We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The power wedge

There is a gap that is rarely acknowledged between the nominal powers of officialdom and their actual powers in practice. Unless we are vigilant, and the rules are tightly drawn powers will be (not may be, will be) used for broader purposes than those for which they are granted. What’s more ways will be found to use the leverage of one power to enhance another. New police powers do not merely add to the force of those that already exist, they multiply and magnify them.

Last night an example of systematic police intimidation was proudly displayed as PR for the police on the most popular British TV channel (ITV1, not the BBC).

The program (“Inside Crime”) was one of those encouraging people to assist with current investigations and appealing for witnesses to various murders and robberies. Fine. I don’t think I have a problem with that: seems like a genuine public service. But of a 25 minute programme something like a fifteen minute segment was devoted to cameras accompanying police in Dartford as they “cracked down” on drugs and illegal working on one evening.

A sergeant swaggered around in a head mic proudly demonstrating how new technology allows the detection of traces of cocaine in pub lavatories. It was then revealed that “with the cooperation of landlords and managers” that night everybody wishing to enter a pub or club in the centre of Dartford had to submit to police swabbing their hands for drugs as a condition of entry. Those who tested postive were then formally searched under “reasonable suspicion”.

The swabbing itself didn’t count as a search because it was “voluntary”. Thus is the law perverted by those who are supposed to uphold it. The programme was silent on what happened to those who got as far as the entrance to a bar but refused the entry procedure. I’d be interested to know.

→ Continue reading: The power wedge

Building walls

The War on Terror, like any war, provides the opportunity for certain technologies to be developed at an accelerated pace. The problem is that we seem to depend on the rather glib assertion that without freedom there is no prosperity. This is fine so long as government is concerned with prosperity. But how long do people have to wait in societies where an élite puts the power to rule ahead of prosperity? As George Orwell put it in Hommage to Catalonia: “We don’t grasp it’s [totalitarianism’s] full implications, because in our mystical way we feel that a régime founded on slavery must collapse. But it is worth comparing the duration of the slave empires of antiquity with that of any modern state. Civilisations founded on slavery have lasted for such periods as four thousand years.”

With this thought in mind, from Tech Central Station:

Chemical detectors may provide, by the way, the greatest advance in counter-insurgent capabilities. Biochips will make it possible for self-directed UAVS to seek out explosives, including those used in small arms, and chemical and biological agents. They will also enable the identification and tracking of thousands or even millions of individuals in a monitored area based on their “smell.”
→ Continue reading: Building walls

Bush Bans Bad News

The Washington Post reports that the Bush administration has banned news organisations from reporting the dead bodies arriving home from Iraq.

The policy has in fact been in place for several years but was never enforced. Bush has now decided that the US public should not be allowed to see the realities of war.

Putting aside the rights and wrongs of the war, there can be no security implication of showing such footage. It might be distasteful, but that is a judgement for the broadcasters to make. This ban on media coverage appears to be for simple political purposes.

Once again the First Amendment is being quietly eroded.

Mr Blog asks the right question but gets the wrong answer

Cards on the table. The bosses of this blog are out of town, and although they may be able to stick stuff up here from time to time, they may be distracted. I’m one of the people they hope will keep things buzzing in their absence. So I googled a few obvious things like “surveillance” and “privacy” and got little that was new, and then I tried “Freedom versus Security”, and got to this piece at Mr Blog, from way back in August.

Mr Blog has this to say on the matter:

Defining the debate as “freedom versus security” circumvents the question of whether the various proposals, in fact, improve security. Where is the evidence for this assumption that any of these measures can help ensure security?

He then attacks various supposed US security measures on cost effectiveness grounds. This critique is good as far as it goes. Indeed we do not want to hand on to our grandchildren a society bankrupted by a million futile security measures which weren’t. That’s true.

But I think Mr Blog is making a fundamental error of omission here. The really big consequence of framing things as “freedom versus security” is to smuggle past you the notion that “freedom” can never ever be any good for “security”. Yet plainly it can.

If the populus is numbed into a state of brainless inertia by laws that take away their freedom, and which simultaneously promise to create security, then a major source of security, in the form of individuals protecting themselves and each other, may be switched off, and by the very measures which were supposedly going to make us all more secure. The “cost” of “security” measures isn’t only that they cost us a ton of money, or even that they cost us freedom. What if, by costing us freedom, they also reduce security? That’s the biggest problem with framing this argument as “freedom versus security”.

As I have probably said here before, this debate reminds me of the Economic Calculation debate of a hundred years ago, and Mr Blog is just like one of those anti-economic-planning grumblers of days gone by who complained that planning would be more of a muddle and less of a spur to prosperity than pro-planners fancied, and that it would eat up our freedoms to insufficiently good effect. But that was to miss the vital point about prosperity, which was that in order to get it, you had to have freedom. No freedom, no prosperity.

What if security is the same? No freedom, no security. I think it is, and I think that’s true. And I want some latter day Von Mises to write a huge book which proves it.

Mr Blog’s error is all the more distressing because he frames the question so clearly.

Mr Archer – retrospectively

Madsen Pirie at the newly launched Adam Smith Insitute Weblog, and Andy Duncan at Samizdata both comment unfavourably on the retrospective nature of the law that has been crafted to strip Lord Archer of the Lord bit of his name. Both link to this Telegraph piece. And I’d like to think that there are many other bloggers who have commented in a similar manner, to whom apologies for the neglect.

Dr Pirie also links to his own year 2000 Guardian piece, entitled Sweeping Away Our Liberties, which is well worth a complete read. He lists all the important elements of what is meant by the phrase “rule of law”, and notes that all of them are (i.e. they already were three years ago) being eroded in various ways.

Last two paragraphs:

The pattern emerges quite clearly: government is making laws out of particular cases and eroding the general principles in order to secure a particular aim. It wants to bring to justice the people none of us have any time for: financial swindlers, racist thugs, paedophiles, war criminals, drug dealers and terrorists. Others might include rapists, petty professional criminals who are “obviously guilty”, and multiple offenders whose record will be known to magistrates, but not to juries.

In the interest of bringing these low lifes to justice, the principles which protect the liberties of all of us are swept away. The precepts which have guarded society are destroyed to target particular groups of offenders. After all, we do not want them getting off, do we? In some cases, though, we might accept that, preferring a few unsavoury individuals to walk free rather than compromise the foundations on which our liberties depend. We give the devil himself the benefit of our laws, for how could we otherwise claim it ourselves?