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Friday, December 18, 2015

Why Libertarianism Will Crush Conservatism

[Published at on Aug. 18, 2013. This was one of my biggest viral hits, garnering almost 7,000 shares on social media when it came out.]

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus recently wrote a piece on PolicyMic attempting to draw millennials to the GOP. Priebus and the rest of the Republican leadership know the future of their party is in serious jeopardy; what they don't realize is that only libertarians can save them.

At the core of the party's problems is conservatism itself. Having never been a coherent philosophy of government, conservatism exists as an amalgam of reactionary concepts loosely tied together by historical accident. The only apparent unifying theme among ideas as unrelated as opposition to gay marriage and aggressive foreign interventionism is a fear of the unfamiliar. This reactionary nature is leading conservatives down a path to irrelevance in an age of improved communication, access to information, and cultural understanding.

Murray Rothbard pointed out that conservatism, lacking a coherent ideology, offers only a practical defense of the existing status quo, reacting to progressivism in defense of "tradition." But when progressive reforms endure and become part of that tradition, conservatives lose their intellectual ammunition and end up accepting the change, for better or worse.

Through the decades, conservatives have been overwhelmingly impotent at preserving their ever-shifting vision of tradition. They have over the last century lost their battles against Wilsonian progressivism, the New Deal, the Great Society, racial integration, abortion, drug abuse, and secularization, and they are now losing their fights against gay rights and so-called illegal immigration. The fact that they have lost so reliably, despite their persistent numerical superiority, is a testament to the holes in their philosophy. Along the way, they've adopted virtually every bureaucratic idea pioneered by progressives, increasing government spending while wasting energy and billions of dollars fighting losing cultural battles.

The diminishing appeal of conservatism for younger, more cosmopolitan millennials as well as exploding immigrant populations who view it as bigoted or old-fashioned translates to serious demographic problems for Republicans. If current trends continue, winning the White House will become a distant memory for the GOP. Absent a commitment to change (something they don't generally excel at), the party may cease to be competitive at the national level.

Libertarianism can perhaps be thought of as a natural response to this contradiction. Libertarians are skeptical of power in an age of skepticism, embrace science in an era of rapid scientific improvement, reject banal expressions of nationalism in an increasingly-globalized world, and remain dedicated to individualism, not for tradition's sake, but to advance mankind's virtually limitless potential.

The growth of libertarianism in the GOP is very much the result of the millennial generation's coming of age. Millennials seem to have a different view of what conservatism is than their parents and grandparents. It's well known that they are much more socially liberal than previous generations. They are, however, still split on the role of government, with millennials today slightly more conservative than Generation X was at the same age.

Libertarianism is the true yin to progressivism's yang: a platform consistently emphasizing individual rights and self-determination can more effectively combat the global march toward collectivism and consolidation without conservatism's archaic cultural baggage.

The differences between libertarianism and progressivism are scientific, rather than sentimental, so the battle can be fought on scientific grounds consistent with the values of today's youth. Having a firm philosophical foundation, libertarian congressmen such as Justin Amash and Tom Massie have demonstrated an immunity to the customary weaknesses that have drawn the GOP away from its small-government ideals.

Conservatives don't have much to lose by embracing libertarianism. Whether they like it or not, their reactionary philosophy has led them to defeat in both the culture wars and the quest for limited government. Sometimes, change is good.

The Natural Right of Cryptographic Governance

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society, Dec. 10, 2015]

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and around the U.S., sentiment among the governing class is turning powerfully against encryption.

Reuters reports an impending “crackdown” on Bitcoin in the EU. Other reports suggest France could inhibit Tor and free wi-fi at will. U.S. officials have taken the opportunity to go on the offensive against any form of encryption, with Senator Dianne Feinstein arguing encryption “ought to be able to be pierced.”

At the heart of the state’s fears is the loss of control it faces. In encryption, human beings have a tool to ensure security and privacy that is resistant to the escalation of force. Even after governments have taken out a warrant against someone, that person still has the ability to keep his information secret, subject to negotiation between himself and the state.

But officials correctly point out that child pornographers, drug dealers and terrorists can use encryption as a tool to keep vital information away from law enforcement. Its reliability and agnosticism, they claim, makes encryption a threat to public safety.

That creates a moral and philosophical dilemma for users and advocates of cryptographic technologies. We have an incredible tool at our disposal, but with the equal potential for legitimate use and abuse. Do we have the right to encrypt information regardless of government interests?

To answer this question, common law and statutory law are insufficient. With the improvements that blockchain technology could bring to the human condition, this is a deeper question with significant implications. The proper use of a disruptive technology that transcends borders should be considered outside of the normal philosophical channels when its existence is an affront to long-established political authority. Natural law and the fundamentals of the “social contract” provide better answers and a clearer direction.

The Surveillance State is Absolute

Rapid changes in information technology over the last two decades have created a banquet of easily acquired information about virtually everyone in the world. The world’s reliance on the internet has made normally private information incredibly easy to acquire. It has also made the existing social contract argument for government authority obsolete.

By the old nation-state system, a nation makes laws and protects rights within a certain geographical boundary. Those outside the boundary are neither subject to its jurisdiction, nor its protections.
But most international threats are now coming from non-state actors. The world has long since stabilized at the state level, but terrorist networks are waging peer-to-peer warfare, circumventing states in most cases by taking their political grievances directly to their citizens.

To combat this “denationalized” threat, states have exploited loopholes between these various “social contracts” that exist between states and their citizens. States may make some effort to respect the legal rights of their own citizens within their own borders; but rights do not tend to carry over to citizens of other countries. The Five Eyes Alliance is one glaring example, where states are widely believed to spy on each other’s citizens and share information so that each may circumvent their own domestic spying restrictions.

This trend is compounded by a lack of accountability. Control is difficult to enforce legislatively with widespread public apathy, and finding standing in court can be likewise impossible without information from behind the veil. The global surveillance state is expanding its reach beyond any practical restraint by legislatures, evolving into a highly fluid, rapidly adaptable information siphon. In that sense, it is becoming as “denationalized” as the threat it is trying to fight. As one NSA official succinctly put it: “It’s becoming a cliché that a permanent state of change is the new standard. It is the world we live in — navigating through continuous whitewater … lucky for us.”

Meanwhile the security state has used its powers to commit financial espionage, intimidate journalists and whistleblowers, and circumvent restrictions on information gathering for crimes unrelated to terrorism. According to cybersecurity expert Chris Soghoian, they continue to “prioritize their own foreign intelligence goals over the security of the Internet”, deliberately inserting exploits into vital security systems.

In light of this conflict of interests between the surveillance state and the citizen, the onus falls on the latter to protect his own privacy.

To break this down into a simple epistemology:

Political violence (war) is being denationalized.

The means of fighting political violence are being denationalized.

Since individual rights are at risk in war, the defense of rights should also be denationalized wherever possible.

States will not protect the privacy of foreign nationals because it would defeat the purpose of their job. They will continue to spy domestically because it’s easy to get away with. There aren’t enough Edward Snowdens out there to stop them. Their global reach leaves virtually no person’s privacy untouched. But this new paradigm isn’t just a reason to protect one’s own privacy. It invalidates the social contract and renders the prohibition of networked cryptographic alternatives morally impermissible.

The “Social Contract” Reconsidered

Since the decline of the “divine right of kings” doctrine, social contract theory has dominated the reasoning behind the coercion of the state. Its logic (like that of the “divine right” theory) has always been circular, but amenable to most people as a post-hoc rationale for their general approval of the role of the state in human affairs. For that reason, a careful reevaluation of the theory is necessary.

John Locke claimed in his Second Treatise on Government (1689) that the contract was the price of civilization: prehistoric humans, possessing natural rights of life, liberty and property sacrificed those rights to the state in order to create early civilization, reaping in turn the stability, security and prosperity that large societies make possible. Natural rights can then only be taken away legitimately by the state upon conviction of a crime through a rigorous process of law. As long as the state abides by the rules set by the contract and receives the continued support of the governed, so the argument goes, individuals have no right to subvert it to pursue their own interests.

But the growth of global information systems has created some new problems for the social contract.
The first problem is the collapse of reciprocity: According to Locke, the social contract necessitates the state and the citizen exercise mutual obligation toward each other, the state to protect rights, and the citizen to maintain the legitimacy of the state through voting, paying taxes and abiding by its rules. But with a networked surveillance apparatus not controlled by any single nation state acting in secret, the ballot box is unlikely to be of much help. This “deep state” exists outside of the contract: it is its own entity and routinely violates privacy rights as a matter of course.

The second, and more important issue is one of consent. If individuals don’t want any part of this, do they have any recourse or are they bound to the terms of the contract? Locke acknowledged that individuals cannot be perpetually bound to any government, “every man being… naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any earthly power but only his own consent.” Consent, he argued, could be tacit, but it was nonetheless vital. Non-consent could be expressed by abandoning the system and creating a new one. “Since the government has a direct jurisdiction only over the land”, Locke claimed, individuals are free to “begin a new one, in vacuis locis, in any part of the world, they can find free and unpossessed.”

There were also little “loopholes” in the contract created by the difficulty in determining consent. Locke noted that “EVERY MAN HATH A RIGHT TO… BE EXECUTIONER OF THE LAW OF NATURE” (caps all his) because “if by the law of nature every man hath not a power to punish offences against it … I see not how the magistrates of any community can punish an alien of another country; since, in reference to him, they can have no more power than what every man naturally may have over another.”

This is a key point. The Father of Classical Liberalism claimed that because social contracts did not reciprocate across national boundaries, any individual could morally punish a transgression against his own rights by a foreigner. This could of course easily translate to the peaceful defense of one’s privacy against some foreign government’s spying capabilities. Locke’s acknowledgement shows the weakness of the social contract argument when applied across national borders. It also shows the intellectual bind Locke found himself in in order to affirm that the contract requires consent to be valid.

Privacy and the Open Source Revolution

As I have argued previously, privacy should be considered a natural right if it can be considered a right at all. Individuals retain the right to use air-tight encryption as a defensive tool to protect their privacy against the failure of their legal and political systems. But if individuals are retaining their “state of nature” right to defend themselves against state dysfunction, they must create a new kind of “state” with multiple functions in order to defend those capabilities.

For example, the right to exchange value must necessarily accompany the right to procure a resource, or opponents could render that right functionally irrelevant. Open source encryption software is free and easy to come by for now. That could change if states make it illegal, requiring a risk premium for developers and high costs for consumers.

To counter this possibility and deter prohibition, a robust cryptocurrency trade would be necessary to keep people free in the event the state shut down people’s bank accounts or credit cards, as was the case when the U.S. government pressured credit companies to shut down Wikileaks’ finances. This means that denationalized cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Dash are an integral tool to preserve individual rights.

As former CIA officer and open-source advocate Robert David Steele noted, to function properly, open source systems must develop in tandem. “The open source ecology is made up of a wide range of opens — open farm technology, open source software, open hardware, open networks, open money, open small business technology, open patents – to name just a few. The key point is that they must all develop together, otherwise the existing system will isolate them into ineffectiveness.”

Cryptocurrency transactions, run through a trustless mixing system are virtually untraceable. We’re not just talking about private emails anymore, but the right to create a new, transparent, resilient framework of alternative institutions as the old ones succumb to their own opacity.

But cryptography may not just tear down the social contract in the negative sense — it could also rebuild it in a way that better defends individual rights.

The Social Contract and Land Rights

The natural rights were enumerated by Locke as life (the right to defend one’s person against physical threats), liberty (the right to act freely without interference from arbitrary authority) and estate (the right to retain property mixed with one’s labor). Property in particular is one space that is being redefined by technology, leaving open the possibility that the nation-state could be disintermediated from its traditional role of definer and defender of property rights.

Locke argued that in prehistory, the very first “social contracts” were formed when individuals ceded their land to governments in exchange for protection. All subsequent owners of that property, he claimed, enjoyed the protection of the state, and were thus bound to perpetuate its authority. The logic is circular, to put it mildly, but worth noting: he makes it clear that the Social Contract is justified because there was no practical alternative to define and protect land rights.

Governments were defined by the land they protected. Within their borders was a single “final arbiter” with a monopoly on violence to keep order. Many would argue this model provided stability and security for populations around the world and enabled the growth of economies of scale for centuries.

But if property rights can be established and defended without the state, dependence on government institutions could be broken. A major pillar of the old social contract could be replaced.

Securing property rights is a pillar of the new cryptographic governance. Projects like Factom are attempting to show the blockchain can be a substitute for government agencies in the developing world, functioning as the final word on property ownership without risk of corruption or alteration.
Similarly, other projects are being developed for reputation verification, and still more are revolutionizing how we think of notary and legal systems. Connectivity experiments like Bitnation are seeking to show these ideas can be converged and exercised together, functioning as a sort of alternative governance system enforced through cryptographic protocols and consensus.

With non-state record keeping a reality, enforcement mechanisms can be created. But their quality won’t be determined by their geographic origin. They could be competitive, transparent, overlapping systems available globally.

These technologies are still in their infancy. But theoretically, the capabilities are there. As the use of the blockchain and other cryptographic systems grows, they become more secure and reliable. Due to the malleability of the technology, they could also evolve greater and more useful capabilities over time.

What Does This All Mean?

As the NSA likes to point out, we live in a rapidly changing world. The legacy social contract is inadequate to protect individuals in an increasingly fluid global information system. The rapid development of technological capabilities that few in any legislature in the world understand are leaving the sluggish legislative process in the dust. Individuals cannot morally be compelled to sacrifice their own right of secure communication of ideas or private exchange of value without submission to a global security state they cannot control. The globalization of information necessitates individuals learn to employ open source, cryptographic systems to define their own social contracts in peaceful terms.

Since private, secure monetary transactions cannot be taxed except with the consent of the participants, this denationalization could expand the shadow economy over time. Advocates of cryptography can probably expect a backlash, including bans and even jail time in some parts of the world.

Ultimately, this experiment will likely prove that consent in democratic societies has always been manufactured. Locke twisted himself into knots trying to shoehorn the notion of consent into his Social Contract, an exercise largely abandoned by John Rawls and other modern theorists. But the new cryptographic governance introduces the possibility of real consent in governance for the first time. This could ultimately exonerate John Locke’s contributions to political thought.

There is a palpable inevitability to all this. Even major publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic have hypothesized the obsolescence of the nation state. The United States National Intelligence Council envisioned that in just 15 years a “nonstate world” could exist in which “governments had given up on real reforms and had subcontracted many responsibilities to outside parties, which then set up enclaves operating under their own laws.” Nonstate systems will likely develop increasing leverage to compete with legacy nation states. The New York Times acknowledged the scenario describes “much of how global society already operates.”

The real question is how difficult this transition will be. Most states around the world abhor any loss of authority and are likely to prohibit any capability they consider a threat. Bitcoin and other cryptographic technologies have been in their sights. In doing so, they drop any pretense of moral authority and act merely as animals in Locke’s “state of nature,” fighting more for self-preservation that the protection of natural rights. For the first time in history, a real social contract is a possibility within reach. We’d do well not to squander it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Charles Holloway's Open Source Government white paper

The internet says Holloway coined the term "Open Source Governance" and he certainly has a command of the topic. He presents a nice stroll through history explaining the rise of governments and financial systems in terms even a third grader can understand, although he doesn't really mention the blockchain tech until around page 120.

He does introduce several shaky assumptions that appear to be predicated on his own original formulations, and interestingly (but questionably) claims freedom is quantifiable. In the second half of the paper he gets into the peer-to-peer and open source technologies and does a good job of explaining in layman's terms why this is important. 

Noteworthy: He claims "money and insurance are the two most fundamental technologies in society because society is a gathering of individuals to exchange property [he defines property as every sort of action or idea, not just physical things]." Cryptographic governance can replace hierarchical government because all a government really does is insure and protect property (life and liberty being forms of property, since you own yourself and your actions according to his formulation).  

I think this would be more widely read if he distilled it down to a much shorter piece, or even a series of op-eds. He also seems over-reliant on himself as an authority and there are few citations or quotations throughout, which will likely mean this isn't taken seriously. Nonetheless, it's a large and noble effort for a worthy cause that should be at least skimmed by anyone who wants a primer on the topic of open-source governance.

You can download it from his site or read it here:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Writing Plan for 2016

So since I have some regular daily traffic coming through here, I thought I'd give readers some overview about why I write, what I've published and what's coming in the next year.

In a nutshell, I'm writing about the nexus between individual rights and technological advancement from a libertarian anarchist perspective. I think the course of human progress is synonymous with the devolution of power from the centralized to the decentralized. Peer to peer arrangements and open source protocols are the next step in this process as governments around the world find consensus and control increasingly elusive.

The blockchain is one of the most fascinating ideas in this space and the potential to use it to replace government services and create alternative institutions will likely be the most important work of the 21st century. So I like to explore this idea in philosophical and strategic terms.

I'm close to wrapping up my 2015 series on natural law and tech, which is as follows:

1. The Natural Right of Cyber Dissent (how libertarian ideas are inspiring civil disobedience and a technological resistance to opaque authority)

2. The Natural Right of Encryption (natural law and the right to secure communication)

3. The Natural Right of Cryptographic Governance (natural law, social contract theory and the blockchain)

4. The Natural Right of Cryptographic Exchange (forthcoming)

Any one of these topics is HUGE and could merit an entire book. I mostly wanted to get these ideas out there for now in the barest possible form.

I haven't found too many decent treatments of these topics and I think they are extremely important. Novel technologies cause disruption, which existing institutions aren't fond of and will try to stop. This disruption will require novel arguments and an integration into existing mainstream philosophies (i.e. the social contact), rather than just the imposition of strictly libertarian ideas (i.e. the NAP) as they become more influential.

In 2016, I'll probably focus more on shorter 600-800 word pieces using arguments from these longer ones. I do have a piece about the Sinn Fein that will go up on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in April. I also plan on doing some more detailed work on electronic civil disobedience. But more op-ed type works are planned, since those get read a lot more.

Thanks for reading. Feedback always welcome.

Gandhi the Anarchist

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society, Oct. 29, 2015]

A complex man with a controversial legacy, Mohandas Gandhi remains one of the pioneers of civil disobedience as a political weapon and a giant in 20th century anti-colonialism. An individualist anarchist who motivated millions to fight to liberate themselves from British rule, his success showed a potentially powerful application of libertarian ideas during a major political crisis and the ability of those values to inspire positive, peaceful outcomes.

Gandhi’s principles of radical liberation existed within a moral framework that abhorred violence but empowered ordinary people, intellectually and spiritually, to prevail against oppressors and shatter a miserable status quo. According to the research of Erica Chenoweth, Gandhi’s template of non-violent resistance has been immensely successful for later generations around the world in creating lasting improvements in civil rights.

Modern activists and political thinkers shouldn’t discount the essential libertarian qualities of Gandhi’s philosophy, as they were among its most powerful and effective attributes. A commitment to natural law, self-determination, individualism and an abhorrence of government were core to his thinking and largely responsible for his success as an activist.

Gandhi’s Philosophy

Satyagraha, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, which translates to “truth force” or “love force” carries with it some distinctly libertarian ideas. It incorporates elements of both the “knowledge problem” (applied in a moral sense) and the non-aggression axiom, although taken a step further into moral obligation to others — which is more than libertarianism demands. According to Gandhi:

In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.

Gandhi noted the purpose of Satyagraha was to “convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.” Success is thus defined as cooperation towards a just end, rather than a political “win.” He also spoke of means and ends as inseparable, rejecting the use of violence or the “victory, by any means necessary,” mentality of some who have practiced passive resistance in the West. Gandhi knew using violent means would embed injustice in whatever ends are attained, exacerbating the cycle of violence that plagues so many societies. In this way, the practitioner’s authority is rooted in moral force instead of violence, and has the potential to reduce antagonisms within a society without harming the antagonists.

Gandhi developed a set of very particular rules and mores for Satyagrahis to follow, including mandatory spinning, chastity and abstinence from alcohol. With these we are unconcerned, since different disobedience movements employed different particulars in their belief systems. What is interesting and relevant is the commonality among them, and the parallels to libertarian beliefs: The notion of the moral abhorrence of coercion, and the acknowledgement of coercion’s role in perpetuating injustice; the belief in natural rights that oblige disobedience to unjust laws; finally, and most pertinently, the almost mystical ability of this approach to inspire entire populations to mass action is an historical fact.

Foundations of Indian Liberty: Satyagraha in Action

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919 (also known as the Amritsar massacre) has been characterized as the turning point in the history of British India, the event that lost Britain her ‘jewel in the crown’ and eventually her empire. The event, condemned by Winston Churchill, nevertheless produced an escalation of tension and insults against Indian subjects and shattered the notion that Indians were British subjects with the same rights as the British themselves, much in the way the Easter Rising created that same clarity for the Irish.

The Tribune of India described the massacre as a

[M]ilestone in the struggle for freedom which brought Mahatma Gandhi on the scene in his capacity as a leader of the masses whose presence inspired millions of people for three decades.
In the annals of our freedom struggle the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occupies an unforgettable place. Overnight, men and women resolved to defy the British might. For Gandhiji, the incident was a turning point. He became a ‘rebel’ and realised the futility of achieving freedom through British cooperation. The seeds of his ‘do or die’ movement were thus sown then and there.

Noted the Tribune:

History bears ample testimony to the fact that the ill-conceived and unwarranted 1919 military operation proved to be a catalyst for bringing the doom of the British Raj as it created an unbridgeable gulf between the British Government and the Indian people, leaving the British with no other option but to transfer power to the Indians.

Gandhi capitalized on the anger against British rule with the first concerted civil disobedience campaigns, the non-cooperation movement that began in the 1920’s. The Salt March of 1930 was among his most famous successes. The march began with a mere 78 people, swelling to throngs of 30,000-50,000 as they marched through four provinces to protest the salt tax. Gandhi went to sea to make illegal salt, a highly symbolic and dangerous act that challenged British authority. The result was widespread support and media attention, and the building of a broad-based movement. That movement contributed to Indian independence from the British in 1947.

Gandhi’s Libertarian Ideology

Though Gandhi the monolithic figure is widely revered, his actual political philosophy is seldom discussed, perhaps because he was an anarchist who believed in a cooperative agrarian economic model that prevented stratification of classes and political power.

It is well known that Gandhi was motivated by a desire to see India gain independence from the British Empire. Beyond that, his experience with governments seemed to have led him to a deep abhorrence of the institution, and an embracing of individualism, self-reliance and spontaneous order, part of a moral system he called the Swaraj, which translates literally to “self-rule.”

According to

The call for Swaraj represents a genuine attempt to regain control of the ‘self’ — our self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-realization — from institutions of dehumanization. As Gandhi states, “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.” The real goal of the freedom struggle was not only to secure political azadi (independence) from Britain, but rather to gain true Swaraj (liberation and self-rule).

Gandhi scorned the representative democracy due to its conflict with his deeply held reverence for the rights of the individual, noting “Swaraj will be an absurdity if individuals have to surrender their judgment to a majority.”

Gandhi recognized inequalities would persist. He was, however, deeply skeptical of government as a tool of social improvement:

I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress. We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor.
It is my firm conviction that if the State suppressed capitalism by violence, it will be caught in the coils of violence itself, and will fail to develop non-violence at any time. The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.

Gandhi was a believer in spontaneous order as well: “We find the general work of mankind is being carried on from day to day be the mass of people acting as if by instinct.”

Influenced by Western traditions in part due to the time he spent in Britain in his youth, Gandhi was also a believer in individualism, and the use of reason to underwrite a person’s morality. According to Professor T.N. Madan, Honorary Professor of Sociology at New Delhi University:

One of Gandhi’s outstanding contributions to social and political thought, I suggest, was the conception of altruistic individualism within a cultural setting that was generally considered group-centred … In regarding reason and moral sense as the primary sources of good conduct, Gandhi asserted the right of the individual to arrive at judgments and, if necessary, to defend them against collective opinion, whether traditional or contemporary. His excoriation of the practice of untouchability was not merely an assertion of his own individual right to make moral judgments — indeed he considered this an obligation  but more importantly the assertion of the moral worth of every single human being, irrespective of his or her ascribed social status. Such moral worth is the basic premise of good society; whether it is enhanced or eroded depends on the dialectic of social pressures and individual agency.

Gandhi not only believed in asserting individual rights against the coercion of the state, he evidently believed market processes and private property would best meet man’s needs and scorned the use of parliamentary systems in attempting to achieve social ends. He was hostile to centralized authority of any kind and believed strongly in individualism and self-rule. “If we become free,” he said, “India becomes free and in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.”

It is worthwhile to note the relevance of natural law in radical liberation. Like with most governments, the British claim that their colonies enjoyed rights as British subjects was farcical. Whenever conflict arose, those rights seemed to dissolve quickly into coercion and bloodshed as the British fought to maintain unquestioned supremacy. Gandhi, like the Sinn Fein and the American founders before him, used the notion of a higher “natural” law and an emphasis on self-rule to motivate the oppressed to seize their own freedom.

Gandhi angered some by extending his notion of power and Swaraj to the history of colonization. While acknowledging the British Empire’s cynical intentions in India, he places the responsibility for the disaster of colonization on the Indian people. “It is truer to say that we gave India to the English than that India was lost … to blame them for this is to perpetuate their power.” Because power resides in the people and they can only lose it by relinquishing it (often through coercion by others), petitions to the government get a new meaning with Gandhi. “A petition of an equal is a sign of courtesy; a petition from a slave is a symbol of his slavery.”

Here again is a similarity with Sinn Fein’s embrace of natural rights — rights don’t come from government, but from within. Therefore, rights continue to exist when they cannot be openly expressed due to coercion. This is a crucial intersection for libertarians. Radical ideologies succeed in part by inculcating oppressed and apathetic populations with a sense of self-worth. The concept of natural rights was important during the colonial period, when colonized people believed rights were rare morsels tossed to them on the whim of their superiors. Gandhi’s philosophy sought to rob Britain of their power to determine the law as a sort of demystification of white rule.

Anarchic India of course, was not to be. Gandhi, not being able to realize his “oceanic villages” system with Indian liberation in 1947, settled on minarchism:

Gandhi recognized that there would be a national government, and his anarchic, oceanic circle would not yet be possible. Nevertheless, he used the terms of nationalism to move towards the ideal of Anarchy. He advocated for a minimal level of State organization to fund some education programs and to promote his economic concept of trusteeship. Hence, Gandhi was a compromising Anarchist.

Gandhi had to compromise his principles in some cases. But of greater import is the fact that his individualist principles caught fire and exploded in popularity in the face of severe oppression. Indian independence was a complicated endeavor, but in the end, Gandhi proved to be on the right side of history. The radical anarchist who had been repeatedly imprisoned, classified as a terrorist by the British parliament and derided as a threat to law and order, was described by former U.S. Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall as “a spokesman for the conscience of all mankind.” With the positive impact non-violent resistance movements have had in the last seven decades, he might also be considered a true political visionary.

Why Libertarians are Failing at Politics

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society Oct. 6, 2015]

Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Center dropped a truth bomb on the beltway in his recent piece for Fox News about the decline of Rand Paul. Taylor notes that the alleged growth of the libertarian movement in the wake of the Ron Paul campaign was largely illusory. The alienated populists and conspiracy theorists that filled out Paul’s numbers in 2012 easily made the transition to the very un-libertarian Donald Trump in 2015, leaving Rand out in the cold.

The lack of a broad-based movement, despite a number of high profile campaigns and events, is a bitter pill for libertarians who believe in electoral politics. Having libertarians in office may help raise the profile of issues like overcriminalization, tech freedom, and the insanity of the drug war. But those who await a libertarian takeover of the GOP misunderstand the fundamentally radical nature of libertarian ideas and how deeply that radicalism conflicts with the perceptions most Americans have about the role of government.

Trump supporters are a grim reminder that millions of voters view the government as a hammer that can be wielded to smash opposing values or groups and force their beliefs on others. Educating the electorate about libertarian ideas misses the fact that they have no real incentive to learn; most don’t care about the relationship between man and state and likely never will, as long as the state continues to provide the stability they have come to expect. Ron Paul’s success in 2008 and 2012 can largely be credited to the mortgage crisis; once the sting faded, so did support for his radical ideas.

There’s a good reason libertarians remain at the ideological fringe: “Libertarian politics” is a contradiction in terms. Libertarianism is not a third party, like the Know-Nothings or the Whigs or a prescription of policy tweaks to make the government more efficient. It is a distinct value system that abhors political power itself, even if some of its adherents consider power a necessary evil.

Libertarians may disagree whether the state should be abolished or minimized, but the difference matters little to the average American: Both seem frighteningly outside his own experience. Even the most moderate libertarians will wax poetic about ending intellectual property or privatizing the welfare system. Moreover, virtually all voters are deeply invested in government services they have come to depend on, and libertarians have been unable to present hypothesized private-sector alternatives while the state forces dependence upon itself. Conceptually, libertarians are on a page that most people find bizarre.

Libertarianism is best understood as the latest in a long line of radical liberation ideologies, rooted in the principles of natural law and individualism, that have provided the intellectual basis for rebellion since the American Revolution. It is a reaction to the perpetual expansion of government power in the U.S. and its frequent abuses. But radicalism, by definition, is immoderate and cannot compromise its way to reforms. Rather than moving toward the “Overton window” of public opinion by moderating controversial views (as Rand Paul attempted), radicals must pull public opinion towards their own viewpoints. Rand’s straying from libertarian principles means that he likely has little unique appeal even for the tiny libertarian electorate his father created. David Boaz’s research shows that 70% of libertarian-leaning voters went with Mitt Romney over Gary Johnson in 2012, so we know even libertarians who believe in politics are willing to blunt their own sword.

If libertarianism is denied its radical characteristics, it degrades into a flimsy millennial conservatism: Fiscally conservative, socially liberal and completely powerless, a mashup of existing ideas better espoused by other parties and ideologies. Without unyielding commitment to truly radical ideas, libertarians are drowned out by louder voices catering to the will of angry, pitchfork-bearing constituents. They add little of value, and are likely to end up little more than a footnote in the history of conservatism.

To fail to understand this is to remain resigned to swim against the tide of American politics. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out: “Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide.”

Instead, libertarians might be more useful as single-issue activists and innovators. While U.S. politicians fail to shrink government, individualists like Erik Voorhees, Cody Wilson, Peter Thiel and the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto are using technology to forge a new path. Time will tell exactly where that leads. But Rand’s decline underlines the fact that libertarian ethics predicate disruption and revolution, not moderation and compromise. As such, it is unlikely to ever get big votes in American politics.

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

How the State is Breaking the Social Contract

This is a brief epistemology arguing the U.S. government is in violation of the Lockean "social contract" and is likely to remain in a state of violation. I am not arguing for the overthrow of the government, but for individuals to seek tools to protect their own privacy. If this argument holds, it would also mean that it is immoral for governments to interfere with the self-defense of privacy online (via encryption, etc.)

Claim: The U.S Government no longer respects the right to privacy and is thus in violation of the social contract.

1. Privacy is a Natural Right.
  • State control of information much easier and less invasive today. Contextual right based on expectation of privacy (see Katz v. United States, 1967) is unenforceable, since the “expectation of privacy” has been eroded away by nearly limitless spying capabilities (see Xkeyscore).
  • If privacy is to be considered a right at all, it must be defended as a natural right, since it is impossible to defend oneself against arbitrary power if the state can intercept your most sensitive communications at will. 

2. The U.S. Government is strongly incentivized to abuse individual privacy.
  • Voters don't care about privacy, and generally don't understand complex issues involved.
  • Congress faces little pressure from an ignorant public so poor oversight of executive power will likely remain routine.
  • Courts have little choice but to rule “no standing” on secret authority, so justice is unlikely through normal channels.

3. The U.S. Government is centralizing authority within the executive.
  • Bush and the Unitary Executive: The pressures of the War on Terror force the centralization of power in a "strong man" executive.
  • Abuse of PATRIOT Act powers were rampant within the NSA, but unknown publicly until Snowden's whistleblowing. 
  • The centralizing of executive power means that legislative authority is playing a diminishing role in governance, and is less to reign in threats to privacy rights.

4. The diminution of technical barriers to absolute power is detrimental to privacy.
  • Xkeyscore: NSA can query massive database and look at content of messages without warrants.
  • The Five Eyes Alliance proves that states get around legal and technical barriers to domestic spying by sharing information among each other. 
  • Since these capabilities grew in secret until a very risky lawbreaking occurred (the Snowden leaks), and such monumental leaks are very rare, it is reasonable to assume the legal barriers to government spying are likely to remain behind technical capabilities.

5. Since its abuses of privacy are rampant and likely to remain unchecked by other branches, the Executive is in violation of the social contract.
  •  This means that individuals must seek alternatives to enforce their own privacy rights, since government interests are opposed.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Government Spies See Opportunity in Terrorist Attack

As if they weren’t Machiavellian enough, spy agencies are evidently waiting for the next terrorist attack to change public opinion on the need for encryption backdoors, reports The Washington Post.

The intelligence community’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, lamented in a leaked email that “the legislative environment is very hostile today … [but] it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.” According to the Post, Litt suggested there may be value in “keeping our options open for such a situation.”

A second senior intelligence official added: “People are still not persuaded this is a problem. People think we have not made the case. We do not have the perfect example where you have the dead child or a terrorist act to point to, and that’s what people seem to claim you have to have.”

The intelligence community has been frustrated by resistance to its attempts to weaken encryption through legislation. Congress does not have any legislation on deck that would require companies to hack their own customers if the government can produce a warrant. A “dead child” would undoubtedly help their cause with the public. But their “we need a terrorist attack to prove that people should be worried about terrorist attacks” theory is troubling, to put it mildly.

The leaked email obtained by the Post is another disturbing glimpse into the mindset of intelligence officials. The pursuit of spying capabilities is given paramount importance, despite their widely acknowledged ineffectiveness in fighting terrorism and the damage they do to the security of the internet.

I recently argued the U.S. government’s hunger for information could remain largely unrestrained by traditional constitutional protections due to ongoing information warfare with authoritarian states. While he may not have discussed the merits of warrants, Litt made it known internally that he views domestic spying as a competition the U.S. has with foreign adversaries: “Does anyone seriously believe that if the U.S. says we won’t seek access, the Chinese and Russians will say, ‘OK, you are right. We’ll give up?’ I don’t think so,” he snorted in the leaked email.

The tendency of public officials to exploit tragedy for political gain is of course not new. It is particularly troubling when it is utilized purely for the expansion of power by the security apparatus and echoes the period after the September 11 terrorist attacks when the security establishment had the USA PATRIOT Act ready to roll out, stocked full of new powers that had been cut from Clinton’s 1996 counter-terrorism legislation to make it acceptable to Congress.

The leak underscores the problems associated with secret laws, secret courts, secret spying programs and the failure of the democratic process to secure privacy rights. The competitive nature of domestic spying programs could compel states to further erode privacy rights within their own borders in the pursuit of “national security.” What sort of security that leaves us with remains to be seen.

[Published at C4SS Sep. 18, 2015]

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Natural Right of Flawless Encryption

Amid claims by U.S. officials that a “golden key” to all forms of encryption software is necessary to fight terrorism, a UN Report released in May asserts that securely encrypted communications among private citizens aren’t just permissible, but a human right. The report’s author, UC Irvine professor David Kaye, notes the problem of creating a weakness in all encryption systems for the U.S. government due to the high probability that any “golden key” access will likely end up in the hands of foreign governments and hackers, making the encryption useless.

Kaye’s pragmatic argument is valid, and popular among cryptographers and privacy advocates. But this argument doesn’t go far enough. Denying governments the right to crack encryption isn’t just defensible on pragmatic grounds. Encryption is a vital tool to prevent abuses of power since even the most benevolent governments have proven untrustworthy and unlikely to ensure the protection of rights when their interests fail to align with those of the governed.

State actors tend to subordinate the right of privacy to the expansion of their own information gathering. Regardless of states’ procedures designed to ensure individual rights are protected, the unchecked expansion of invasive capabilities that they naturally pursue indicate that there may be fundamental flaws in the democratic model. Air-tight encryption may be the only reliable antidote.

Privacy is a Natural Right

As libertarian scholar Michael Rozeff notes:

The origin of privacy is social necessity. Social cooperation and interaction, freely given, depend on it. Speech depends on it. Not being fearful depends on it. Operating as an autonomous person depends on it. No one can operate at all well without feeling that he can take a walk or a drive or say something in privacy, unmonitored by a State agency. To be monitored in all forms of private activities is a form of imprisonment! One may roam, but one is constantly under guard and subject to State intrusions.

As Rozeff indicates, a society that lacks the ability to communicate privately does not have free-thinking, autonomous individuals. It is populated by something more akin to inmates who have surrendered their sovereignty to the state and live in a tightly controlled environment where freedoms only exist at the discretion of administrators. A life where every action is taken looking over one’s shoulder doesn’t lend itself to building trust, social progress,  or otherwise growing a free society. The technical limitations imposed on states are among the least celebrated guarantors of human liberty; imperfect control of information forces states to build consensus and leaves them less able to establish totalitarian systems.

Privacy is an essential component of human liberty, but the United States Supreme Court has taken a half-hearted approach to protecting it. Constitutional law considers privacy highly contextual, and allow for tradeoffs between personal privacy and “public interests.” Currently, the standard set in 1967 by Katz v. United States establishes that a privacy right exists in a certain situation if it can be reasonably expected, and if society agrees that this expectation is reasonable. Subsequent rulings have affirmed this standard up through this year.

This is problematic in our densely interconnected world, since there isn’t broad agreement on what type of communication qualifies, nor a broad understanding of how technology works. The end result has been a Byzantine mess of case law leaving a trail of injustice in its wake, and a global surveillance apparatus that takes advantage of the confusion by growing its power in secret.

Elevating the right of privacy to that of a natural right protects the act of communication itself and ensures it is not dependent on ever-shifting context, according to NYU legal scholar Richard Epstein. Epstein notes that “a natural right is defined as an independent right not contingent on any situational or environmental factors. If privacy is a natural right, that right would apply to both the real and online worlds, equally to employees, students, library users, browsers, and consumers.” The contextual approach approved by the Supreme Court means “an individual’s right to privacy waxes and wanes based on what one is doing.”

The Snowden leaks in June 2013 revealed that the U.S. and its allies are disinterested in restraining themselves with warrants and Constitutional principles. This makes the “contextual” standard even more complicated, since individuals can now expect that they may well have no privacy rights at all. To prevent the right to privacy’s diminution into some curious historical artifact, a broad-based natural rights standard clearly makes more sense.

Constitutional law can only provide so many answers, and only within a framework of specific precedents. But if we consider that a person has a natural, rather than a contextual right to protect their communication or other information, it follows that a person has the right to defend their privacy with whatever tools are available, regardless of the needs of the state. Only air-tight encryption takes the burden of enforcement away from the state and enables the individual to defend his or her own natural right to privacy.

Governments Obey Incentives, Not Laws

The Snowden leaks proved that individuals must take responsibility for their own privacy by revealing an inherent problem at the heart of constitutional government. By revealing the inner workings of the surveillance state, the leaks showed us governments don’t obey constitutions or laws, per se. Like the rest of us mere mortals, state actors obey incentives. The FISA Act shows that Congress defers heavily to state power and seems mostly unconcerned with privacy rights. This helped to create a culture of apathy for privacy protection within the secretive administration of spying programs as well. One former FISA judge even said the FISA Court “has turned into something like an administrative agency,” rather than a proper court.

Given public ignorance, there seems to have been little incentive for legislators to keep a close eye on the NSA or develop a thorough understanding of the technology it employed. Where incentives are weak, government agents are unlikely to restrain their own behavior. And incentives for government actors to self-restrain are especially absent in the cloak-and-dagger world of “national security.” With incentives lacking, “going dark” and denying the state access to encrypted data seems the only reasonable protection.

Even if some democratic governments make a sincere attempt to follow their own laws, they will likely find themselves at a tactical disadvantage against more oppressive governments. As The Atlantic recently noted, “this new world is significantly imbalanced in favor of non-democratic nations — not because authoritarian states are more technologically sophisticated than their democratic counterparts, but because they are more institutionally flexible, opaque, unaccountable, and often corrupt.” The asymmetric nature of cyberwarfare means that even less oppressive states are likely to internally rationalize that violating privacy rights is necessary to battling spies, hackers, terrorists and other offenders.

In this context, it is clear that a golden key is a nuclear weapon against privacy; it ensures the state has the ability to violate privacy broadly and indiscriminately, without separating the innocent from the guilty. A key that opens every safe means that no safe can ever be secure from illegal search and seizure, given the impossibility of ensuring that governments will obey their own laws when acting under the veil of “national security” secrecy. This has already been shown in a number of instances, such as the secret infection of PCs all over the world with spyware. Any government that restrained its own use of the golden key would be at a tactical disadvantage, and would thus find itself in an unsustainable position.

Encryption is Power

Encryption is, at its core, a form of counter-power. It is a sword that can be wielded against an oppressor to expose its most nefarious activities, and a shield against injustice, able to protect a defendant against a meatgrinder justice system. Encryption protects information and buys the owner of that information options, time, leverage and influence. Encryption has become an essential tool of individual sovereignty, much like the printing press was for previous generations.

We have all heard the adage “knowledge is power.” In previous centuries, access to knowledge was tightly controlled by the clergy and state officials. In the Information Age, the ability to control access to knowledge ensures the empowerment of the individual even when the interests of the state are opposed. This is changing the relationship between the state and the individual in remarkable ways. In the past, the government could access virtually any information that you didn’t destroy or hide effectively. They could get a warrant and break into your home within a few minutes; if you had an extra-sturdy safe, they could smash their way in within a few hours or days. Governments around the world knew that escalation of force will get them what they want, sooner or later.

But that era ends with perfect encryption. AES-256 cannot currently be breached without the keys, no matter how much processing power a government agency commands. For perhaps the first time ever, an individual may, at will, keep any government in the world out of his private business with the ease and simplicity of logging into an email account. If the state knows information it wants is inaccessible, it must change course and negotiate, putting the owner in a new-found position of power.

The state would have you believe governance is merely the imposition of authority: You commit a crime, there is an penalty on the books that will be carried out that you have little control over. If you fail to claim certain income on your taxes, you owe a certain penalty. But it may be more accurate to say governance is a negotiation process by which government and governed come to an agreement according to their relative power positions. The state has imperfect knowledge and limited resources. It is sclerotic and bureaucratic. Given its limitations, it must under some conditions negotiate with those who break its rules — criminals, lawyers, whistleblowers, journalists, hackers, foreign states– in order to maintain legitimacy. As Wall Street bankers know, having leverage against the state can keep you out of prison. That leverage can also keep activists safe from abuses of power.

Once it’s written, encryption doesn’t respond to poorly written laws, corrupt judges, mad dictators, overzealous prosecutors, or racist cops. It is unconcerned with human failings and follows only mathematical laws. This might mean that terrible people will have the same protection, just as criminals and terrorists all use telephones, cars and other available technologies. But encryption programming is a language that can be learned by anyone. Even if every encryption standard in the world were banned or back-doored, any reasonably sophisticated criminal or terrorist organization would write their own.

Encryption is the Future of Freedom

Twenty years in, The Digital Age has personal autonomy perched on a razor’s edge. The way we treat privacy today will have repercussions in the future. An oppressive surveillance society is one possibility. But if we fully realize the potential in the tools we have to overcome centralized power, we can create a world where the vision of individual sovereignty philosophers have been developing since the days of Aristotle comes closer to reality than they had ever dreamed.

Evolving technology forces a real philosophical debate about rights, and should lead us to properly re-evaluate its role in our lives. The NSA has voiced fears about large swaths of the web “going dark” due to uncrackable encryption, providing safe haven to terrorists. Their concern is reasonable. But the alternative is a world where governments expand their power with near-impunity. Most state surveillance agencies would likely consider themselves virtually unstoppable, and the near-total reach of the global surveillance apparatus could change the relationship between man and state in horrifying ways. A well-funded, technologically proficient, opaque security state can do far more damage to liberty than any terrorist.

Governments do not have a right to see every communication on the web. They are endowed with police powers by individuals, who are the only holders of rights, in order to provide for the common good, at least in theory. Natural rights, by definition, exist whether governments recognize them or not, and in some cases must be defended in ways that contradict government interests. Even if the battle against terrorism, drug cartels, hackers, spies or other criminals becomes more difficult, “going dark” remains the right of all human beings.

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society, Sep. 12, 2015]

Friday, September 11, 2015

Quick political tutorial for college freshmen

1. Your opponents are going to give a pass on hypocrisy from people on their side that they won't give to people on your side. That's because they don't want to blunt their own sword.

2. Not every political action is motivated by money, greed or capitalism. People derive plenty of motivation from hubris, ego, and nationalism as well.

3. Government hasn't failed to address your concerns simply because of "special interests." Democratic government is consensus-based, and is very tough to get sweeping changes through.

4. It's not shocking that people care more about things happening in their own lives than all the numerous tragedies going on in the world. If they did everyone would be a quivering little ball of misery.

5. If you care deeply about issue x and want to advocate for it, you're going to spend most of your life convincing people who are completely apathetic or oblivious that they should find your thing more important than the thousands of other issues out there. You will fail 99.9% of the time. Enjoy!

I swear if you can internalize this, the world will make more sense.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Great Moments in White Privilege

Was driving through Pennsylvania on the way back from hiking a small part of the Appalachian trail in New Jersey a few days ago when I blew past a cop doing 83 in a 65. Pulled over for the first time in 10 years.

The entire interaction with the cop could be classified as a Great Moment in White Privilege, something I've been more acutely aware of after three or four years of watching mostly African Americans get beaten and murdered by overzealous police on Youtube. The officer was stern but polite and nearly apologetic in her tone, despite the fact that my license address was not current or even for my state of residence. After the obligatory search period she returned with my ID and told me "I tried to cut you a break. I listed the infraction as a 'failure to obey speed limit' rather than a specific speed." I understood this to keep the fine down. It was only $150, so I figured I got off ok. Upon departing she noted "Just be careful. It's a holiday weekend, there's a lot of us out here."

All in all, not bad for a traffic stop. It was remarkable in its unremarkableness. I was acutely aware of my privilege and how it contrasted to the cold sweat that comes over so many African Americans when they see the lights flashing in their rear view.

This naturally made me think of the "white privilege" narrative getting traction around the web for the last few years. Without a doubt, white people are treated differently from black people on balance, even if white people are often grossly mistreated by police as well.

This does not mean, however, that the white privilege narrative is this generation's satyagraha. Every movement for change needs a narrative, because people adapt so well to easily-digestible stories. Every black man murdered by police becomes an accidental martyr for the movement. But as much as I'd like to see the "Black Lives Matter" movement succeed in getting regular, fair treatment from the police, the fact remains that change requires legislation. African Americans just don't have the votes to get major changes through, whether we're talking about at the national or state level, even if they got every single black person to vote. Most Americans just don't care about race-related issues. They need allies among other races, including Caucasians. But the "white privilege" narrative is blunting their momentum every time they use it.

I get it, we're a cynical generation. The "peace and love" narrative of the mid-20th century has taken a back seat to a more egocentric populism along several fronts. After the 2008 crash exposed the rot within the system, the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded more money. The Tea Party arose in response to the election of president Obama and demanded lower taxes. Now Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have seized on the widespread discontent in both parties. The optimistic socialist platitudes of the 60's are gone. Instead, the prevailing narratives have morphed into something strongly confrontational, us versus them, the rich versus the poor, the government versus the governed. Dualities dominate.

Black Lives Matter exists in this environment. And many of its leaders have made the mistake of creating a "black versus white" narrative. The new political mythos doesn't explicitly blame white people for the problems of African Americans for the most part. But it presents Caucasians as the beneficiaries of a system that is set up to cater to their habits, interests and norms that leaves African Americans out in the cold. There is a lot of truth to it, of course, as there is to many narratives. The problem lies in the effectiveness of the narrative to facilitate political goals.

Black militant movements existed in the early 20th century and grew into formidable organizations like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Their rhetoric, like that of similar Marxist movements rooted in exploitation theory, was frustrated and hostile to groups perceived as lording power over the powerless. All such movements ended in violence and burned out without having achieved larger goals.

"White Privilege", as a corollary of critical race theory, isn't exactly the militant separatism of the 60's, but something more academic in nature. What remains is the confrontational racial attitude. "White privilege" theorists posit racial differences as categorical and immutable in nature, even as they abhor being lumped into racial categories. As with most political storytelling, consistency is tossed aside; anything that sharpens the knife dominates the narrative.

The theory's own dynamics indicate it's strategic flaws. If people only act in their own categorical racial or class interest and will fight to preserve their privilege, why would bludgeoning them with their own privilege ever change their minds? The fact that at one count 59% of whites recognize their own privilege, but problems are still endemic suggests that merely forcing Caucasians to recognize the advantages their political and social norms have created for them won't accomplish much.

Yes, even Martin Luther King acknowledged a number of facts respecting white privilege, such as the lack of government resources set aside for blacks. This is all history. But that isn't the same thing as punishing allies and potential allies with their own success. "I have a dream" didn't include stuff like "the real problem with America is the straight, cis-gendered white male patriarchy." The movement would have been over quick and no one would have remembered that speech.

I don't know. I could be wrong. Activists may indeed convince white folk that their privilege means they should vote for changes that are allegedly against their racial interests. I think its more likely that change will occur incidentally over many decades. But the fact remains that significant political changes require mass-empathy. How a confrontational attitude is supposed to engender mass empathy is beyond me. When activists are more concerned with being effective than being right, they may see real progress.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Snowden Leaks Proved State Cannot be Restrained Without Disobedience

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society, Aug. 1, 2015]

The Obama Administration finally responded earlier this week to a two-year-old petition on requesting the pardon of Edward Snowden. 170,000 signatures and a wave of anti-NSA public anger later, the White House formally refused to pardon the leaker, citing the alleged, unspecified damage his actions did to national security.

The petition response made no mention of any type of public service Snowden may have accomplished, particularly in the wake of the May 7, 2015 federal appeals court ruling that the telephone metadata program the president has repeatedly defended is in fact illegal. But the reality Snowden's leak exposed is that the growth of state power cannot be constrained—even by normal legal means—without assistance from extra-legal measures.

The intelligence apparatus had not only hid behind the secrecy of its surveillance capabilities; it tried to protect itself from scrutiny by claiming that any substantive information released to a court would damage national security interests. It even claimed that it couldn't explain exactly why or how this damage would occur... without defining what exactly “national security” means or why it trumps civil liberties.

We're fortunate the Court of Appeals saw through this argument. However, it likely never would have heard the case if not for Snowden's heroic act of what the White House's response sneeringly called “civil disobedience.”

The government's obstructiveness with the justice system has already created problems for plaintiffs trying to keep their information private and fighting for some semblance of Fourth Amendment privacy in the U.S. According to the ACLU:

By a vote of 5–4, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs in the [Clapper v. Amnesty International, 2013] case lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of the FAA. Specifically, the Court reasoned that the plaintiffs had not shown that they had been injured by FAA surveillance, because they couldn’t establish a sufficient likelihood that their communications were being monitored under the statute. The plaintiffs couldn’t make that showing, because the government had refused to disclose, even in the most general terms, how the statute was being used.

That case was decided just before the Snowden leaks, but the decision may have just signaled a broader shift in judicial opinion on secret surveillance programs could be in the works. The Circuit Court determined in ACLU v. Clapper that the Snowden leaks provided valuable new information:

The government has pointed to no affirmative evidence, whether “clear and convincing” or “fairly discernible,” that suggests that Congress intended to preclude judicial review. Indeed, the government’s argument from secrecy suggests that Congress did not contemplate a situation in which targets of § 215 orders would become aware of those orders on anything resembling the scale that they now have. That revelation, of course, came to pass only because of an unprecedented leak of classified information.

According to Sen. Ron Wyden: “Now that this program is finally being examined in the sunlight, the Executive Branch’s claims about its legality and effectiveness are crumbling.”

Without leaks such as Snowden's, public review of sweeping, and intrusive government policies may not be fully realized. This particular case shows that the architecture of democracy may in fact be crumbling as a result of advances in technologies that can grant states enormous power to acquire information secretly.

All states expand their authority as a result of internal and external pressures, among them the battle for information supremacy. Logically, if knowledge is power, then more knowledge is more power. That expansion progresses toward the end goal of absolute authority. The progression may be constrained by different factors including the democratic process, competition with other states, and technological restrictions. But due to its competitive nature, it must always press forward.

In light of the ruling, we should consider that the state's ability to expand its surveillance power in secret may have outstripped the ability of the democratic or legal processes to properly restrain it. In short, we may be at the outset of a new era, one in which information acquisition can be accomplished so rapidly, so efficiently, that lumbering, deliberative, and arcane processes like elections, legislation and even the court system may be at a permanent disadvantage against the rapidly developing power of what some experts call the “deep state,” a network of secretive government agencies and their corporate partners that form the clandestine security apparatus.

This suggests that such an “illegal” action as Snowden's leak is not only permissible if properly focused, but essential to the cause of justice and limiting of coercive government powers.

Leakers and their journalist allies can provide a bulwark against state power expansion regardless of which government happens to be the offender. We should assume that a lack of transparency broadly means they are all offenders, and are guilty until forced transparency proves otherwise.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Natural Right of Cyber-Dissent

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society, March 27, 2015]

At the height of anti-NSA furor in January 2014, The New Republic (TNR) published a hit piece on Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald that criticized their anti-government beliefs, portraying the leakers as “paranoid libertarians” and traitors to progressive government ideas.
Said TNR:

By exposing the secrets of the government, they claim to have revealed its systematic disregard for individual freedom and privacy. Theirs are not the politics of left against right, or liberals against conservatives, or Democrats against Republicans, but of the individual against the state. To oppose them is to side with power against liberty, surveillance against freedom, tyrannical secrecy against democratic openness.”

“Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange hardly subscribe to identical beliefs … [their] outlook is neither a clear-cut doctrine nor a philosophy, but something closer to a political impulse that might be described […] as paranoid libertarianism. Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that’s hardly their goal. In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it. [emphasis added]

One wonders how “paranoid” were those who were ruthlessly harassed and held at gunpoint for questioning the NSA’s authority, such as whistleblower William Binney, whose story was prominently featured in the Snowden documentary CitizenFour. But in arguing that all men were compelled by an essentially libertarian idealism, TNR was right on the money, and this has serious implications for both the future of libertarian thought as well as anti-state activism.

The threat to free expression posed by unrestrained government institutions has created the need for a new front against the quiet, malignant growth of state power over the web granted to it by its rapidly-increasing technological capabilities. The anti-institutional radicalism inherent in libertarian ideals provided Snowden, Assange and Greenwald with an intellectual basis for their extralegal activism and a politically active community for support; it likewise ensured that libertarianism earned a way to not only distinguish itself from conventional “right wing” political thought in the public eye, but provided a real-world justification for its radical characteristics and brought its ideas to a wider audience. This sort of electronic civil disobedience could provide a resilient, anti-fragile bulwark against unchecked state power that legislation and conventional activism has been otherwise unable to create.

Snowden’s libertarian political stance is no mystery. In private chats on the ArsTechnica website back in 2008, Snowden voiced support for Ron Paul and even endorsed the gold standard. According to the chat logs he also told people about his general disdain for welfare-state policies. He is also widely known to have donated to Paul’s 2012 campaign.

Greenwald, like Snowden was likewise inspired by the anti-authority elements of libertarian thought. According to TNR, Greenwald,

began to envisage… [dissolving] the usual lines of political loyalty and unite the anti-imperialists and civil libertarian activists on the left with the paleoconservatives and free-market libertarians on the right in a popular front against the establishment alliance of mainstream center-left liberals and neoconservatives.

In his own words, Greenwald explained a “political re-alignment” had occurred, one that rendered “traditional ideological disputes” irrelevant. That re-alignment, to Greenwald, was of man versus government, no matter who was in charge.

When Snowden was spirited away from Hong Kong in mid-2013, his escape was arranged by Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, another anti-state libertarian who had been long established in the cypherpunk community. According to the TNR piece, Assange, like Greenwald, came to see “the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution,” a core concept of libertarian thought.

In a Forbes interview back in 2010, Assange noted he was influenced by Ron and Rand Paul as well as American libertarianism in general. “So far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian” Assange stated. “To put it simply, in order for there to be a market, there has to be information. A perfect market requires perfect information.”

Assange’s libertarianism goes far beyond markets however; his own comments on the nature of state authority are steeped in traditional libertarian notions of coercion. He notes in his book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet that,

states are systems through which coercive force flows… factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application… of violence. [Cypherpunks] saw that the merger between existing state structures and the internet created an opening to change the nature of states.

Even though most of the media has not seemed cognizant of the strong ideological association between libertarianism and some of the most prominent privacy activists of the last few years, the inspiration evinces the role of libertarian radicalism in their activity: an intellectual tool that provides a framework for activists to question the legitimacy of major institutions at a critical historical juncture, which in our case, is the breakdown of restraints on state power through the rapid development of invasive spying capabilities by federal agencies.

This helps to put modern libertarianism in an important historical context. Radical institutional criticism has proved critical to the development of civilization as we know it today. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, John Locke’s Treatises, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and various works by Irish patriots, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil libertarians all have something critically important in common with modern libertarian activism: the inflammatory, yet foundational concept of natural rights.

A New Libertarian Activism

Natural rights were considered a long-settled set of foundational principles and have resided at the bottom of the stacked assumptions that make up western political thought. At the top of the stack are the assumptions most often dealt with, i.e., should we have higher or lower taxes? More welfare or less?

Despite its importance to our civilization as a foundational legal and political concept, natural rights very rarely come up in politics. Essentially, the theory says that human beings have fundamental, inalienable rights intrinsic to their nature that cannot be contracted away even voluntarily, and that either come from nature’s laws or, depending on the source, God himself. These rights were enumerated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (alternately, “estate” according to John Locke.) The most important aspect was the “inalienability” of these rights, i.e. they superseded all government authority, no matter how seemingly necessary or just.

But when an institution is perceived as violating natural and civil rights with impunity, such as the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the British Empire in the 20th, or the NSA in the 21st, activists are forced to dig deeper into long-held assumptions to question major institutions and remind the public that those institutions only have borrowed authority that actually resides within individuals. “Natural law” is the philosophical equivalent of Excalibur, a weapon so deeply imbedded in our moral framework it can only be drawn out by a select few, and so powerful it can only be wielded when all else has failed.

According to the libertarian-anarchist Murray Rothbard:

The natural law is, in essence, a profoundly “radical” ethic, for it holds the existing status quo, which might grossly violate natural law, up to the unsparing and unyielding light of reason. In the realm of politics or State action, the natural law presents man with a set of norms which may well be radically critical of existing positive law imposed by the State. At this point, we need only stress that the very existence of a natural law discoverable by reason is a potentially powerful threat to the status quo and a standing reproach to the reign of blindly traditional custom or the arbitrary will of the State apparatus.

This foundational essence of libertarian thought that provides a connective thread to today’s institutional critics and anti-state activists primarily because it has been proven effective in both justifying and motivating anti-institutional activism through history. Edward Snowden illustrated during a February 2015 Reddit AMA his belief in natural rights and underpins his own act of defiance as an affront against the supposed “rights” of government:

Our rights are not granted by governments. They are inherent to our nature. But it’s entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy.

…Here and there throughout history, we’ll occasionally come across these periods where governments think more about what they ‘can’ do rather than what they ‘should’ do, and what is lawful will become increasingly distinct from what is moral.

In such times, we’d do well to remember that at the end of the day, the law doesn’t defend us; we defend the law. And when it becomes contrary to our morals, we have both the right and the responsibility to rebalance it toward just ends.

Well, when we look back on history, the progress of Western civilization and human rights is actually founded on the violation of law. America was of course born out of a violent revolution that was an outrageous treason against the crown and established order of the day. History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality.

The remedy for a violation of civil rights, according to Snowden, is an activist disobedience that prevents their criminal behavior through the development of defensive capabilities by individuals:

How do we make that work for us? We can devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.

Snowden’s Reddit manifesto is a full-throated endorsement of both natural law and civil disobedience, entirely consistent with the grand American tradition of defiance of bad laws that are inconsistent with those founding Enlightenment virtues.

Along similar lines, Assange clearly states his support for electronic civil disobedience in Cypherpunks: “cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action … strong cryptography can resist an unlimited application of violence.”

Assange evoked the Transcendentalists in his Wikileaks Manifesto in 2006, likewise proponents of the disruptive idea of natural law:

Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act we become a party to injustice. Those who are repeatedly passive in the face of injustice soon find their character corroded into servility.

Compare with Thoreau’s quote on injustice from his essay “Civil Disobedience”:

…if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

These men were all in a position where they had to deal with knowledge of grave injustices being committed by the state. TNR is probably correct to argue they had no common ideology because they all may not have been fully committed, bow-tied libertarians. But how much Mises or Hayek each of them digested seems to matter less than what ideas motivated them to act. Ideologies exist to explain and map out solutions to complex social and economic problems that arise from time to time. This is of little concern to the civil disobedient, whose high-stakes action is laser focused on the remediation of a singular grave injustice.

Without a doubt, the core principles of that “paranoid” libertarian impulse were present to both motivate and justify their selfless defiance of bad laws. That “impulse” led them to actions that exemplify a historic unification of radical libertarianism and civil disobedience as underwritten by natural law, a potentially powerful combination of ideas if it is wielded responsibly and inspires others to follow suit.

Where this intellectual synthesis will lead in the future is unclear. If Snowden’s actions inspire other leakers, as seems to be the case, the threat of repeated embarrassing leaks could lead to increased pressure for reform; the resulting information lockdown within the government could even result in increasingly sclerotic information flow and bureaucratic inefficiency as the NSA struggles to plug leaks, according to Assange. Certainly, the Snowden leaks have turned up the heat on governments in a way conventional political activism was unable to do. Public anger toward the NSA has already cooled, diminishing momentum for reforms being pushed by some libertarian activists. Future actions by dissenters, however, could turn the heat back up, and perhaps more importantly, set alight new “brushfires of liberty” in young minds.

Dissenters naturally gravitate toward the most compelling political narrative in order to provide corroboration for their personal alienation experiences. That could serve to explain how these three found libertarianism and each other, and indicate how future leakers may come to justify their actions. But with much of today’s digital activism seemingly unmotivated by any particular set of values, the ideological convergence between libertarianism and disobedience is still fitful and incomplete: The activism of Snowden, Assange, and Greenwald, among scores of others, is only a representation of what it might become.