Liberty, Government, and Technology: 2019

Jack Curtis

In human behavior, government arises as the natural enemy of liberty. Government only exists to compel/limit human action. That is necessary for humanity to combine its individual competitiveness with productive social action. The natural tension between such limits and individual liberty must, to maximize the common good, maintain a delicate balance. That balance was the primary purpose of the United States Constitution. But we have seen a couple of millennia since Juvenal asked the Romans who would govern the governors and his question remains unanswered; when it has existed, that productive balance between government and individual liberty has never stood for long. And now, the ongoing explosion of technology has accelerated the decline of individual liberty everywhere within its reach.

Liberty is restricted by a resourceful, organized group and defended only by comparatively weak and unorganized individuals, a fact underlying the famous advice that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. But the struggles of living always distract from that vigilance and only the sufferings of servitude are enough to compel individuals to organize and risk wresting it back from government, usually at a price in blood. Cell phones, the internet, facial recognition and computers are reinforcing both population control and protest organization worldwide, but the controllers are ahead.

It is noteworthy that the technology is overwhelming the political structures of the governments involved, reshaping them toward a common format so as to make most effective use of the technology. We will compare China, Russia and the United States. China is a post-communist police state that has never experienced democracy. Russia is a post-communist, quasi democratic republic devolving back into a police state. And the United States is a traditionally democratic republic. Excepting the vagaries of disparate cultures, their three governments seem increasingly similar, revising themselves to adopt the new technology. However, these revisions have not originated only within governments; they also reflect the gradual confluence of the underlying societies.

China’s Communist government has clung to power by replacing its failing socialist economy with quasi capitalism under, in typical Chinese fashion, forced draft. The result has been extremely rapid development accompanied by severe financial and economic distortions; the government remained in charge but it is balanced upon a political tightrope. Perched atop an unstable economy, it is trying to reinforce totalitarian governance while economic power bleeds out to its new entrepreneurs and it pursues reintegration of successfully democratized Hong Kong and Taiwan, somehow without destroying their successful economies. The Chinese response appears to be using American technology to impose British writer George Orwell’s 1984 societal vision.

The expanding Social Credit system will assign an account to every citizen, reducing his score for every deviation from government approved behavior. Deviations are collected by informers and universal electronic surveillance in public and private. As observed deviations increase, an ascending series of prescribed punishments is triggered. The system has been tested upon China’s Moslems and combined with the usual imprisonment, torture and disappearances seems to work well enough; it is now programmed for the rest of China. One open question appears to be whether the technology can be maintained at the planned scale. Another is what unintended effects such a system will inevitably produce; neither society nor government seem likely to remain unchanged. Finally, there is the cost; China already spends more for internal security than it spends for defense. The risks seem reminiscent of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

Russia is a nominal republic assembled by leftover Soviet oligarchs and commissars as a façade for an increasingly police state. It is moving in the same direction as China but much less efficiently with its weaker economy and the interrupted governance following Soviet economic collapse. The increasing repression is producing growing protest. Two very significant differences separate Russia’s current path from China’s: the economy has not been overburdened with debt and it has restored the submissive Russian Orthodox Church. China continues to minimize religious activity to maximize state authority.

The elements of China’s Social Credit control system are spreading through the United States, though presently less centralized. Mass surveillance is in use for border control, and a Federal facial recognition database now holds over 640 million photos of citizens. Congress is working on the Threat Assessment, Prevention and Safety Act, which appears to initiate a system of informants. Cameras and microphones linked by phone networks, the internet and satellites appear in homes, businesses, schools and public places; these are increasingly accessible to police and other government agencies. Censorship is spreading through social media. Vehicles and phones are tracked. Any human government refusing to avail itself of such tempting tools must be a government of saints. Americans aren’t saints; the country has dropped from the list of the 20 least corrupt and government snooping is expanding beyond constitutional boundaries.

Simultaneously U.S. culture has abandoned Christianity and its related Protestant work ethic of independence and responsibility for dependence and entitlement, an open invitation for a government bent upon control and a fulfillment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America prediction. American churches are being squeezed into a political corner as government social policy overlaps and conflicts with religious doctrine.

The governments of all three countries are balanced upon an economic knife point: unsustainable debt and imposed economic distortions in China and the U.S. and the economic and political detritus left by the Soviet collapse in Russia. Unruly response to the next economic recession seems likely to generate further increases in government control until they are arrested by either the limits of the technology or by revolution. Though proceeding from different political models, these three governments seem to have found the same path. Perhaps, given human behavior that was inevitable?

Jack Curtis is a CPA and the author of Training Figure Skaters. He blogs at jcurtisblog.