospital and leave them on the cold floor to die. Some congress members, including the late Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), knew but did not tell the U.S. public that the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, that she’d been coached by a major U.S. public relations company paid by the Kuwaiti government, and that there was no other evidence for the story.  President George H. W. Bush used the dead babies story 10 times in the next 40 days, and seven senators used it in the Senate debate on whether to approve military action. The Kuwaiti disinformation campaign for the Gulf War would be successfully reprised by Iraqi groups favoring Iraqi regime change twelve years later.”

These kinds of lies are so routine that even providing that single example may do my argument a disservice. I can’t possibly list even a miniscule fraction of them, and any attempt to do so would inevitably result in important omissions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, for war to have public support, the government must convince its subjects that they are acting on the side of righteousness, that they are The Good Guys who must defeat The Bad Guys. And most Americans will go along, because we want to believe that “we” are the good guys. As the great George W. Bush once said:

“We’re taking action against evil people. Because this great nation of many religions understands, our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people. Our war is a war against evil. This is clearly a case of good versus evil, and make no mistake about it – good will prevail.”

In every war, the enemy is made out to be pure evil – it makes it far easier to get your soldiers to kill those people and your civilians to cheer them on or buy war bonds. But while the manipulation may serve elite interests, it makes no logical sense.

“But just as the supposedly irredeemable heathen were converted to the correct religion when the screaming and dying stopped, so too do our wars eventually come to an end, or at least a permanent occupation of a pacified puppet state. At that point, the irredeemably evil opponents become admirable or at least tolerable allies. Were they evil to begin with or did saying so just make it easier to take a nation to war and persuade its soldiers to aim and fire? Did the people of Germany become subhuman monsters each time we had to make war on them, and then revert to being full humans when peace came? How did our Russian allies become an evil empire the moment they stopped doing the good humanitarian work of killing Germans? Or were we only pretending they were good, when actually they were evil all along? Or were we pretending they were evil when they were only somewhat confused human beings, just like us? How did Afghans and Iraqis all become demonic when a group of Saudis flew airplanes into buildings in the United States, and how did the Saudi people stay human? Don’t look for logic.” – David Swanson


Ignoring The Costs Of War

What war really looks like

This is what war really looks like, courtesy of

For Americans to fully support a war, it often isn’t enough to whip them into a frenzy of fear and jingoistic sentiment. War is expensive in terms of blood, treasure, and its toll on society, so it is important that the impact of these costs of war be minimized.

Americans happen to be very lucky when it comes to war. Surrounded by two oceans and two far weaker allies, it is very unlikely that any war the United States gets involved in would have drastic consequences for American civilians. Other than a couple of Japanese weather balloon experiments during World War 2, Americans haven’t experienced attacks at home since the Civil War ended.

War is also very expensive from a strictly financial perspective. But Americans don’t pay for war directly – the United States simply goes into huge amounts of debt and prints massive quantities of money in order to fund the war effort. This helps mask the true cost of war; instead of actually paying for it directly, Americans pay via higher prices and enslaving their children with debt.

Consider this: the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will likely amount to somewhere between $4 and $6 trillion dollars. This comes out to between $35,000 and $52,000 per household in the United States. According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income in 2013 was just under $52,000. Here’s a thought experiment: if Americans were told at the outset that they would have to sacrifice a full year of income to pay for these wars, how many people would have supported them? To ask the question is to answer it.

The result of all of this is that for the average American, war is simply no big deal. It happens “over there” and has no immediate effect on our lives (other than expanded mass surveillance and loss of liberties, a concession it seems most Americans are quite willing to make). This makes it easy for many Americans to forget what a horrendous thing war is – and to come up with some twisted justifications for it. War means little to the majority of Americans, but to the neoconservatives and the “humanitarian” interventionists with their “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, it provides a cheap excuse to feel good about themselves.

Even if using the military to intervene in foreign affairs were likely to help people – and there are many reasons to believe that regional interventions are misguided and counterproductive – this hardly makes war morally justified.

Think of it this way: nearly everyone would agree that it is morally wrong to murder a random person and harvest their organs in order to save five other peoples’ lives. Many might put the ratio far higher than five to one. This means that for a war to be justified as “humanitarian,” at least five innocent lives would need to be saved for every one innocent life lost, and this is ignoring the massive uncertainty inherent in the actual decision-making process, the propensity to underestimate casualties, etc. As we will see later, it is highly unlikely that this would ever be the case.

And yet, in large part because Americans are so far removed from the costs of war, they can come up with all kinds of utilitarian justifications for it. It is a “necessary evil.” “We’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.” And so on. Tolstoy’s words ring true here: war, he said, “is not a polite recreation, but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war.”

How can wars be used to fight against evil when there is nothing more evil than war?


Forgetting The Human Element

The ultimate result of everything covered thus far – the propaganda, the hypocrisy, the remoteness of war – leads to the failure to look at people as individuals and as real human beings.

Stalin famously said that a single death was a tragedy, but a million deaths was just a statistic. The reality is that a million deaths are a million tragedies; unfortunately, people choose not to see it that way. There are many reasons to be against war, but ultimately it comes down to the sheer scale of the human cost, the million individual tragedies.

Napalm girl

A victim of napalm, after it has already burned off all her clothes.

It is not easy to count the dead in war, but people have done their best to compile estimates. World War 1 resulted in approximately 15 million deaths. World War 2 resulted in about 66 million dead, primarily civilians. Approximately 3 million died in the Korean War, and another several million in Vietnam. Over a million people, almost entirely civilians, have died as a result of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (despite the Pentagon’s attempts to fudge the numbers), which is only one part of the incredible human cost of these wars.

And those figures ignore the particular atrocities of war: massacres, rapes, displacement of people. In fact, 90% of all war deaths are civilians. Take Vietnam:

“According to study by Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington, there were 3.8 million violent war deaths, of which two million were civilian, with similar estimates reached by the Vietnamese government and Robert McNamara himself. Up to 500,000 Vietnamese women turned to sex work. 14,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed, mostly by U.S. firepower, during the Tet Offensive. 70 million liters of herbicidal agents, notably Agent Orange, were dumped across the countryside. (“Only you can prevent forests” was the travestied Smokey the Bear slogan.) 3.4 million combat sorties were launched by the U.S. and South Vietnam between 1965 and 1972. The amount of ammunition fired per soldier was 26 times higher than in World War II. In the northernmost province of South Vietnam, Quang Tri, only 11 out of 35,000 villages were not damaged by bombing or artillery. A survey found that 96 percent of Marine Corps second lieutenants said they would torture prisoners to obtain information.”

Another inconvenient truth that most Americans don’t hear about is that due to American sanctions, up to half a million Iraqi children starved to death during the 1990s.

“There are disputes over the exact number of children who died as result of the sanctions, but most everyone agrees that the number ranges between 225,000 and 500,000…Let that sink in: Our own government — the U.S. government — knowingly and deliberately implemented and maintained a cruel and brutal policy with the intent to target the civilian population of Iraq, with the full knowledge that it would cost the lives of countless innocent people, including innocent children.

Even worse, year after year, knowing full well that economic privation, near-starvation, and death were the actual results of the embargo — and that it was not producing the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power — U.S. officials nonetheless steadfastly continued it.”

When asked about the effects of these sanctions, US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright said they were “worth it.”

Worth it for whom?

Oh yeah, and the United States is the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons. In particular, they were used on civilian populations, resulting in hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths.

I’m afraid that, in the spirit of Stalin’s words, the magnitude of these atrocities can get lost in the minds of most people. Many people claim they cannot “understand” or “believe” or “comprehend” these kinds of atrocities.

Let me try to help you understand.

Each one of those dead is a parent who will never see their child grow up, leaving behind a kid who must grow up without them. Each one of those dead is a child who could have lived a full life. Instead, they are the cause of the greatest sadness that a parent can experience.

Each one of those dead is a brother, sister, husband, wife, cousin, or friend. They are a human being.

When our politicians talk about the sacrifices that “we” make to “liberate” another country, they are not talking about their own sacrifices. Their “sacrifice” is to collect more money for their next campaign cycle and ensure that they have lucrative jobs in the military-industrial complex when they leave office.

No, it is everyone else who had no say in the decision to go to war who must sacrifice. More accurately, they are sacrificed on the altar of power. These people did not sign up for war. They did not ask to be murdered. They did nothing to deserve being murdered.

But these people are dead. That means no more life, no more learning, no more career, no more sharing happy moments with each other, no more music, no more friendship, no more love.

These people will never get to taste delicious food, watch a sunset, feel a cool breeze on their skin, smell freshly cut grass, or hear a beautiful melody.

Each and every one of these people meant something. They had family and friends who loved them, they had jobs and contributed to their communities, and they had hopes and dreams and aspirations. Just like you, me, or anyone else.

Iraqi burned alive in jeep

Attempting to escape his jeep, this Iraqi was burnt alive while struggling to survive.

These lives have been stolen by the elite political and corporate warmongers, and they can never be brought back. The last memory a child will have of his parents is of them being burned alive by a drone strike so badly that their skin is indistinguishable from cattle. The last memory a parent will have of their child is of them screaming in pain and terror, confused as to what they have done to deserve their fate.

These people are dead. Barack Obama murdered them. George Bush murdered them. As Harry Browne said, they murdered these people “as certainly as though [they] personally had fired a rocket launcher at their homes.”

All this death is meaningless. The only purpose of war is so that psychopathic politicians can enjoy their little power trips, and so that big defense and energy companies can make a few extra billion dollars. War is a racket, pure and simple.

Many will euphemistically and irresponsibly talk of “collateral damage.” They will say these deaths are unintended, as though somehow that implies that they don’t count. But innocent people WILL die in war. If you support war, you support innocent people dying, being maimed for life, and losing everything they have. You cannot simply separate war from the tragedies that it spawns. Those who launch wars do so knowing full well that they are causing innocent people to die, and those who support them are advocating for death and destruction.

Under normal circumstances, this is called mass murder. War turns otherwise normal people into sociopaths. What the average war supporter is advocating others to do on their behalf, they would never do on their own. War supporters would not go out and shoot innocent people, but they will happily delegate that task to someone else. Meanwhile, they feel proud of themselves and may even put a bumper sticker on their car saying as much.

This all stems from the failure of people to look at others as individuals, as fellow human beings. It is far easier to cheer on the deaths of some ambiguous, generic Iraqis than to cheer on the death of a person who is real to you. As Lucy Steigerwald said:

“Being anti-war requires a faith in people of a different religion who live in places most of us will never visit. It demands empathy and recognizing their humanity, regardless of culture clashes.”

This may require putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine how you would feel if the roles were reversed – if bombs were raining down on your city, your family and friends were getting maimed and murdered. It is this kind of empathy that is required to stop people from worshipping cowardly monsters like Chris Kyle, the famed “American Sniper.” Imagine what would happen if some Middle Eastern country really did try to take over America, and Americans fought back. Enter an Arabian Sniper:

“A guy named Abdul is hiding on a roof top in Wichita, using a scoped rifle to shoot people he believes are intending to kill other members of his army of invaders. If the person in his scope looks American- in other words, if the person obviously isn’t one of his guys- and is armed, he shoots. Man, woman, child- it makes no difference. After all, he tells himself, these dogs deserve it because they are all the same, and they want to kill him and his guys.”

When Abdul returns to his home country, his people consider him a hero. As an American, do you?

Such is the irrationality that must be overcome. If it is not okay for them to kill us, then it is not okay for us to kill them. War is just mass hypnotic psychosis. It is always wrong. But powerful interests will always be pushing for more war and more death. It is the job of each and every one of us to have empathy for others and to refuse to resolve our disputes through violence.

Those who make the wars never have to fight the wars.  The Great Deciders will never be in a night ambush, where the fear is so overpowering that their bodily control abandons them, and they shit themselves.  And the defense contractors, engorged on obscene profits, will never have to kick open a mud hut door after strafing it with automatic weapons fire, and discover a heap of dead children beneath a wounded mother, who is so traumatized that she cannot even scream.  And the media tycoons cheerleading for more carnage, will never rush to the flag-draped coffin of a dead son or daughter and wrap themselves around it in fury as the military band tries to sound heroic.”

A Modest Proposal To End Dating Anarchy And Regulate The Dating Market

Dating is cool

Dating and sex, as the means to procreate, are our biological imperative. How can we leave something so critically important to the very future of humanity up to the free market? How can we stand by while so many people are unhappy with the quality and quantity of romance in their lives? How can we justify the veritable anarchy that is the dating world when we accept government regulation in so many other areas of our lives that are deeply personal and important?

We all recognize the importance of, for example, occupational safety regulations, food safety regulations, and regulation over the substances that people choose to put in their bodies. And we all acknowledge that without these regulations, suffering would be far more widespread.

That’s why government regulation of the dating market is long overdue. Few “industries” have been as responsible for such a massive scale of suffering as the anarchy that is the dating world. Chances are, you’ve experienced some of it yourself.

It would be impossible to calculate the full cost of dating anarchy, because the damages that come from it are often long-standing and can have wide-ranging social effects. Let’s look at just a few of the problems that are a direct consequence of this unconscionable lack of regulation.

Emotional pain. No one reading this can say with a straight face that dating hasn’t caused them significant emotional pain at some point in their lives, and often several times. Nasty breakups, unrequited love, shyness and anxiety, lovesickness, embarrassment, and self-esteem issues are all common features of the current dating anarchy.

Poor matches. Between 40% and 50% of married couples end up getting divorced in America. This does not include the countless unhappy couples who choose not to get divorced for whatever reason (kids, religion, etc.). And this is just marriages – think about how many more unmarried couples are also not right for each other! This isn’t just bad for the couple; oftentimes, children can be the victims. Consider all the kids growing up with single parents or who witness discord and even nasty divorces in their home lives. The negative psychological impact of this can affect the child well into adulthood or even for their entire life – and potentially get passed on down to their own children one day.

Compare this with arranged marriages, which have only a 4% divorce rate; the divorce rate in India, where most marriages are arranged, is the world’s lowest at 1.1%. If this isn’t proof that central planning works, I don’t know what is.

Ugly man or pretty girl

False advertising. There is a lot of lying, misrepresentation, and general attempts to mislead others under dating anarchy. It is nearly a universal phenomenon that people will attempt to portray themselves in as positive a light as they can when dating, and to hide their negative qualities. This is true for both men and women. Consider men who will claim they are making significantly more money than they actually are, and women who wear makeup and dress in such ways to cover up their faults while accentuating their positive qualities.

And now, with the advent of online dating, things have gotten a whole lot worse. According to the Huffington Post, a full 54% of online daters found someone who “seriously misrepresented themselves.” The numbers may be even worse than that. According to an article in the New York Times citing various studies of online dating,

  • 81% of people misrepresent their height, weight, or age in their profiles
  • Women described themselves as 8.5 pounds thinner in their profile than they really are, while men were generous to themselves by about 2 pounds
  • Men rounded up their height by half an inch
  • Women’s profile pictures were on average a year and a half old, while men’s were six months old.

With all of this lying going on, people cannot make informed decisions about whom they should date. This results in immense amounts of wasted time and heartache, and surely contributes to the problem of poor matchups. And it could largely be prevented with a suitable regulatory regime.

Because we have laws that prevent it, it is far less frequent for people to lie about, say, what ingredients are contained in foods (and those who do lie can be prosecuted). It’s time we extend this into the realm of dating.

Inequality. This is another big one. Some people have lots of sexual partners, yet others remain virgins. Some people, due to factors beyond their control, are simply at an unfair disadvantage under dating anarchy. You can think of this as just like a problem of unequal market power – the same way that large corporations have their pick of job candidates and can enforce their will on those they employ, extremely rich or good looking people command an unfair advantage over their poor and ugly counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, research has shown that attractive men and women have a serious advantage in choice of sexual partner – they get their pick of the litter far more easily than less attractive people. Men have a strong preference for dating beautiful women, and women have a strong preference for dating wealthy men. This just further exacerbates other forms of inequality; men who are already wealthy get the most dating success – the rich get richer.

Physically unsafe. Perhaps the most serious issue with modern anarchic dating is that it is physically unsafe. The dangers are manifold, well-known, and have caused irreparable damage to millions of people. A national survey found that 57% of rapes happened on dates. Similarly, domestic abuse is incredibly common. One out of every three female homicide victims every year are killed by their current or former partner. This is clear, irrefutable evidence that people cannot be left to their own devices in choosing a partner.

Besides violence, there are other dramatically life-altering consequences of an unfettered dating “market.” The CDC reports that 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year, half of which occur in the 15-24 age group. On top of that, half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended. How long will we allow this to go on?


A Modest Proposal For Dating Regulations

Based on the above arguments, it is clear that regulations regarding dating are well past due. This is fairly new territory for the government, and legal minds better than mine will be far more capable of hammering out the details and plugging the loopholes. Nevertheless, I would like to propose a framework for some of the regulations that can go a long way towards remedying the ills of anarchic dating.

For starters, there will need to be a new office created under the Department of Health and Human Services tasked with writing and enforcing the relevant rules. This office (let’s call it the National Dating Bureau, or NDB) will be responsible for maintaining a database of all those Americans who are registered to date in this country.

All Americans who wish to date must register with the NDB and receive a permit before they can do so. I recognize that there is some ambiguity in what constitutes a “date”, but most of us have a fairly intuitive grasp of what this means (and legal scholars, in tandem with relationship experts, will come up with a suitable definition).

Of course, the process of obtaining a dating permit must remain as frictionless as possible, while still ensuring improved safety and quality of dates, as well as a more equitable dating system. I propose that we borrow from the already successful Drivers’ Education model for teaching teenagers how to drive. For one quarter of all students’ freshman year of high school, pupils will complete the Dating Education program in lieu of Phys. Ed. For parents who do not want their children dating so early for religious reasons, there will be an exemption.

Experts will design the curriculum, of course, but I have a few suggestions for topics that should be covered. Courses about the qualities of successful relationships, what to look for in a partner, sexual health, tolerance, compromise and conflict resolution, honesty and transparency, and self-respect. With this background, youngsters will be far more prepared for the challenges of dating. Upon the successful completion of an exam on these materials, students will be granted their dating permits, which will be issued by the individual states.

That works for the next generation, but what about those of us who are already out of school? I acknowledge how busy most adult Americans are, and the government will respect this with a lighter touch of regulations. Rather than a full course of study, centers will be set up in each state where adults can sign up to take an abridged version of the class with only twenty hours of class time (this can be done over a single intensive weekend). In addition to passing the exam, adults will also need an STD screening and a background check before permits are issued.

Just like the many other areas in which occupational licensure and safety regulations help deal with market failure, dating permits will ensure that those in the dating pool are qualified to be there.

Additional regulations will be necessary to ensure that those authorized to date have equal access to quality dates, regardless of their privilege. There are numerous ways that this could be implemented, and policymakers should consider the pros and cons of each before deciding which is ultimately best. Two specific ideas come to mind:

  • Strict dating quotas
  • A “cap and trade”-like system for dates, analogous to the proposed carbon emissions scheme.

In the first case, anyone with a dating permit is free to go on two dates per week, and perhaps after an advanced dating class, a third. This is the ideal way to prevent the 1% from rigging the dating market and exploiting everyone else.

Under a cap and trade scheme, dates become a commodity with dollar value. This is a more flexible system than the first case, because it allows people to sell off dates on weeks where they don’t feel like dating as much, and gives people leeway to date more if they are feeling particularly amorous. As a side benefit, by taxing trade in dates, the government will have a huge new revenue source. Based on the most recent models, this could lead to an incredible $200 billion per year in tax revenue, making the NDB arguably the most efficient government agency to date. The problem with cap and trade is that it still allows those with greater means to potentially exploit the system and go on more than their fair share of dates.

Cat dating profile

In an effort to improve transparency in dating while simultaneously making it more equitable, the government will support efforts to facilitate information sharing among prospective daters. The NDB will work with states to set up their own dating sites (, so that everyone has access to an online dating profile. Naturally, it won’t be mandatory that people use the state’s site; other approved online dating sites will be available as well. In order to obtain a license to operate a private dating site, site administrators will be required to observe relevant “know your customer” laws, so that people cannot date anonymously in order to hide their faults and commit fraud. In addition, new information sharing laws will need to be implemented in order to prevent the hacking and theft of peoples’ private information that is so prevalent these days. It is a priority of this new legislation that as much information be made available to daters in order to prevent wasted time on dates that never would have worked out, and to generally make the process more honest. It is also a safety measure, so that bad apples can be more easily removed from the dating system.

In order to make this process as equitable as possible, we must recognize that many individuals have more limited means than others. To combat the effects of this inequality, the government will provide date stipends to be used only at approved venues (specific restaurants, movie theaters, and so on, after they have applied and been approved by the NDB). This Supplemental Courtship Assistance Program (SCAP) will issue its payouts discretely, so as not to subconsciously influence partners’ perceptions of each other.

Once an aspiring couple has gone on sufficient dates and gotten to know each other well enough, they must apply to the NDB and receive approval before being considered in an official relationship. Since the vast majority of relationships end in failure, this is a critical step to help minimize the consequences of the poor decisions that we all so often make! The application will include providing the NDB access to the prospective partners’ medical records to ensure genetic compatibility as well as a full psychiatric evaluation in order to determine that both partners are truly ready for a relationship. A writing sample, answering the question “For what reasons would ___ and I make a great couple?” will also be required. The NDB will work with Facebook to make sure that nobody changes their relationship status without prior approval. Finally, the relationship will undergo an annual review process involving an STD screening and personal interviews with the NDB’s licensed relationship experts. If the NDB determines that a relationship is unhealthy, it has the authority to nullify an existing relationship, subject to an appeals process for these couples.

I don't have ex's

Possibly the biggest emotional minefield under dating anarchy is the issue of breakups. Too often, the reasons one person breaks up with another are simply unjust. This isn’t merely a waste of time and resources; it is inherently unfair. As such, a panel of experts will determine which reasons for breakup are appropriate. Breaking up with someone for reasons related to race, gender, or sexual orientation is unethical and should already be considered illegal discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. Approved breakup reasons will center on issues of gross incompetence or neglect. A party to an official relationship can upload a Termination of Relationship form through a secure portal on the site, including sufficient documentary evidence to demonstrate that their breakup is for an approved reason. If a breakup is approved, there will of course be an appeals process for breakup victims in order to further protect their rights.

In order to implement these proposals, the cooperation of law enforcement at the local and national level will be paramount. Expanded surveillance will be necessary in order to catch those who are dating without a permit. In addition, there is a very real possibility that unlicensed daters will callously forego their social responsibility and attempt to avoid this regulatory system by bringing dates into international waters via cruise ships or across the border into Mexico or Canada. To prevent this, undercover agents will be placed on every cruise ship, and will make arrests when the ship is back in American territory. A Fugitive American Dating Control Act (FADCA) will require all foreign hotels to report to the NDB pertinent data on Americans who lodge with them. Failure to satisfactorily report this information will result in sanctions.

While I anticipate some controversy over these proposals from the more conservative and reactionary segments of America, their fears and complaints are ungrounded. There is precedent for every aspect of these proposals. To quote directly from the United States Constitution:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” [emphasis mine]

The very same Constitution that conservatives so often use to justify their hate-spewing and exploitation-loving policies clearly grants Congress the power to legislate on behalf of the general welfare of the United States. Tell me: in what way does fixing one of the greatest problems known to man not serve the general welfare?

In the same way that no one would ever want to go back to the days of the robber barons in terms of how society regulates employment relations, 100 years from now people will think the same thing about romantic relationships.


Just Kidding – Propaganda Techniques I’ve Used In This Proposal

In case you have not figured it out by now, the preceding was purely satire. Unfortunately, I cannot assume that everyone reading this would recognize it as such. I suspect that there may even be a few people out there who would read this and conclude that I’ve had a brilliant idea. Sometimes, real life imitates the absurd and can be indistinguishable from parody. Oh well.

In any case, other than the handful of jabs that I couldn’t resist throwing into the above, I tried to write it as though this were a legitimate proposal. In doing so, I employed a handful of misleading and propagandistic techniques and logical fallacies to “bolster” my argument. Going through these would be instructive, because I have found that similar methods of argument are often used when discussing other existing and proposed regulations. Discerning readers can likely find many more, but I want to draw attention to at least a handful of them here.

  • All of the problems with dating were ascribed to anarchy, with the implicit assumption that regulation would cure these ills – even though no evidence was cited to back that up. This is easy to get away with, because the proposed solutions have the intent of fixing the problems. So long as the intent is positive and the proposal seems like it could plausibly work, most people will be convinced.
  • In describing the current dating anarchy, only the negative aspects were mentioned, and positives were completely ignored. There is simply no acknowledgement that, for the most part, dating “anarchy” works great.
  • The biological importance of dating and reproduction was cited as a reason for regulation. But the importance of any given industry or issue is irrelevant to whether regulation is good policy or not. The effects of the proposed policy are what matters.
  • I argued that arranged marriages were equivalent to central planning. It is incredibly common for statists to argue that because libertarians don’t think something should be regulated by the government, it must therefore not be regulated at all. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve deeply into this; nevertheless, it should be clear that there is a huge difference between having your parents decide who you marry and having a bureaucrat make the decision. Government central planning is backed up by force; presumably, arranged marriage is a cultural phenomenon enforced by social norms rather than violence.
  • I have employed the “won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children!” argument. You can justify nearly anything by even attempting to show that it is “good for our children.”

  • I’ve created “bad guys” or enemies whom a large percentage of the population are naturally envious of. People who, for whatever reason, get the most dates…well, this must be either because of some unwarranted “privilege” that they have (wealth, status, good looks), or because they cheated the system by lying and misrepresenting themselves.
  • A lot more was made of the fact that people misrepresent themselves while dating than is deserved. Sometimes the misrepresentations people make are truly bad (think catfishing), or are bad idea because communicating your values honestly is important in a relationship. But girls wearing makeup or certain kinds of clothing, for instance, is something that men appreciate. And saying that you are an inch taller than you are is hardly consequential; if it means anything to someone, they can figure that out on the first date and not go on a second one. But here, I have turned the whole thing into an issue of asymmetric information causing power imbalances and other problems. Then I mention that you don’t see as much lying in the food industry because of relevant food labeling laws – but this is not an empirical fact, and it is unsubstantiated.
  • I’ve taken completely natural subjective preferences (women prefer wealth and men prefer beauty) and used them to argue about inequality. Completely ignored is the fact that regulations can’t possibly change these preferences, even if they could force people to act outside their preferences. Also ignored is the evolutionary and/or rational basis for these preferences.
  • Statistics were used misleadingly (big surprise!). First, I said that 57% of rapes occurred on dates, and then I claimed that this is clear evidence that people choose partners poorly. But the two have no connection whatsoever. An appropriate statistic would be what percentage of people are raped on dates, not how often rapes occur on dates. The STD/pregnancy statistics were just fear-mongering. For that to be evidence that regulation is warranted, we need to assume that regulation would solve those problems, precisely what the proposal is trying to show. Circular logic.
  • I mention that information sharing agreements are necessary for dating sites to operate legally in order to prevent hackers from stealing private information. Completely ignored is how this is simply giving the government access to this information, and it is assumed that it won’t be used maliciously by actors from within the government. It also assumes that the government has some kind of right to this personal information that others do not. Finally, it assumes that this kind of information sharing somehow increases information security, which is most certainly not the case.
  • I mention that transparency and honesty is critical between partners, but then the SCAP program (subsidized dates) involves hiding peoples’ wealth from each other. Similarly, requiring pre-approved reasons to break up fosters dishonesty – both between partners and certainly toward the government. These kinds of ironies and unintended consequences are rather common components of regulations.
  • Approval is required to start a relationship because people so often make mistakes. But then it follows that bureaucrats are equally liable to make mistakes, and arguably more liable because they are not intimately familiar with our individual thoughts and feelings. This type of faulty reasoning is so prevalent in arguments for regulation, it makes me sick. How often do you hear that “people need to be protected from themselves.”?
  • Precedent is used to justify the entire thing. These regulations are morally acceptable because comparable regulations have been implemented in the past. But what if the rationale for those precedents is equally as mistaken as it is for arguments to regulate dating?

It’s very easy to write a convincing argument for just about anything.


The Moral Absurdity Of Regulation

While I’m certain there are some people who would read the above proposal and nod approvingly, I believe (or at least I hope) that most people would reject it as absurd. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to recognize that ALL regulation is absurd, and for the same reasons.

What is it specifically that makes regulating the dating market so repulsive and unjust? Before answering that question myself, I’d like to consider what answers a statist might give.

Many would likely argue that dating regulations would never work. This is certainly correct. But that would imply that regulations are only just if they do work (also correct, but in my opinion, an insufficient condition). Given that other existing health and safety regulations (and all regulations, really) don’t achieve their desired social benefits (more on this later), then these other regulations ought to also be abandoned on consequentialist grounds. I suspect that most liberals would be quite unhappy with this result.

A related argument is that personal relationships are too complex to regulate, as opposed to far more straightforward work and commercial relationships. But this isn’t true at all. Consider how nobody wants to work with someone who has a “bad attitude,” however difficult that is to define. How can you possibly regulate around that type of consideration? Is a “bad attitude” a “just” cause to fire someone? What if the person with a “bad attitude” was black or disabled?

Perhaps it is the personal and private nature of romantic relationships that make them immoral to regulate. But again, this does not stand up to scrutiny. What makes a romantic relationship more private than any other kind? It is completely subjective and arbitrary to make this claim. Many people are downright vocal about their sex lives (sometimes to the chagrin of those near them), and many people are quite reserved about telling others how much money they make.

alderaan places

I submit that the reason why these proposed dating regulations are repulsive is that they involve the use of unprovoked coercion in order to prevent people from interacting in a way that would be voluntary for all involved parties. In other words, a regulation is a threat of violence against innocent people. Behind every law there is a gun – if you do not comply, state goons will resort to violence against you. Sometimes, that means murdering innocent people because they were selling loose cigarettes. Sometimes, that means molesting someone for walking the streets of New York while black, or because they needed to fly somewhere. Sometimes, that means shutting down a little girl’s lemonade stand because they didn’t have a permit. But at least that helped keep us healthy and safe, right?


Regulations Don’t Work

As stated in the previous section, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a regulation to be morally just would be for it to actually succeed in whatever its positive intentions are. Generally, this means improving safety and quality.

In fact, it must not only be shown that the regulations would work, but also that the benefits outweigh the costs. And given that, according to a report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, regulations have cost the US economy $1.806 trillion per year (more than half of the federal budget, and more than 10% of total US GDP!), a very substantial safety benefit would need to be demonstrated. Keep in mind, also, that the brunt of this cost is borne by the poor, who are forced to pay higher prices and are excluded from competing in markets with higher regulatory barriers.

The costs are not merely financial, however; regulations have negative implications in other domains. For instance, were we to allow the government to regulate dating, there could be substantial repercussions in terms of individual freedom. In fact, the government already does this to some extent – that’s why gay marriage is still, ridiculously enough, illegal in some places. But it’s easy to envision other costs of further dating regulations – any sexual taboo could be regulated. Not only that, but well-connected individuals might get access to the most attractive people or otherwise flaunt the rules. This is exactly the way regulation already works in other areas.

The total costs of regulation are impossible to measure. Without going into too much detail, this is because our valuations of things are subjective. How can you possibly quantify the cost of lost liberty? You can’t, of course, and this has implications in all regulations, not just the romantic kind:

““There’s no accounting for taste” isn’t just something one can say to shrug off his buddy’s dating someone he finds unattractive. It’s an explanation of our individuality. In dating, there are millions of unique tastes and subjective valuations. This range of valuations makes regulation inherently unjust, because the perceived value of another person as a romantic partner cannot be quantified.

But the same may be said of most any government regulation. What government agent should have the authority to say that a certain job pays “too little” or is “too dangerous” to be legal? Such decisions must be left up to the people applying for those jobs, who are more familiar with their own situations than a bureaucrat in Washington could ever be. If Cathy badly needs work experience, that job that pays $5 per hour may be perfect for her, even though it would be a poor fit for someone else who is looking to pay his mortgage.”

But even though we can’t do a fully accurate cost-benefit analysis on regulations, we can try to look at the effects that regulations have had in terms of their stated goal: improving quality and safety. I do not have space to go into great detail here, but will provide links for further study if you are interested.

Occupational licensure, ostensibly aimed at making sure practitioners (any job, but health care is specifically what comes to mind) are qualified, has substantially increased costs for services without a substantial improvement in quality. This is because licensing requirements decrease the quantity of practitioners available, leading people to use lower quality substitutes and generally decreasing their access. The link above shows that this has led to reduced quality in electrical work, dentistry, plumbing, real estate, and animal care, though it should be generally true as well.

Then there was the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, which was supposed to protect consumers from the evils of the unregulated meat packing industry (and everyone knows that Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” proved this was necessary, right?). Government inspectors would go to the meat packing plant, poke meat with a rod, smell it, and deem the meat safe if the rod smelled fine. Then they’d repeat the process over and over with the same rod. The (predictable) result? Pathogens would be spread from bad meat to good meat, potentially infecting entire plants. Here’s the best part: this ridiculous method was continued through the late 1990s! The FDA can be very slow in approving new food safety processes for commercial use, the implications of which are difficult to measure. Not to be outdone, the Agriculture Department has prevented small meat packers from testing their own animals for Mad Cow Disease at the behest of larger companies that are afraid that market forces will force them to do their own expensive testing as well.

Worst of all is the FDA regulating the entire drug safety process. Dr. Mary Ruwart estimates that 4.7 million people have died needlessly over a 40 year period because they were denied access to potentially lifesaving drugs that the FDA had not yet deemed safe. Aspirin and penicillin would likely flunk the FDA approval process today.

Feeling safer yet?

Here’s a few more. Houses built under FEMA guidelines suffer more damage than houses that weren’t. The Federal Railroad Administration makes us less safe by mandating antiquated safety standards from the 1910s. Air bags were known to kill children, but were mandated for many years anyways. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards led to smaller, less safe cars, resulting in 2500 needless deaths per year. In general, regulatory overload makes Americans less safe.

What about labor regulations and workplace safety? Free markets didn’t create child labor; they ended it. Had children not worked prior to the Industrial Revolution, they would have starved to death. If ending child labor was as easy as pushing a button/writing a law, every legislator would have done so, and far sooner. Similarly, improvements in occupational safety and shorter workweeks are a consequence of capital accumulation under market competition, not unions. For a good explanation of how markets improve workplace safety, see this.

And that brings us to our next subject: if the government is not enforcing safety regulations, then who would? How can we be kept safe? The answer, in short, is that the market process itself fosters safety improvements.

Let’s use dating as an example. Julian Adorney, whose insightful articles inspired this post in the first place, writes:

“No doubt there’s potential for abuse in the dating market. Sleazy men can treat women poorly; dishonest women can cheat on men. Some people get too drunk and do things they regret. Break-ups can cause immense emotional distress. We as a society recognize this, but we do not believe that this danger calls for government intervention. Instead, individuals take action to mitigate the damages above. A girl who dates a sleazy man will tell her friends about him, essentially giving him a negative review to steer others clear. People who drink too much and engage in behavior they later regret will learn from their mistakes and avoid similar behavior in the future. They make the similar mistakes again, but on the whole, the dating market contains a variety of complex mechanisms through which social pressure is applied to discriminate against those who break the rules of dating while favoring those who function within the established rules.”

online dating fail

An example of suggested self-regulation.

Markets are self-regulating. If safety is what consumers want, then that is what the market provides. I will not go into too much detail here, but things like Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, product reviews, feedback mechanisms such as that of eBay, escrow services, insurance, and so on, can all be used to make life safer and products of higher quality. And they do this without resorting to violence, unlike government regulation.

Consider the Jewish practice of eating kosher. An entire industry of kosher certifications has evolved in a purely bottom-up process. There are several competing organizations that provide food labeling services and certify that the product is kosher. Read more about how kosher labeling is a model of private regulation here.

My previous job was at a healthcare IT firm. A private company, KLAS, did research and analytics on healthcare technology, and my company (and surely our competitors) was constantly striving to improve how we scored with them. The result was better information for hospitals deciding what type of medical record software to use – and ultimately, a better experience for hospital patients.

And you’ve probably never heard of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), but they do safety and quality tests on tens of thousands of products every year, likely including several in your home right now. They largely solve the problem of how you can trust that products which are purchased infrequently (and thus it is harder to “vote with your dollars” in future purchases) are safe and effective. It is truly a remarkable organization, and you can and should read more about it here. More:

“The Lab was the first to set standards for certifying the safety of pilots and planes before the government intervened. It set the standards for building materials, fire-fighting equipment, air conditioners, and household chemicals. It employs safecrackers and pyrotechnicians to test safes, and a variety of unique machines and devices to test thousands of other products each year. It has been testing multicolored Christmas lights since 1905, and entered the building-code business right after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.”

Voluntary organizations can be (and have been) established in many other fields in order to promote consumer safety. For an interesting discussion of self-regulation, particularly in the context of privacy, see this.

Ultimately, we must conclude that regulations in general are equally as absurd as my ridiculous proposal about regulating dating.



To finish off this article, I can do no better than to quote Mr. Adorney at length:

“This dating market is almost pure anarchy. No government bureaucrat tells you who to date. Straight white women aren’t legally obligated to only date straight white men. While sexual conduct with minors is forbidden, anyone over age eighteen can date anyone else over age eighteen.

And once you begin dating someone, no government agent steps in to tell you how the relationship must progress. There are no laws around what restaurants are “appropriate” for a first date; no burdensome rules around how many hours a date can last or how many drinks one party can imbibe.

And in the absence of government rules, unofficial codes of behavior spring up. Social norms emerge, crowd-sourced and shaped by society as a whole. It’s appropriate for a guy to buy the girl dinner. Getting drunk on a first date is frowned upon. Dating someone else on the side — cheating — is immoral and is generally cause for break-up.

No government official made these rules. No Department of Safe and Responsible Dating set these codes down in law. Instead, they form organically. Culture, from television shows like Friends to love songs, shape our social mores. How our friends behave when they date impacts how we behave. If your friends say that it’s wrong to cheat on a boy you’re seeing, you’ll probably absorb that as a rule of romance.

The result is anarchy: not an absence of rules, but an absence of rulers dictating how we behave and throwing those in jail who do not comply.”

The Marxist Mindset Regarding Labor

marxism labor

Karl Marx’s view of economics is in many ways nearly the opposite of mine. Nevertheless, I think he has made many interesting contributions to the study of social institutions. To learn more about his views, I recently read most of Robert Tucker’s The Marx-Engels Reader, which contains many samplings of his (and Engel’s) works on a variety of subjects.

As I read through these selections, I particularly noted how Marx’s mindset regarding labor is so radically different from my own – and I think this mindset is actually quite prevalent today among many, particularly those on the left. It would be instructive to compare and contrast these differing views on labor, at least in part because his views make his belief in the thoroughly discredited labor theory of value more understandable.

Before we explore this any further, I want to start with a disclaimer: I am not a Marx scholar. My knowledge of his thought is limited – though I likely have read, at this point, somewhat more of his work than many people who claim to know a thing or two about him. Nevertheless, my interpretations of his quotes here are mine only, so if you are reading this and happen to be a Marxist, feel free to set me straight. It’s tough to read 19th century philosophers…


Estranged Labor

Many people are familiar with (the existence of, at least) Marx’s seminal work on economics and his critique of capitalism: Das Kapital.  Fewer are aware of his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, selections of which I found far more interesting than Capital, frankly. The following quotes are from these manuscripts under the subheading “Estranged Labour,” from

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

According to Marx, labor is essentially a zero-sum game. When you work, you lose. Specifically, you lose a part of yourself whenever you are working.

There is a distinction, not made in this quotation but derived from my (limited) knowledge of Marxist thought, which is important to mention. Expenditure of labor power in and of itself isn’t necessarily “bad” – only when it is done for a capitalist, who supposedly is siphoning off some of this labor power, is there a loss in this sense. Presumably, if the worker were to keep the entire product of his labor via owning the means of production, then he would no longer “lose” part of himself to it.

Any way you spin it, Marx does not look at labor in a particularly intuitive way. For Marx, the creation of an object implies an equivalent destruction of the self.

It is true that time spent laboring is time that cannot be spent doing something else – that is, that there is an opportunity cost to labor. When I am working, I am not attending the theater, I am not playing volleyball, nor am I going on a date. There most certainly is a “loss” in this regard. But everything has an opportunity cost – when I’m on a date, I am not writing. This does not imply that I am any worse off because of it.

Next quote:

(According to the economic laws the estrangement of the worker in his object is expressed thus: the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes; the better formed his product, the more deformed becomes the worker; the more civilized his object, the more barbarous becomes the worker; the more powerful labor becomes, the more powerless becomes the worker; the more ingenious labor becomes, the less ingenious becomes the worker and the more he becomes nature’s slave.)

Political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labor by not considering the direct relationship between the worker (labor) and production. It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.

I find it hard to understand his point here. If a worker is employed by a capitalist, producing more does not imply consuming less, even if one accepts the labor theory of value. To produce more may sometimes imply working harder, in which case the worker’s required subsistence consumption will increase slightly. But it could also mean the worker is simply more productive, which ought to generally happen over time.

Marx says that the product of labor is primarily directed towards consumption by the rich. But if anything, capitalism is about mass production. You’ll find no argument from me against the idea that the system of state capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of the few – and that this is the system that was prevalent both then and now – but the products themselves are not simply intended for sole consumption by the rich.

I’m not arguing here that capitalism (again – state capitalism) is completely fair to laborers. But how can he say that workers lose a part of themselves when they work?

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?

First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.

To some extent, this mentality makes considerably more sense in the context in which Marx was living and writing – in the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution, where much of the non-agricultural work was somewhat unstimulating, repetitive factory work. I’m sure that work was terribly uninteresting, and that laborers would have vastly preferred to be sitting at home on the couch with a cold beer.

But humanity had not accumulated nearly so much capital then as we have now. The general state of existence in terms of wealth was far inferior back then. It’s easy for me to say that I would prefer to be working at a software company than toiling away in an uncomfortable factory. But in a world with vastly less capital, I wouldn’t have the choice of such luxuries. The fact is, since these workers chose to work in the factories, even in poor conditions, they have demonstrated the preference for this work instead of their alternatives (perhaps starving to death?).

Of course, Marx disagrees. He considers labor to be “forced labor.” Why? Because people don’t like doing it, and prefer leisure instead.

But even people who do own the means of production (the self-employed, wealthy capitalists, etc.) hate their jobs. Job-hating is so common that it doesn’t even warrant discussion. And it’s not even necessary for people to specifically hate their job to disprove his claim; the vast majority of people would prefer leisure to work, even if they enjoy their job.

Labor is only “forced” in this sense in that it is forced by our very nature as humans who run on fuel. We die without some form of sustenance, but this sustenance is not simply provided for us willy-nilly. This isn’t the Garden of Eden. We must create food, and we choose to create most other things because they make our lives more enjoyable.

To Marx, however, a far superior solution would be if we did live in a Garden of Eden. Even if workers owned the means of production, they’d still need to work, and the work would be just the same. How would this situation fundamentally differ with regards to losing a part of yourself to the object of your labor?

One final quote, from Marx’s Grundrisse, under the section called The Development of Exchange and of Capital:

…the relation of slavery or serfdom has been suspended. Living labour capacity belongs to itself, and has disposition over the expenditure of its forces, through exchange. Both sides confront each other as persons. Formally, their relation has the equality and freedom of exchange as such. As far as concerns the legal relation, the fact that this form is a mere semblance, and a deceptive semblance, appears as an external matter. What the free worker sells is always nothing more than a specific, particular measure of force-expenditure; labour capacity as a totality is greater than every particular expenditure. He sells the particular expenditure of force to a particular capitalist, whom he confronts as an independent individual. It is clear that this is not his relation to the existence of capital as capital, i.e. to the capitalist class. Nevertheless, in this way everything touching on the individual, real person leaves him a wide field of choice, of arbitrary will, and hence a formal freedom. In the slave relation, he belongs to the individual, particular owner, and is his laboring machine. As a totality of force-expenditure, as labour capacity, he is a thing belonging to another, and hence does not relate as subject to his particular expenditure of force, nor to the act of living labour. In the serf relation he appears as a moment of property in land itself, is an appendage of the soil, exactly like draught-cattle. In the slave relation the worker is nothing but a living labour-machine, which therefore has a value for others, or rather is a value. The totality of the free worker’s labour capacity appears to him as his property, as one of his moments, over which he, as subject, exercises domination, and which he maintains by expending it.

To Marx, once you have sold your labor-power to a capitalist, you have become his slave, his “laboring machine.” In a state capitalist system, I actually think there’s something to be said for this idea. Due to state intervention, the relative power of major corporations as compared to lowly workers is gigantic. No, I would no go so far as to call it slavery, but there are certainly similarities.

For instance, people are “forced” to work for lower wages in the sense that government policies limit the availability of work in general, thus giving the capitalist/employer far more leverage in the hiring process.

But I suspect Marx holds this to be generally true of market-based systems (correct me if I’m wrong, Marxists!). On the contrary, under a system of freed markets, this power imbalance would radically shift. People could choose to work or not work however they saw fit. This labor would not be “forced” in the least bit, except insofar as people need stuff to stay alive – but as discussed earlier, this can’t be considered forced either.



I thought these quotes were interesting, and I don’t think they are referenced all too frequently. They provide a helpful window into the Marxist mind, which is useful nowadays, because of the extreme influence Marxism has had on modern political discourse, both left and right.

It seems to largely boil down to a theory of entitlement, which seems so common to me when I read typical mainstream opinion pieces. Everyone wants something for nothing, and nowadays, it is always the state which is there to provide it, if only the people are willing to ask (and even if they aren’t…).

Marx’s analysis of capitalism (but not freed markets) is prescient in many ways, and is worth studying for radical libertarians. But it is mighty unfortunate that such a great mind made such simple errors when it comes to labor.

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, “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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Stockholm Syndrome and the State


One of the things most baffling to libertarians of the anarcho-capitalist persuasion is just how people can support the state when it is so obviously immoral and against the best interests of the vast majority of people. One would expect, given all the terrible things that government has done, that people would be far more receptive to the idea of shrinking the size and scope of government, but suggestions of this nature are almost universally met with scorn.

Things like propaganda, forced and compulsory education, and media manipulation can certainly explain part of it. But I’ve always noticed that when I attack the state, most people will respond as though I’ve just kicked their inner child in the balls. To most, the state takes on the role of a father figure, a sometimes stern institution that is fundamentally looking after their best interests. Propaganda in and of itself is simply not strong enough to have this kind of thought-stifling effect.

No, there is something more powerful at work here. I believe one large part of this is a kind of psychological defensive mechanism, Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages come to identify with and have generally positive feelings towards their captors. From Wikipedia:

Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

The name Stockholm Syndrome comes from an instance in 1973 where two bank robbers held several bank employees hostage in Stockholm. During the standoff, the hostages bonded with their captors, and ultimately ended up defending their actions. In fact, they came to view the police as the ones who were acting dangerously, rather than the robbers who were holding them hostage.

An even more dramatic instance came one year later, with the abduction of Patricia Hearst. At the age of 19, she was kidnapped by a left-wing urban guerrilla movement called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). They locked her in a closet, tortured, and occasionally raped her for several weeks. Just two months after her abduction, she was actively involved with the SLA and committed bank robberies with the organization. Despite opportunities to escape, she did not. For more on Patty Hearst and the implications of her experience, see this.

While Stockholm Syndrome may result in people behaving in seemingly irrational ways, it is actually a perfectly rational response to certain circumstances. When under the power of a dangerous person, there are survival benefits to developing traits that would be pleasing to the captor. A more submissive and less antagonistic attitude may result in more favorable treatment.

A study by Graham et al (1994) suggests four conditions that are necessary for Stockholm Syndrome to appear. As elucidated by Harry Elliot of the Stanford Review:

“Psychological precedent would suggest that four conditions are required for Stockholm Syndrome to develop. First, the criminal must pose a serious threat to the victim. Second, the victim must be isolated from outside influences. Third, the victim must feel completely unable to escape his captivity or to defend himself. Fourth, the victim must feel that some compassion has been shown. This does not entail a bank robber offering burgers and cookies to a hostage, but simply means that captors have not been as aggressive as they theoretically could.”

Michael Huemer adds a fifth condition (a kind of corollary to the third one above): The hostage cannot overpower or defend himself from his captor.

The relationship between a state and its citizens is comparable to that of a hostage and his captors, at least with regards to these conditions. Let’s look at them each individually.


Condition 1: The aggressor poses a serious and credible threat to the victim.

Governments, quite clearly, pose a serious and credible threat to their citizens (as well as citizens of other governments). Consider that the US government possesses enough military might, most obviously in the form of nuclear weapons, to kill everyone on the planet many times over.

Imagine what would have happened if the United States pushed just a little bit harder against Russia in the recent spat in Ukraine. While I hardly expect a massive nuclear war to break out (I would consider that exceedingly unlikely), it is certainly within the realm of possibility. We came dangerously close during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, the US government has already used two nuclear weapons against large civilian populations in Japan.

It’s not as though the whole world needs to be destroyed either. More “mundane” war crimes are committed so often it would be pointless to try and document them. Most of the victims of modern war are civilians. These civilians are not the people who decide to get involved in the war in the first place; regardless of their beliefs, their lives are at the whim of the decisions of the ruling elite.

Moving away from war, there is also the very credible threat of having legal action taken against civilians by the state. For disobeying the law, there are threats such as fines and jail time. Increasingly, outright violence and brutality are used to subdue “criminals”, which includes a huge number of people who have committed victimless “crimes”, or even nothing illegal at all. Much of this enforcement is arbitrary or directed at minorities.


Condition 2: The victim cannot escape.

Escape from a given state is costly. It requires isolating yourself from your family and friends, sacrificing your job, and needing to get used to a different society.

But even then, you are then just the subject of a different state. If a hostage has the ability to escape his captor, only to become the hostage of some other captor, is that really escape?

In the US, it is particularly challenging to extricate yourself from the captors that are the US government. Even moving abroad does not exempt you from being subject to the US tax regime, one of the strictest tax systems in the world. The only other country that does this is Eritrea, a banana republic that garners little sympathy for these evil policies.

In order to cast off the yoke of the IRS, you would need to renounce your US citizenship, which is a surprisingly challenging process. In fact, just recently, the State Department increased the fee for renouncing citizenship from $450 to $2350. This would put that option out of reach for the nation’s poor.


Condition 3: The victim cannot overpower or defend himself from his captor.

Let me start by saying that I believe individuals have immense power to make a difference, and to help fight against the state. If I did not believe this, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

However, an individual cannot possibly take down the government on their own, and if the state singles you out, it will almost certainly win. It’s nearly impossible to successfully defend yourself against the police, for instance.

Consider Edward Snowden, who revealed some of the most damning evidence yet of how the government abuses its powers and spies on American citizens. The official reaction to this (and even much of the public’s reaction) has been extremely negative. And more than a year since these revelations, he is still stuck living in Moscow, while the American national security state has hardly receded one iota.


Condition 4: The victim perceives some “kindness” (or relative lack of abuse) from his captor.

Most people, even those who are strongly opposed to many government policies, still view the government as their benefactor.

This makes sense, because the state performs numerous functions that could easily be seen as being generous and helping people out. The police still are occasionally used to protect the rights of the innocent from other criminals, and then there are things like welfare, safety regulations, etc., which are “benefits” that people receive from government. These “kindnesses” can dupe people into viewing the state as a positive institution that actually cares for and protects people, like a captor who gives his hostage some food, or a rare liberty.

And in America, the relative freedom that we have compared to certain countries today, as well as the historical record of governments throughout time, is often perceived as a “kindness” (lack of abuse). We are like dogs who are ecstatic after getting upgraded from a five foot leash to a ten foot one.

Of course, this is just for the common people. In a “democratic” system like we have in America, powerful individuals and special interests can secure real (not merely illusory) benefits from the state’s machinery. These people (say, the Morgan and Rockefeller families) would more accurately be considered the captors rather than the hostages. The recent scandal involving Goldman Sachs being exempt from federal regulations should make this fact abundantly clear.


Condition 5: The victim is isolated from the outside world.

This condition is probably the trickiest one to understand with regards to the state. In a place like North Korea, the comparison is obvious. For a relatively free country like America, it is much more difficult to see.

I would not seriously claim that American citizens are isolated from the outside world in the same way that a hostage is. It’s certainly not the case that we can’t travel and interact with people from other cultures and other countries. In this sense, we are most certainly not isolated.

However, since “outsiders” are subject to their own states, they would find themselves largely in the same situation. It would be as though hostages of a given captor have “outside access” to hostages from other captors. Imagine that you’ve been kidnapped, and the only outside interactions you can have are with hostages of some other psychopath, likely experiencing the same kind of Stockholm Syndrome reaction.

From a game theory perspective, it would make sense then for everyone to reinforce this belief (that government is good), even with foreigners. The idea that “the state” is a legitimate entity helps victims to identify with their own particular state. If it were not a legitimate entity, then how could their own state be considered legitimate?

Finally, most people do in fact still get their information from more local sources, particularly within America. The ignorance and lack of experience with other cultures is truly astounding in today’s globalized world. And almost nobody in America actually travels to other countries in a context beyond taking a Caribbean or European vacation. It’s still quite rare (although luckily it is becoming more common) for Americans to actually experience life in a different country or culture. In this more subtle and non-coercive way, Americans are still quite isolated from the outside world.



As you can see, from the perspective of Stockholm Syndrome, the relationship between a state and its citizens is quite similar to that of a captor and his hostages. This makes it far easier for citizens to identify with their government and become emotionally attached to it. In other words, to become patriotic.

As evidence of this identification, think about how people tend to use the word “we” in reference to government actions. Most people don’t say “The US government is bombing ISIS in Syria”, but rather “We are bombing ISIS in Syria”. This is despite the obvious fact that the speaker almost certainly has no connection to the actual action of the bombing. Even little old anarchist me ends up saying things like this quite often.

The phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome goes a long way in explaining the observed affinity people have for the institution of the state in general, and particularly their own state.

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