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“Overpopulation” as an excuse, or justification, for state spying

I won’t name the guy – he was talking to me in a private setting and such things should remain private – but a friend of mine came up with this rather bizarre defence of the recent fact, as unearthed by Snowden et al, that the US and other powers engage in massive, unauthorised spying on their citizens:

Governments have always done this, so why the fuss now? Accept it and pour yourself a beer.

The world is “massively overpopulated, so with all these ghastly people infesting the planet, governments need to, and will find it easier to, spy on them.

Spying on people, even in ways we find scary, is inevitable, so relax and stop getting oxidised about it.

The second of the arguments interests me because it blends the Malthusian panic about too many humans (and begging the question of what “should be done” about them), pessimism about the inevitability of spying and other outrages, and a sort of world-wearying acceptance of big government. Quite an achievement.

Of course, it maybe that the person making this argument was just trying to be a knob and wind me up (he is familiar with my libertarian views and regards them, patronisingly, as a sort of jolly enthusiasm). But his opinions are probably quite wildely held out there among people who consider themselves to be “realists” and “sophisticated”.

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22 comments to “Overpopulation” as an excuse, or justification, for state spying

  • Snorri Godhi

    First of all, you should tell us how many beers your friend poured for himself, before telling you to relax and pour one for yourself.
    On a more serious note: while spying is not inevitable, your friend would have been right to say that being spied on, to the extent that you cannot protect yourself, is inevitable. Whether you should be relaxed about it, is a different issue; but certainly you should not be so upset as to become unable to take countermeasures.

  • Mr Ed

    To anyone who believes that ‘something should be done’ about ‘over-population’, I say ‘Lead by example, over Beachy Head’.

  • Rocco

    Overpopulation makes government spying on it’s citizens inevitable? What nonsense.
    Everybody knows its climate change that makes it inevitable.

  • I LOLed, Rocco:-)

    Besides, what does overpopulation – even if real – have to do with spying? What point of his am I missing?

  • Andrew Duffin

    There are worse viewpoints. I have a friend (an academic and a highly intelligent articulate type) who states that he would be completely happy for the State to have his DNA in a database and follow his every movement, “because then there would be no more rapes”.

    I have tried arguing, but against stupidity the Gods themselves strive in vain, as we know.

    Such opinions are depressingly widespread.

  • Andrew, it is remarkable that you would attribute stupidity to someone you have just described as an intelligent person – only because you happen to disagree with his position on an issue.

  • RAB

    Governments are always going to spy on us, they can’t help themselves. It’s what they do.They never have and never will, trust us. So if some little creep is in a basement somewhere reading my emails, well knock yourself out sunshine, all you are likely to find out is my utter contempt for you.

    But like Alisa, I just don’t get his second at all. Surely the more people you have to spy on the harder it gets to evaluate the information? And it’s malevolent intent and criminality that they are looking for, not sheer weight of numbers?

  • James Hargrave

    How often does one reverse position and think that very late abortion might b beneficial

  • Laird

    A better demonstration of gross ignorance, and probably stupidity, you’re unlikely to see. The former can be cured but not, unfortunately, the latter.

  • I have heard something similar, that this is what they do- specifically agencies like the N.S.A. Now, I am sure most of us reading Samizdata don’t particularly want such agencies, but the average zombie socialist assumes legitimacy from existence. The N.S.A. exists. It’s purpose is to collect information. This is what they do. If yhey didn’t do it, they wouldn’t be doing their job.

    And people wonder why I no longer believe in voting. I am always outnumbered by idiots, so the idiots always win, especially since there is universal idiot suffrage.

  • Tedd

    Governments have always done this, so why the fuss now? Accept it and pour yourself a beer.

    Not that the over-population argument is entirely uninteresting, but it’s actually the argument above that has been occupying me for the last little while. I worked in the telecom industry in the 90s, and it was widely believed even then that the U.S. government was developing a Prism-like system. I’m sure most knowledgeable people in the industry today were not very surprised by Snowden’s revelations.

    That’s an example of becoming inured to intrusive government through contact with reality. But there’s also the mechanism of becoming inured to intrusive government through contact with fantasy. Several decades ago, movies about governments spying on their own people had emotive power because (a) people in western countries still mostly had the capacity to be shocked by it and (b) it was known to be going on in other places (that a sensible person would not want to live in). But audiences became inured to that; so they had to keep raising the stakes. While I’m not a big watcher of those particular genres, I see enough to know that government-spying-on-its-own-people is merely assumed context in many movies and TV shows, today.

    I seriously doubt this has been a conscious conspiracy. In fact, I suspect that many of the people who’ve produced these movies and TV shows over the years thought they were being “edgy” and provocative, at the time. But the effect has been the same as if there was a deliberate strategy to acclimatize people to intrusive government. Perhaps, in some ways, we get the future we imagine.

    I also think that the technological sophistication of the internet changes people’s expectations. It was easy for people to understand that it was wrong to open a letter addressed to someone else. It’s not so easy for people to make similar moral judgements about your telecom provider, or your government, peeking into the payload portion of your IP packets. Even though it’s not hard to make the argument that, in principle, it’s the same thing.

  • Perhaps, in some ways, we get the future we imagine.

    Of course we do – it goes both for those of us who imagine it in dread and in anxious anticipation.

  • the other rob

    Apropos Rocco’s witty observation on climate change, see this article, particularly the comments about the use of the word “anthropogenic” as a signal to fellow travelers.

  • Zarba

    I used to think the Will Smith movie Enemy of the State was a thriller. Now I view it as a documentary….

  • TheHat

    I’m not so willing to accept that all spying, past and present, has been equally benign. Current history shows that the Liberal left is very willing to take advantage of any opening. Consider the IRS and their refusal to allow Conservative web sites tax free status, or to even process the requests. It has been a year and they are still actively stalling our requests. Then consider Obamacare and the IPAD boards and throw in the possibility that they will know your Internet history because of their spying. “Sorry, you are a RightWing Nut Job and we will not allow you to have that surgery!” In the past we have had Republicans and Democrats in office but they have all been Americans. That is not the case now. The current President hates ‘white’ America as orignally defined by its founders and is using every tool at his disposal to wreck America. Spying in one of those tools.

  • the other rob

    Stand on Zanzibar!

  • Tedd

    It’s not so easy for people to make similar moral judgements about your telecom provider, or your government, peeking into the payload portion of your IP packets.

    Is it a sign of egotism to pull-quote yourself?

    It occurs to me that this might be a good counterargument to the NSA’s claim that archiving data (so that it can, if deemed necessary, be examined later) is not “surveillance.” Whether or not one chooses to call it “surveillance,” it’s morally indistinguishable from opening everyone’s mail, scanning and storing the contents, and then returning each item to its envelope, for delivery.

    It’s interesting to speculate on how differently the public would have reacted to that. And how differently the public of thirty years ago would have reacted to that.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    I’ve heard “The climate change problem is just a symptom of the real problem, which is overpopulation” enough times to find this unsurprising. There is a certain type of Paul Erlich inspired lefy who believes *everything* is the consequence of overpopulation. I think this is why the “Overpopulation as a problem does not exist. Look at these studies from the UN” argument is a good one to repeat over and over again. You are destroying the underpinnings of a lot of silly beliefs.

  • Tedd


    I completely agree with you from exactly the opposite opinion, if that’s possible. Over (or excessive) population pretty much is the root cause of many problems (including almost all the problems that “the left” anguishes about). Which is exactly why it’s so important to point out how the data shows that it’s going away.

    Personally, I think it’s a damned shame that we didn’t get good at the things that reduce birth rate (freedom, and the prosperity it brings) as quickly as we got good at the things that increase average lifespan (low infant mortality, low mortality from infectious diseases, low mortality from violence). Bad for Paul Ehrlich — he would have had to get a real job — but it would have been all up-side for the rest of us.

  • PeterT

    With more people around they are more likely to bump into each other, and be more likely to prefer the way others behave to be bound by some rules. But we do not have to make these rules; it is up to us. And of course rules can be implicit; it takes a politician to make it a law. Overpopulation is not therefore the cause of big government although it may make it more likely.

    Clearly environmental problems would be much reduced if there were fewer people around. However, there are significant economic benefits to having high populations as it increases the number of possibilities for economic interaction. It has been argued that many countries in the developing world would benefit from higher populations as this reduces economic isolation. I wouldn’t therefore make a statement that overpopulation is a problem in general.

  • Tedd

    It has been argued that many countries in the developing world would benefit from higher populations as this reduces economic isolation. I wouldn’t therefore make a statement that overpopulation is a problem in general.

    That’s more a problem with generalities, in general, than with this specific generality!

    I think we’re all aware that population, population density, and population growth rate all have myriad effects, some good and some bad. The issue is the net effect. The fact that there might be some positive factors in no way counters the argument that overpopulation is at the root of many problems, and in particular the kind of problems Michael was talking about.