Democracy Is Obsolete

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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115 Responses

  1. Pat Cahalan says:

    Really, the League is doing a great job of letting me enjoy my vacationReport

  2. sam wilkinson says:

    How does this prove democracy’s obsolescence? It proves that democracy is very good at reflecting what citizens care about, which happens to be in opposition to things that you Cate about.

    I’m on a phone right now but I’ll write a longer response later.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to sam wilkinson says:

      When a majority wants to spy on a minority, that’s a good thing.


      • North in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Isn’t the majority in this case wanting to spy on the majority?Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to North says:

          The majority spying on the majority would be fine — if, built into the system, there were any way at all of allowing the minority not to be spied on.

          But that’s not the case. On the contrary, unwilling minorities get extra scrutiny.Report

      • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Democracy is excellent at reflecting the will of the majority. This is what American democracy has ALWAYS been about. It isn’t like something has changed recently. So how does that make it obsolete? Seems to me it is functioning as smoothly (and depressingly) as ever.Report

        • MFarmer in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

          Sam, as long as the will of the majority is reflected and not enforced, then there would be no problem, but when the will of the majority violates the rights of minorities, or simply violates the Constitution, then democracy has failed us, unless you think that tyranny of the majority is fine as long as over 50% want it.Report

  3. North says:

    This doesn’t work for me. You pour out scalding scorn on politicians who are insufficiently deferential to citizen liberty but you seem to grant a blanket waiver to the masses of the electorate who either
    A-reward that behavior with electoral support
    B-Are indifferent to that behavior or prioritize other matters or
    C-have checked out of the electoral process itself.
    You’re indicting politicians and democracy for not, in essence, saving us from ourselves. Nor have you identified how democracy’s alternatives have done better. Is single party semi-communist governed (but economically capitalist) China better on surveillance than the US? Are the various dictatorships in the Middle East better on liberty than the US? Looking at the great firewall of China, the blatant and unabashed media censorship (which would make our own nanny state censers blush with inadequacy) I say No.
    Why does the electorate get a pass for not being sufficiently attuned to civil rights? Why do libertarians get a pass for being insufficiently persuasive (and insufficiently focused, would libertarians do better if they were focused on civil rights and other issues that have popular sympathy instead of also simultaneously crusading to run off with Granma’s social security check- As E.D. would put it, why the crutches before or at the same time as the chains?)*

    *It goes without saying, mind, that Liberals can be indicted here but then Liberals do not claim to hold liberty as their highest goal.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to North says:

      Unlike you, I view democracy as an important safeguard for liberty. Your belief appears to be that it’s an authorization to violate liberty.

      If I’m wrong on this please let me know, but your comments on this thread leave me little other conclusion.Report

    • Liberty60 in reply to North says:

      I applaud the strong criticism of the Surveillance State myself. But like North, I think its misleading to lay it all on “Democracy” as if we are somehow pursuing the wrong governmental algorithm.

      In other words, its that mechanistic view of government that I am increasingly opposed to; that somehow if we had some other form of laws and regulations to controlled our society, all the abuses mentioned in your post would not have occurred.

      Short of a Magical Benevolent Dictator, all of these things have happend, and would have happened, because the people wanted them to happen,or didn’t care enough to stop them.

      The mechanistic view of government assumes that once the clockwork is constructed, the citizenry can go to sleep and the System will automatically produce justice, freedom, and All Manner OF Good Things without our constant vigilance.

      It was noted in the 30’s (damned if I remember who- by Upton Sinclair maybe?) that America could easily become a dictatorship without changing a single sentence of the Constitution, if the people wanted it.

      The post makes powerful criticisms of the encroachments on liberty, but then throws its hands up in despair by saying that the answer is some form of radical subversion, yet the thought ends there- no idea is presented of a goal, or deeper ideas or how the end result might be better.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Liberty60 says:

        all of these things have happend, and would have happened, because the people wanted them to happen,or didn’t care enough to stop them.

        Caring a whole lot is insufficient for solving collective action problems.Report

      • b-psycho in reply to Liberty60 says:

        The post makes powerful criticisms of the encroachments on liberty, but then throws its hands up in despair by saying that the answer is some form of radical subversion, yet the thought ends there- no idea is presented of a goal, or deeper ideas or how the end result might be better.

        Wait…ending the surveillance state isn’t a goal?

        I completely agree with Jason’s post, couldn’t have stated it better myself. Only thing I’d add would’ve been an argument that such imposition on the public is the inevitable result of handing off ones power to a 3rd party as we call “democracy” despite the general public really having nothing to do with it.Report

  4. North says:

    I don’t believe that you honestly believe Democracy to be anything so simplistic as only a safeguard of liberty; I don’t believe it myself.
    I’m gonna be brief on this point because I know that you know all of this, you’re a brilliant Cato writer for God(ess?)’s sake.
    Democracy in it’s one hundred proof pure form is just mob rule and the only liberty it safeguards is the right of the masses to not be ruled by one man who isn’t selected by the majority. All other liberties of the minorities or individuals are subject entirely to the whim of the majority.
    Democracy in its more diluted benign form as practiced by the nations of the developed world restrain pure majority rule with constitutional rights and institutional safeguards to try and increase the protection of minorities and individuals. Those safeguards are undemocratic as they require typically not just brief majorities but sustained supermajorities to alter or overturn. I’m unaware of any nation in the developed world that identifies the protection of citizen liberty as the governments sole purpose. Provision of security, order and various other services are also included in their laundry list of required duties (it certainly is in ours). Often those other duties run contrary to pure protection of liberty.

    But really this is a lot of writing from me for what seems like essentially a dodge from you. Democracy and liberal constitutionally restrained Democracy especially remain a lever by which the masses steer the government between the poles of Liberty and non-Liberty interests. I agree with you that the course in civil liberties has been steered too far from Liberty. Where I differ with you is on the question of blame; you blame the lever, I blame the hand on the lever.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to North says:

      I don’t believe that you honestly believe Democracy to be anything so simplistic as only a safeguard of liberty; I don’t believe it myself.

      Certainly not. Democracy does many other good things besides. It helps ensure peaceful transitions of power, it tends to keep politics relatively contained to a discrete sphere of life when compared to the alternatives, and it tends to make international conflicts less frequent, at least as it spreads among nations.

      Those are all good things, and I am emphatically not arguing for dictatorship. I am arguing for a slightly less well-governed, less complacent, and less docile population.Report

      • North in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Good, then why aren’t you criticizing the behavior of the population rather than the structure of the government? That was my original point; this is happening because the population either wants it to happen or doesn’t care enough to bestir themselves to stop it.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to North says:

          Or stopping it is a collective action problem.Report

        • MFarmer in reply to North says:

          I understand the responibility of citizens to direct their own course, but it’s possible for a State to gain power through subterfuge and the gradual creation of dependence so that the State becomes a force which is more powerful than the power of voting the bums out. We can blame people for being asleep and not paying attention, but the real problem remains — a powerful, rights-violating State. Once people wake up and see the error of their ways, how do they throw off a rights-violating government and establish another with real limitations — that is our challenge. Voting might still work, but only if it’s a revolutionary sweep, with enough people in the streets to get the attention of those in power who are still principled, or frightened, enough to change from within.Report

  5. Stillwater says:

    Democracy is obsolete because it has done nothing to stop the growth of surveillance in the digital era.

    If this is the thesis, then the conclusion is premature, don’t you think? For democracy to be “obsolete”, it would have to be incapable of dealing with the threats to liberty posed by surveillance. But as you say, this is a new phenomenon in the digital age. It seems to me that if the thesis makes sense, then it’d have to be more general: that democracy is incapable of preventing privacy-violating governmental surveillance full stop.

    Is there a form of government you have in mind that could possibly satisfy this condition?Report

    • North in reply to Stillwater says:

      Also, doesn’t the state of obselescence require a superior alternative?Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Stillwater says:

      That is the thesis. Is it premature? The degree of democratic accountability over the surveillance state is either zero or damn close. The extent of the problem is… everyone. It’s hard to think of a bigger failure than that.

      Again, I’m not arguing for a different form of government. I’m arguing for a rather different relationship between citizens and government, albeit within the legal structures that we have right now.Report

      • But what’s been the duration of the problem? Democracy is — on some topics — slow to move. The US tolerated slavery for how long? Didn’t allow women to vote for how long? The technical ability to monitor as much as can be monitored today is very new. While it may not be premature to bring up the question, it may be much too early to argue that democracy can’t deal with the problem in due course.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Cain says:

          You’ve made what I think is the strongest possible challenge to my position. Well done.Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            JasonK– A great aesthetic disappointment to learn that aside from terrorism and tax evasion, the state finds us otherwise quite boring.

            I like Michael Cain’s reply too, the long view. Give to Caesar What’s Caesar’s and Don’t Deface the Real Estate.

            Oh, yeah, and Don’t Murder. The state looks down on that too.Report

        • Chris in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I think the problem democracy has right now is one of which Jason’s issue is only a symptom, and only one of many (I’m not sure that, at the moment, it’s the most disturbing even — in fact, I’m quite certain it’s not). Our democratic system has become removed from many of the institutions of government in several ways (bureaucracy, a lack of transparency, interest groups, and self-sustaining institutions, to name a few ways), and to make matters worse, mass media has made it difficult, if not impossible, for anything other than power to drive voting. Sure, you may be unemployed, your child may have been wounded or killed in an ill-conceived war of choice, you or a loved one may have been caught up in the war on drugs in a way that negatively impacted your life or their’s, you may be on some no fly list because your name is associated with some other person who someone, somewhere, suggested may have ties to a terrorist organization, and a bank may be about to foreclose on your home without following the actual procedures set down by law for doing so, but in all likelihood, if you haven’t simply disenfranchised yourself because of a complete lack of faith in the system, you’re probably going to vote for one of the people that power backs, because of the issues that power wants you to vote on, and even if those people weren’t the ones you wanted to vote for, you wouldn’t have much choice in the matter in the end anyway, nor would you have any real way of knowing what needs to be done to make a difference.

          Maybe societies can become too large and complicated for democracy to function? Or maybe it’s just that the ways in which we get information today make it possible for power to simulate democracy without it actually existing. Maybe democracy isn’t obsolete, it’s just not existent.Report

      • Kris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Democracy in general is obsolete because of one policy in one democratic country?


        I have a really basic question: What criteria (or criterion) does a system of government have to meet in order dor it to be obsolete?

        I mean, you seem to have a syllogism like the following in mind:

        All X’s are obsolete forms of government.
        Democracy is an X,
        Therefore, democracy is obsolete.

        What do you think X is?Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kris says:

          You and I differ in that I don’t treat this development as mere policy.

          To my mind, liberal democracy as practiced here and elsewhere in the world seems to be showing signs of spontaneously devolving into something very different as a result of technological pressure.

          To put it in your terms, all forms of government that cannot maintain themselves but instead typically and quickly devolve into other forms are obsolete. That’s wordy, but it’s my answer to your “X.”

          Democracy is one of those, I fear, at least without some very important supplements.Report

          • ktward in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            To put it in your terms, all forms of government that cannot maintain themselves but instead typically and quickly devolve into other forms are obsolete. That’s wordy, but it’s my answer to your “X.”

            Democracy is one of those, I fear, at least without some very important supplements.

            So, to the libertarian mind, what might those “very important supplements” look like? Seriously, I’d like to know. Because this actually speaks to the main issue I have with libertarian ideology: complaints aplenty, few solutions beyond “scrap it all and start over.”Report

            • Chris in reply to ktward says:

              He proposed, in the original post, civil disobedience as one such supplement. I think he means one sort of civil disobedience (whistle blowing, in essence), because other forms (e.g., those that have been part of protest culture since the 50s) are no longer effective. In fact, they tend to be treated by the voting populace as signs of being on the lunatic fringe. Even simple whistle blowing isn’t enough, as Manning’s case shows.

              I suppose what would have to happen is that, as the state learns to handle existing forms of civil disobedience, new forms have to emerge. I doubt this would be enough, though, because even with the internet and the potential for major leaks (like those of Wikileaks), the flow of information is still sufficiently controlled by power to make those leaks go away, or to spin them in such a way as to make them basically harmless.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            Poor Richard makes a good stiff supplement!Report

          • Kris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            Democracy quickly and typically devolves into something else?

            What about:

            The U.S.
            The U.K
            New Zealand
            Costa Rica

            These countries are ranked as “full-democracies” by the Demcracy Index (an imperfect system, but reasonable) with the exception of France.

            Which of them are about to quickly devolve into something else?

            Notice, for the claim “Democracies typically devolves” to be true, it would have to be true of at least a large plurality of these democracies that they are about to devolve.Report

            • CK MacLeod in reply to Kris says:

              Kris @

              Do you philosophy scholars actually read what used to be called philosophy anymore?

              None of those countries, in all likelihood no national level government ever, is a “democracy” in the classical sense, which is where that familiar ancient observation on the instability of the democratic regime originates – see, esp., Plato, The Republic, Bk VIII. One major point of the modern “mixed regime,” liberal democracy generally, democracy loosely speaking only (for short and in the modern era in regard to mass societies of a general type and conception), was to avoid the cycle of decay, to break out of the cycle known to classical political science (cf. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, where this theme is developed in great detail).

              What the Democracy Index is looking it is, in short, something rather different from what “democracy” in its pure form meant. It’s really a “Liberal Democracy Index,” and it will be disputed by some whether grouping these countries together doesn’t conceal as much as it reveals. No one, however, should blame you or, I hope, me for unclarity or confusion on these points – over what we mean by “democracy,” or how we know when a democracy is still really democratic, and so on. It’s a more a defect of this kind of discussion, I suspect.Report

              • Kris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Agreed on all points CK. Sorry to have implied I disagreed with this.

                Yes, I meant these are democracies with some protection for minorities and the rule of law (whether the constitution is on paper or not).

                They are not “pure democracies” of the sort Plato may have had in mind. But I’m no expert on ancient philosophy either. I suspect Plato was thinking of democracy that was more direct and less representative (as Athenian democracy was more direct) than anything we do.

                You can imagine how awful the world would be if people decided every issue by a direct vote. Just think of California and all these darned propositons. Plato was right about California.Report

              • Kris in reply to Kris says:

                I mean, if he had seen California and lived now.Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    There are a lot of pretty foundational things that, if they do their job right, we don’t even notice. (Assumption of Freedom of Speech/Press, equality before the law, that sort of thing)

    The problem is that if we don’t notice them for long enough, we forget that they’re even important (let alone foundational)… and we see what they prevent us from doing instead of what they allow us to continue to do.Report

  7. George Turner says:

    But the NSA has merely expanded according to the beliefs of the entire populace who have entered the digitial age, interacted with their fellow citizens, and realized just how wacked-out, crazy, ignorant, dangerous, and hateful their fellow citizens are.

    East Germans would look over their shoulder, quietly whisper that maybe communism wasn’t quite working out so well, and meekly go back to standing patiently in line for bread. Commenters at Daily Kos scream for bloody revolution, re-education camps, and throwing Christians into tobacco shredders.

    The internet makes it easy for a dozen of the most delusional and paranoid people in the US, obsessed with some obscure subject such as weather control, secret messages in dollar bills, or nematodes controlling the brain of Ted Danson’s dog, to find each other, form an activist cell, and plot mayhem. It even allows people to imply that Barack Obama isn’t Jesus, which to some is a worrisome threat to the advance of socialist revolution.

    So one thing the entire populace can agree on is that a lot of people on the internet are scary-stupid. Democracy will face revision when Facebook amends “Like – Dislike” with “This person should not be allowed to vote.”Report

    • MFarmer in reply to George Turner says:

      “It even allows people to imply that Barack Obama isn’t Jesus, which to some is a worrisome threat to the advance of socialist revolution.”

      Sometimes I feel so subversive, I get giddy.Report

    • ktward in reply to George Turner says:

      So one thing the entire populace can agree on is that a lot of people on the internet are scary-stupid. Democracy will face revision when Facebook amends “Like – Dislike” with “This person should not be allowed to vote.”

      This, to me, reflects the kind of innately scary undemocratic thinking that has variously plagued our nation from the get go: some folks are still trying to parse who, among us, are *worthy* to vote.

      Everyone on this blog is on the internet. Does that mean we’re all scary stupid?
      Equally spurious stereotypes have long been used to limit voting rights in the US: You’re black? A woman? Sorry, you can’t vote. Lord knows there’s still a push for only property owners to be able to vote. Now it’s, You say stupid things on the internet? Sorry, no voting rights for you.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to ktward says:

        What if, say, there were actual reasons to not let a group vote? At what point do you draw the line? If 99% of a particular group, who itself is 99% of America, are idiots (term used medically, to mean extreme retardation) — do you still let them vote?Report

  8. CK MacLeod says:

    In short: We condemned East Germany for a lot less than what we are doing to ourselves, right this moment.


    • George Turner in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      Well yes.

      Plus, if East German’s had noticed that every letter they sent, to anyone, had been steamed open and recorded, they’d have quit sending letters.

      One of my friends in military intelligence (who worked in White House Commications) thought she might have an issue with her home laptop, so she called a friend at the NSA to check it remotely for security threats. The next day she said something like “Wow. They can pop in and find out everything!”

      Oddly, most of the actual security threats seem to be coming from one particular house on Pennsylvania Avenue. They should monitor that one more closely.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

        The east germans weren’t that stupid.

        Shields Up! gives funny messages if your security is better than its. (“um… we’re not sure exactly how you’re accessing this site”)Report

  9. miguel cervantes says:

    Yes the Stasi, the Securitati, the AVH and the KGB, are exactly the same as the NSA , GHCQ and their French and German equivalent, category error on the 50 yard line,Report

    • No, not “the same” – “a lot less than”, according to the blogger.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        It’s been claimed that the Stasi had files in one in three East Germans. If the NSA keeps tabs on “nearly every” American citizen, is that not worse?

        Sure, sure — no mass roundups of dissidents yet. Fine. No argument there. But how many pieces of totalitarianism do you really want to leave lying around?Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          But that’s true of anyone with Google skills, no? I mean, anyone who wants to keep tabs on people can do so in the information age. That includes government.

          I think your complaint isn’t that government does what everyone else can do. It’s that we haven’t prevented government from doing what’s easy to do, no?Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Stillwater says:

            Privacy is like the buggy whip — just another victim of creative destruction. Seriously. In the explosion of computer software that now defines most of our lives, the market valued speed, price, coolness, and damned near anything else you can name above privacy and security, so here we are.Report

            • Kolohe in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              “Privacy” is in most ways a late industrial nuclear family age invention. Back in the day, everyone in the village darn tootin’ knew everyone else’s business.Report

              • +1, at least to the point that the good old days weren’t nearly as free (or “private”) as we might have wanted them to be.Report

              • Where gossip once did all of the heavy lifting in the olden days, we now live in anonymous cities and so we have to outsource the loss of privacy to ourselves. Facebook allows people to post pictures of themselves doing bong hits, for example. People then go and post pictures of themselves doing bong hits. Hell, posting status updates that specifically mention indiscretions… but there’s also the whole “my name is John Smith, I went to Dead President High School, I work for Global Conglomerate, I live in downtown Metropolis, and I’M GOING ON VACATION OUT OF TOWN IN TWO WEEKS!”

                Sure. This is stupid.

                This stupidity, however, is voluntary.

                If we limited warrantless government knowledge to what people revealed on their own, I’d have precious little problem with government keeping non-tax records on everybody.Report

              • I personally find the lines between “voluntary” and “non-voluntary” a little bit fuzzy. But you make a good point.Report

        • We could get into numerical comparisons, and then into the differences between the Stasi and the FBI, but the very existence of your claims is self-falsifying – unless you imagine that it was safe in East Germany (or the USSR, or present day North Korea, and so on) to carry on open public discussions about how oppressive and worthy of condemnation the state was.Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            The most craven response possible to all of these developments? “You’re overreacting. I don’t see any dissidents being rounded up.”

            By the time that happens, it will be too late. Or were you counting on being a loyalist?Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              WTF, Jason? Of course it would be too late to start worrying about that then. But no one’s arguing that you should not being concerned. What people are trying to address is your patently absurd comparison on the merits. The level of concern you think is merited might well justify making false or absurd statements, but that fact wouldn’t make them true or reasonable.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                …This appears to be what you are arguing at this point in the thread, in any case.

                If, as you seem to do below, you maintain and are willing to offer evidence that what you said is not simply false or absurd, then that’s great, that’s what you should be doing so long as you think it’s the case. The point is that it’s a straw man to say that what people are doing is saying you shouldn’t be concerned; they’re saying the facts don’t support what you said.

                For the record, I think the confusion is that you are talking about the surveillance state, and not controlling for the advance of technology (i.e. not asking what percentage of the available technology is the state using to surveil its citizens, but rather, what are the absolute extents of those activities), whereas others understand you to be comparing the internal security states to each other in toto.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

                When two readings exist for a given piece of text, the principle of charity dictates that you are to take the more plausible one.

                It’s obviously proven difficult for you, even despite the many qualifications and hints that I supplied in the original post. Including but not limited to the fact that I felt free to write about it in public and the remedy of civil disobedience that I recommended.Report

        • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Well, no mass round up of libertarians or conservatives. More liberal activists might have a bone to pick with you about police harassment.Report

        • fuster in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          no Jason, it’s NOT worse, it’s just more………… it’s not having information on the citizenry that’s violative, it’s the nature of the info and, more importantly, the uses to which the info is put……..

          but please feel free to join Rep Bachmann in refusing to fill out a census form as a bulwark for liberty.Report

        • Kris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          “no mass roundups of dissidents yet”

          Is that “yet” a concession to Glenn Beckians who fear black copters and a government takeover or is it a mistake?Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kris says:

            The “yet” is a statement of fact. But if I wanted to build a nice oppressive government for a dictator to one day take over, even while maintaining a liberal democracy in the meantime, I know exactly how I would do it. I’d build an extensive surveillance state and claim that it was for the people’s safety.

            It’s the way this sort of thing has always been done.Report

            • Kris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Can we make a bet about this of some kind.

              You think it os a fact that mass roundups will occur.

              Pick a range of dates you expect this and a minimum number of people that you have in mind that would count as a “mass” and I will bet you. (Presumably These roundups will require a suspension of habeas corpus.)

              I will also bet you that the U.S. government will never “round up” a single individual white girl or handsome young, white Christian. Maybe they would tolerate roundups of minorities or weirdo dirty hippies with dreds. And Blacks, of course. And Latino’s to Ask for their papers.

              Wait a minute. I just a revelation. Maybe racial dsicrimination is the biggest enemy of a truly libertarian, truly free society.


              Nah, ever mind. Poor people are the enemy of freedom. That and voting, apparently. And workplace safety laws. And laws banning sexual harrasement. And preventing people from selling 22 ounces of soda in one cup as opposed to two. And requiring cigarettes to come with warnings. And fines for polluting and laws supporting unions.

              No the racism is not the problem. How stupid of me.Report

          • George Turner in reply to Kris says:

            I once poked at a liberal by pointing out that Clinton used mass round-ups and disappeared hundreds of thousands of people. He asked what I could possibly be referring to, so I pointed to the number of pregnant teens when he took office versus the number when he left office, which was a hundred-thousand or so less.

            “What happened to them? They just disappeared! My guess is that an unmarked black van pulled up beside them, yanked them in, and that was it. Somewhere there must be secret government camps filled with pregnant teens. How else could you explain the disappearance of so many from the demographic numbers in just four years?”Report

  10. miguel cervantes says:

    It’s a serious Goodwin law violation, bordering on the obscene, now there are certain aspects like the TSA which underperform their function, to put it mildly, but to compare it to the Stasi,
    or the CDR’s (block committees) borders on the obscene, actually,Report

    • Glyph in reply to miguel cervantes says:

      Since the comparison was actually to the ‘sequel’ of East Germany, I vote for a new term, like ‘Godwin Jr.’.

      Or ‘Godwin II: The Godwinning’.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Glyph says:

        ‘Godwin Hunting’?Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            Sure, mock. I still haven’t gotten an answer to the question: How many bits of the totalitarian toolkit are okay to keep around? Why is this one justified? What compelling need is there for it?

            Are you really going to take the George W. Bush route and say you’re frightened of terrorists? It seems… unlike you.Report

            • Glyph in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Jason, I think you need to take a breath please and step back from calling everyone here ‘craven’ because you, just perhaps, *slightly* overstated your case in the OP, and refuse to concede any of it as hyperbole.


              “In short: We condemned East Germany for a lot less than what we are doing to ourselves, right this moment. ”

              No. Just no. Not yet, we are not yet worse than East Germany. Seriously. I can’t believe we are even arguing this.

              For the record – yes, the constantly-increasing surveillance is troublesome. I spoke to a German friend soon after the formation of the DHS was announced post-9/11, and he said, ‘One day, they will be your secret police’ And I was chilled, because that had not yet occurred to me. Nothing in the intervening time has made me feel better about it.

              In short: I am on your side, dude. But going over the top like this makes people dismiss libertarians as completely crazy, when they are not. We don’t want people to dismiss the risks as crazytalk, we want them to consider the risks seriously.

              To achieve that, we need to be precise about where we are, especially in relation to real-world historical examples.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Glyph says:

                Pardon me for not striking precisely the appropriate tone of calm.

                Now what do we do?

                There is strong evidence that the surveillance is more extensive than it ever was in East Germany. I’m sorry that it bothers you, but the comparison is only wrong if the evidence is.

                What would you suggest by way of contradicting Senators Wyden and Paul? Or this?

                Believe me, I’d love to have to walk it all back. But the fact that our flag is still red, white, and blue doesn’t somehow insulate us.Report

              • Kris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                The East Germans would’ve voted away the government’s extreme surveillance powers if they’d had a liberal democracy.

                The country tolerates the current level of surveillance and votes for it (I’d say wrongly) because it is less extreme than East German surveillance. (There are some checks on surveillance by the legislature, the judiciary, and the media. Not enough but that’s in flux.) If the surveillance gets more extreme and irritating to more people, they’ll vote against it. Liberal democracy is defended against the sort of slippery slope that you’re worried about.

                Yay liberal democracy!Report

            • Kolohe in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              If you want a serious response – no I don’t want bits of the totalitarian toolkit laying about.

              But the analogy is ridiculous, and yes, insulting to the actual victims of Communism.

              I am also skeptical of a single source whistleblower that says the ‘NSA has dossiers on nearly every US Citizen’. First, because it’s probably defining ‘dossiers’ way up, even if stipulating its accuracy. (which I do not) But mostly, I work for the government, and have most of my life. So I know how it works. It’s hard enough for them to get my *own* personnel and medical records into the system – and get them right – much less 300+ million other people.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Kolohe says:

                Thx for the chuckle, Mr. K. Big Brother’s only human virtue is his inefficiency.

                I adore Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It’s Orwell’s 1984 played for laughs, but it’s no mere echo, it’s the reductio ad absurdum of the state’s ability to organize humanity.

                The state, for all its pretensions of competence and efficiency and plans and thoughts and ideas, is still run by humans. The snake eats its tail.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kolohe says:

                If it were just one whistleblower, sure. Be skeptical. Probably a disgruntled former employee trying to make life difficult for the people who fired him.

                But two U.S. senators from opposing parties? Multiple corroborating accounts from the private sector? That’s a different matter, I would think.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Note that what the Senators are saying is a bit different than “dossiers on almost every US citizen”

                If information is collected and stored in a mass pile without metadata contextual reference, is it actually data?

                Note also that Senator Paul says this:

                “Like other tools used to collect information in law enforcement, in order to use drones a warrant needs to be issued. Americans going about their everyday lives should not be treated like criminals or terrorists and have their rights infringed upon by military tactics,

                which has the lemma “But Criminals and Terrorists? Fish those guys”Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

                If information is collected and stored in a mass pile without metadata contextual reference, is it actually data?

                I see what you did there – or what I think you meant to do.

                That is one key issue. In theory, you could create full employment by assigning the unemployed to sort and tag the data, and then hire something close to the equivalent of the Stasi + paid informants network to surveill the populace – actively and meaningfully surveill, not just produce theoretically accessible information.

                The Soviet Union’s KGB employed about 480,000 full-time agents to oversee a nation of 280 million, which means there was one agent per 5,830 citizens. Using Wiesenthal’s figures for the Nazi Gestapo, there was one officer for 2,000 people. The ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans. When the regular informers are added, these ratios become much higher: In the Stasi’s case, there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens! When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops, the result is nothing short of monstrous: one informer per 6.5 citizens.


                Now that sounds like a real jobs program to me. Imagine the stimulus if we could put 4o – 50 million Americans to work full or part time watching everyone else!Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Americans would insist on unreasonable pay and benefits. We’d have to create special visas for spies.Report

            • Maybe if you were more specific about what particular items from the toolkit you’re worried about. In general, there can be a very great distance between the existence of a potential and the ability actually to exploit that potential in a manner that can justly be called totalitarian. You don’t need facial recognition technologies or CCTV or digital dossiers to make life miserable. Historically, democratic governance has been one powerful but highly imperfect means for restraining the vulnerability of societies to tyranny. Sooner or later, the only hope seems to be to persuade the powerful or potentially powerful that it’s in their own interest not to seek or maintain total control.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to miguel cervantes says:

      It’s wrong to compare an agency known to have strip-searched children and old ladies to a state security service?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        It can’t ever be “wrong” to compare two things. What can be wrong is how you describe what you see when taking in the juxtaposition.Report

      • “Compare”? Why not? It’s a free country, or comment thread.

        I think it would be helpful if the critics, not just Mr. Kuznicki by any means, sought to understand the concept of layered security more comprehensively. The designers of the system have not done a very good job of explaining it, though there’s a bias toward saying as little as possible among security strategists. Generally, you want to advertise your vigilance, not get into your theory, since you never know how those with an interest in defeating your security measures can use what you share against you. After such a discussion, an objective observer might still come out on the “we could do without strip-searching children and old ladies” end of the discussion, but it would at least have the character of an actual discussion of the issues involved rather than libertarian melodrama vs. “security theater.”

        Otherwise, I don’t think the comparison of the TSA to the Stasi, or of “us” to East Germany is very helpful, not least because making obviously ill-founded and unsupportable, overly broad statements undermines valid criticisms. It feels a bit ridiculous to have to point out that the case against East Germany certainly included its surveillance state, but went well beyond it. It wasn’t just that the people were spied on, but what was being done with the information.

        If the East Germans merely collected extensively information about every aspect of the lives of East Germans, and did nothing with it, or used it to for purposes we acknowledged to be benign (medical research or something), we would have found it remarkable and extraordinary, but we wouldn’t likely have wasted much time and energy condemning it. We condemned what we knew of the surveillance state for a number of reasons that went beyond aesthetics or the occasional embarrassment or traumatization of old ladies, children, and very sensitive people. One reason was that that a main purpose of the DDR security state was, it seemed to us, to ruin the lives of dissenters or to prevent people from ever even considering dissent – against the government itself or against its foreign masters, our great adversaries. We also believed that the security state facilitated the imposition on the populace of a way of life that we considered completely undesirable, mainly because it violated our idea of human rights, indeed of so-called universal, actually mostly “liberal democratic” human rights.Report

  11. “Increasingly, a government of, by, and for the people requires more than democracy. It may require that some of us break the laws. The laws exist for a reason, and that reason is liberty. If the laws destroy liberty, then they deserve to be broken. ”

    There’s a lot to this, but also some potential problems (or maybe they’re not really problems). How do we decide if the laws destroy liberty? Does that mean that there is a higher law (the law of “liberty”) that a lawbreaker might appeal to? Who’s going to monitor and interpret whether the higher law is invokable or not?

    An anarcho-syndicalist might decide that property and rights to property and contracts to enforce rights to property and other things are what truly destroy liberty by being part of a mechanism that functions to expropriate labor value. In that case, the London rioters of not too long ago might, under that definition, be a culmination of the true liberty.

    Maybe this isn’t really much of a problem, or as much of a problem as I’m making it out to be. (If enough people don’t accept a law, it’s hard to enforce. And maybe that should give the enforcers and lawmakers pause. I think, for instance, that criminalizing marijuana is not only bad policy, but unjust as well. In that sense, I don’t mind when people disobey that law, as they seem to be doing in droves. Mostly to the good, I say, except for the harm that those who are caught get exposed to, and except for say the family members who are adversely affected by a parent’s pot use….most good comes with costs.)

    Maybe the Occupy movement was in a sense this type of disobedience. It had no coherent message to speak of, but in some locations, it involved people who carved out a public space (or in some cases, a private space that seemed “public” in some sense) and their disobedience to the strict demands of governance might have created–and in some cases maybe did create–a challenge to the system much more valuable than whining about skewed percentiles.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      How do we decide if the laws destroy liberty?

      I’m saying that perhaps we should do less of the deciding. Relatively less government, less conformity, less unanimity. Less docility.

      I’m not saying to go out and harm people. I’m saying to spy on your government. And tell its real masters — the people — what it’s been up to.Report

      • Don’t we already do this, at least imperfectly, through whatever passes for investigative journalism and through, say, that blogosphere and such mechanisms as wikileaks? If you’re saying we should do more of it, then I agree.

        But you also seem to be saying we should violate or resist those laws that destroy liberty, and I took you to mean more than simply resisting the laws that forbid us from reporting on what the government does (although such laws are disturbing). I took to you to endorse a robust and general–if properly circumscribed so as to prevent real harm to others–disobedience to unjust laws. Is that a fair reading or am I reading too much too incorrectly into what you said?Report

    • That “the laws exist for a reason, and that reason is liberty” is an opinion. Another opinion might be that the laws exist for many reasons, and that among these reasons are also life and pursuit of happiness. Another opinion might be that liberty and pursuit of happiness, and even the life of any particular individual or group of individuals, belong or rightly or wrongly will remain fairly far down the list compared to much deeper or more important reasons for the laws. Then another opinion might be that reason as form of justification has little to do with it, or at best comes after unreasoned or habitual obedience to the law and an authority able to state and enforce the law have been established.

      You’re right though that the notion of a “right” to take the law into one’s own hands or a call for everyone to “do what’s right in his own eyes” would be, to say the least, problematic. Everyone has that ability, but anyone who expects it to be acknowledged meaningfully as a “right” may soon discover a similar “right” to be ostracized or punished… a possibility more or less definitional for civilization or human society at all.Report

  12. miguel cervantes says:

    No, that’s you’re typical bureaucracy, which follows ridiculous protocols which do nothing to identify the real enemy,Report

  13. BlaiseP says:

    Democracy is not obsolete.

    I find it horribly amusing to see the Libertarians carry on about privacy. The government is the last of any sane person’s worries. If our rights and protections in law have eroded away, we have become ever more enmeshed in a society which trades in data. If you have any idea of what was lurking in your browser cookies, you’d be horrified. Do yourself a favour, get a copy of your credit report from all three credit agencies. Get a copy of your FOIA report. A private detective is good value for money: spend a few bucks and get yourself checked out. You wouldn’t believe what’s already available online about you.

    Your information is for sale. All of it. None of it is sacrosanct. Even your insurance information moves around and don’t kid yourself about medical privacy issues, it happens.

    Our friends the Libertarians are very worried about government looking around in our information. Would that they were similarly exercised about what the private sector is doing with our data. James Jesus Angleton once said if you want to hide a leaf, there’s no better spot than the floor of a forest. Government intelligence isn’t as well-organised as you’d think. The private sector: they are organised and they’re more dangerous because there’s money to be made in it.Report

    • b-psycho in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Of course when the two join forces against you, say, the “private” handing over your info to the gov’t or the government contracting out domestic spying, you’re double screwed…

      So, really, our only hope is to resist at all costs any attempts at controlling us, regardless of who wishes to do the controlling, whether they have the info or not. Eternal vigilance and all that.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to b-psycho says:

        The stupidest approach is to try to resist control. That attracts attention.

        Just don’t be controlled. The first step is to understand what is known about you. Build a dossier on yourself. Understand what’s going through your browser. I’d strongly recommend going to a port of Linux with SELinux security.

        Don’t succumb to paranoia. Understanding what pops up on the radar is the first and most important step to avoiding generating more of same.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

      You expect an FOIA report is going to contain everything the government knows about you, and you call us naiive?Report

  14. CK MacLeod says:

    OT incidentally, I’ve noticed numerous glitches that originally appeared to be caching irregularities since the blog “upgrade,” possibly connected with the switch to or however that was handled… now I’ve heard from someone about comments getting trapped in moderation… anyone with access to the back-end or access to someone with access might want to consider checking the comment moderation queue or possibly comment settings.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      What I’ve experience–very frequently–is recent comments showing up under gifts of gab, but when I click on them they don’t go anywhere, and if I go to that page they don’t show up there until I do a refresh.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Me too. I have worked around this by turning off page caching in Chrome (-disk-cache-size=1), but the performance degradation is annoying too , and I wouldn’t do that on a phone or a slow connection.Report

      • Yes, that one fails very frequently (possibly always on already-visited threads, haven’t performed “scientific” check). Similarly, click on link in comment e-mail – but the comment I’m planning to respond to has not yet appeared. Also, main page lags. Under some caching set-ups, registered users might be completely unaware of these annoyances, since they’d always be fed up to the moment pages.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      What is this person’s handle? (So that I can fish out the comments)

      I’ve had the same problem mentioned here. Hitting F5 usually takes care of it.Report

  15. Sam Wilkinson says:

    I think the point I wanted to make was this: if Americans cared about these issues to the degree that Jason does, they’d vote that way. That they don’t (even if they say that they really genuinely, seriously, absolutely, for realsies care) doesn’t indicate that democracy is obsolete. To put that in another, blunter fashion: if Americans wanted to, they could vote out incumbents everywhere. They do so rarely enough that it happening is considered news. That’s acquiescence, not obsolescence.Report

    • b-psycho in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      Y’know, it’d be nice to not give a damn if conditions and power were such that the effect was minimal. Instead, ever increasing power over us coincides with not caring.

      I want to face-palm whenever I consider that. I want to say to people, “no, no, noooo! When the political class has this kind of power you need to be very very concerned, and viciously so! You should be striking like cobras at their movements!”Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      There is a difference between “democracy” and “liberal democracy”.

      To conflate the two is to make a mistake.Report

      • Sam in reply to Jaybird says:

        How often do you think the term “liberal democracy” has actually defined life in America?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

          A non-zero amount. It tended to do better when it saw the former as the aspiration rather than the latter as justification.Report

          • Sam in reply to Jaybird says:

            This might be an interesting conversation to have.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to Jaybird says:


            I don’t understand, Jaybird. What is the antecedent for “latter” in that statement?

            “Liberal democracy” is a type of regime. The nature of the regime will greatly influence “life” in a given society, but all of the terms are subject to revision. More to the point, from a concrete historical view, it is America, or life in America, that has largely given definition to liberal democracy. In the meantime, America through its global influence has insisted on and largely established key liberal democratic precepts as the basis of political legitimacy. That they may not be sufficient, especially for America itself, or may even be very highly problematic, is a different problem.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              “Liberal” and “Democracy”

              I’m saying that when the US saw the Liberal as the thing worth shooting for, it did better than when it saw the majority consensus as justification for doing what it was inclined to do.

              In some ways, we’re a lot better than we were… for example, remember the movie The Siege? Denzel Warshington? It predicted that Muslim extremists would plan terrorist attacks on American soil. It also predicted Muslim detention camps.

              It did not, however, predict a government agency devoted to throwing away 4 ounce tubes of toothpaste and giving patdowns to old ladies.Report

  16. Alex Knapp says:

    Democracy is obsolete because it has done nothing to stop the growth of surveillance in the digital era. This assault on our liberties has proceeded faster in the last decade than ever before.

    Just so I understand this properly – the same form of government that abolished slavery, gave women equal rights, ended religious wars and liberated the market is obsolete because a pet issue of yours doesn’t get enough attention in your mind?

    As several commenters noted above, absent a viable alternative to liberal democracy, you can’t claim its obsolescence. As others noted, you need to exercise some patience. The ship of state turns slowly.

    Pardon me if I’m not convinced that the government being able to check my Facebook statuses without sufficient legal oversight is a reason to condemn and abandon the most liberating form of human governance ever devised.Report

  17. Citizen says:

    Obsolete? Surely is something to consider. As James points out, strip searches completely fail the taste test of democracy. The state has seen fit to make its own laws, no votes in the current elections can place that back in the bottle. As the ever climbing framework becomes more rigid eventually the turns become so wide it appears linear to the present observer. It is well passed the threshold of us and them. More over, the true sin, it is un-inspiring.

    The Clausewitz pins are monetary and civil. If either of these are stressed to failure or are pulled, the rigid system will fall, as it should. As citizens, should we give the civil pin a pull? Is it patriot or rebel that “cares enough”. That would depend on whether your fed up factors have met certain criterion. Criterion not covered by security strategists.Report

  18. DensityDuck says:

    You know, I agree. Clearly the very fabric of society is threatened by the voters’ laziness and moral failure. Obviously we need a strong-willed, powerful central government, devoted to preserving the republic, to prevent the pernicious influences of drug use and same-sex marriages from gaining a foothold through the inattention of the citizenry.

    Oh wait, you were talking about a different threat to the very underpinnings of our way of life. Sorry, my mistake. It’s just that the language is so similar, you know, same reasoning and same conclusion and everything.Report