Big Brother Is Listening

by Timothy Lutts

NSA-Building-Big-Brother-Is-ListeningEdward Snowden, who last week revealed the U.S. government’s practice of gathering massive amounts of data on law-abiding citizens, has jump-started a national conversation about privacy, and I thank him heartily for it.

In particular, I thank him for bringing to the fore these two questions that transcend party lines.

First, is it right that the U.S. government collects massive amounts of data about law-abiding citizens?

Second, is it right that we didn‘t know about it?

I answer a loud “No” to both questions.

Spying on law-abiding citizens is wrong where there is no probable cause—and doing it surreptitiously is worse.

Proponents of the practice try to justify it by claiming it helps catch terrorists. I will assume this is true, to some extent.

But I sincerely doubt that it justifies the cost, in both expense (our tax dollars) and loss of privacy.

On the cost front, I’m opposed in general to the growth of our Federal government’s powers. I share with Thomas Jefferson the belief that “That government is best which governs least.” Note: it’s almost certain that those were not Jefferson’s exact words. The first print appearance of the sentiment came in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, whose editor wrote in 1837, “The best government is that which governs least.”

But Jefferson did write, “I think we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.” And I believe that is true today more than ever before. The main point is that government does not produce anything. Yes, it does cause redistribution, through a vast number of mechanisms, but it consumes enormously in doing so, and in the long run, private enterprise (the invisible hand of the market) is more intelligent about asset allocation and thus more productive.

On the privacy front, the risks are simply too great that our government will fail to use this information wisely. The recent overreach at the IRS in regard to Tea Party groups—but not to corresponding liberal groups—is a perfect example of politics creeping into government.

And then there’s security! A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the longer a chain, the more likely there is to be a flaw in it. If Edward Snowden was the first weak link in this enterprise (we’re lucky his motives were good), the next—who might be less patriotic—could conceivably engineer a massive data dump to less friendly parties.

Finally, for a President who promised to make government more transparent, the continuing practice by the Obama administration of covert information-gathering, just as practiced by George Bush’s administration, reminds me how insular a world Washington has become, and how much they don’t work for you and me.

For several years, I’ve been saying—half jokingly—that the Internet knows all, so you better be good.

And I have been good; my biggest transgression is speeding, which almost everybody does.

But now that our government’s spying activities have been exposed, I hope we can have a real conversation about this, remembering in the meanwhile, the words of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote, “Those who are willing to trade freedom for the illusion of security, deserve neither and will lose both.”

Lastly, a petition has been started at to pardon Edward Snowden. I’ve signed it and I hope you’ll consider signing it too.

Big Brother is listening.