Politics & Media
Jul 27, 2022, 05:57AM


“More surveillance” is the new “more spending.”

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Just to be sure we know the current checklist of diseases from which Joe Biden seems to be suffering: He does not currently have cancer or monkeypox but does have Covid, possible dementia, and severe inflation, though that last one is partly a long-time bipartisan folk remedy he’s using to redefine “recessions” out of existence.

Amidst what are now purportedly recurring waves of the Omicron Covid variant, fast-rising prices, and more tens of billions in war subsidies to Ukraine, we’re still assured that as a general rule more surveillance and masking, more faith in the Federal Reserve, and more weapons to foreign allies will, respectively, spell health, prosperity, and peace, though you can tell Americans’ trust is wearing thin on all those fronts.

Somehow, solutions involving less government and more common sense—such as isolating those most vulnerable to disease, keeping the amount of currency in circulation constant, and avoiding entanglement in foreign conflicts—rarely get discussed no matter how messy the current technocratic methods get. Perhaps Americans’ residual tolerance for Biden is another of the public’s slapdash but understandable ways of limiting their run-amok government: A befuddled, senile-seeming leader may be less of a threat than an alert, all-seeing one.

The establishment doesn’t want you turning so cynical that you opt out of the system, of course, so we constantly get weird interdisciplinary messages like the American Medical Association, of all people, urging us to keep voting, since voting is purportedly correlated with improved health. When I first read that news, I thought the explanation might simply be that people who pay attention to news and politics are slightly less likely to get dementia (possible good news for Biden), but what the AMA means is that voting populations are more likely to get noticed and receive aid from public health officials.

Fair enough, but beware the ease with which the political establishment can channel your worries and your desire for public participation into readymade plans that merely allow leaders to do what they were going to do anyway, now armed with an apparent public mandate. Hey, the masses voted, occasionally adhered to Covid protocols, took out more loans, praised the heroes of Ukraine—they must believe in the system(s), from electoral democracy to the military-industrial complex! Feel seen, masses!

I’m more impressed, though, when a democratic upsurge, especially one expressed through non-governmental channels, actually gets government to halt or reverse its plans, not just affirm them. A social media campaign, within a day of launching, appears to have gotten Beijing to drop its first strict vaccine mandate. Good science or not, that’s probably a healthy sign for freedom in still heavily-regulated China.

Whether the population there is vaccinated or not, though, the government will still be issuing bracelets that monitor location and temperature. In the long run, I bet we’ll find governments prefer the (more broadly applicable) monitoring to the vaccinating. The monitoring will be what stays with us, just as Net surveillance will stick long after the public has forgotten that the West’s clash with Islamic extremism was for a time the primary justification for that policy. Government lately invents as many reasons to monitor us as it does to spend money.

If the powers that be change their rationales for the same old services (Covid today, climate tomorrow, etc.), almost like offering the same wares via new jingles, you can understand the public starting to worry that none of the establishment’s stated motives are their fundamental ones. That’s how you end up with people concocting their own theories about what the underlying motives are, like that guy who attacked an NSA office in Nashville out of fear shape-shifting reptilians ran it—and why our era is awash in paranoia-fueled thrillers like the movie Songbird, in which the latest plague is mainly just another fill-in-the-blank excuse to lock people in their homes and tell them what to do.

The real world has fewer ominous music cues, but it does have, say, former Democratic New York State Assemblyman N. Nick Perry (Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus, father of rapper Justine Skye), who year after year, even before Covid, pushed a bill (one version called A416) calling for “removal and/or detention” of individuals who are identified as a “case, contact or carrier” of a contagious disease, to “be detained in a medical facility or other appropriate facility or premises,” with the governor or a health official instituting the confinement (though a court order is needed within 60 days and judicial review if the person is confined after 90 days).

That bill would also allow mandatory treatments and vaccinations. You might not be able to travel as easily if such bills become law, but Perry is off to the Caribbean, now the U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.

I’m not a knee-jerk denouncer of “globalism” (that way lies insularity, paranoia, and stunted markets), but there does seem to be a pattern of the people who claim to see the farthest and to weigh the most social ramifications, across boundaries and social sectors, being the ones most eager to redraw the big picture themselves.

Thank goodness their visions aren’t as unifying as they pretend. They hit institutional roadblocks from time to time—the Second Circuit Court of Appeals panel struck down former Gov. Cuomo’s church and synagogue closings in New York, Julian Assange’s extradition to the U.S. may yet be stopped if he is deemed a suicide risk, etc. But the general direction of human politics, I fear, still favors those who claim to be solving vast, planetary problems so long as you leave the boring technical details—and vast amounts of your money—to them, on the assumption they see things that you, in your selfish myopia, do not.

Don’t panic about those hazmat-suited men at your door or the algorithms tracking your movements and checking your sentences for any trace of influence by Russian propaganda. Wise, rich people have had calm, rational discussions in places such as Geneva and the UN building about all your biggest problems, and they’re just keeping a concerned eye on you, or so they claim. Your health and welfare are their top priorities.

Then again, it was little more than a decade ago that I thought the outermost limits of creepy surveillance-state possibilities were already being mulled, perhaps with a bit too much caution, when law professor Eugene Volokh wrote a piece musing about whether speeding-ticket cameras at traffic lights are an invasion of privacy, a little dash of the “panopticon” prison surveillance system philosopher Jeremy Bentham imagined three centuries ago. And now, just a few years after that Volokh piece, we take it for granted the authorities are watching—and controlling—far more than our reckless driving, don’t we?

Cough, spend, or make a disparaging remark about Ukrainian government, and the authorities will be there to offer you some nudges and course corrections. In time, it will come to feel natural and safe.

Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey


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