Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Germans have it Right

The Germans have it right, as does the rest of the EU.  On hearing the NSA is spying on them, they were deeply angry.  They didn't say "I have nothing to hide," because they know better. 

What did they say?  Something that should make us ashamed of what we've allowed to happen in the U.S.
Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security.  (From Germans Loved Obama. Now We Don’t Trust Him. by Malte Spitz)
That should shame Americans, because we were warned a century and a half before the Germans learned their painful lesson.  "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."  (Benjamin Franklin, February 1775 and published in his memoirs, also used earlier in 1759 as a motto on a title page as "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.")

We're far removed from the events that caused our founders to fear big government so much that they did everything they could think of to hobble government power, initially limiting it so much that the Articles of Confederation fell apart.  We're painfully relearning what they saw first hand:  rulers seek their own power, wealth and security of position no matter what.  Only constant vigilance can prevent it.

Let's hope it doesn't take repeating Germany's mistakes to wake Americans up.

2 comments:

tom said...

I don't have much hope for turning back the tide of the intelligence state/industry, because

1)as of now, the majority of Americans don't have a problem with it - likely because they are less engaged, inclined to "just let people do their jobs", etc.

2) the political elite is thoroughly behind this in a bipartisan manner. For all that divides the parties, there is, in fact, much more they agree on. Gathering as much intelligence as possible on anyone possible is one of those things. After all, this was "legal" in that it was authorized by Congress.

3) and related to 2, there's a whole lot of money flowing to private contractors related to the spying (like Snowden's employer). Ain't no way that money's getting cut off. It doesn't matter who gets elected. They'll fall in line.

The only way it could be turned back is if civil liberties types of all stripes put aside other differences (namely abortion, welfare-state, etc) and focused for 20 or 30 years on opposing the intelligence state. That's not going to happen either.

That said, I don't know that Germany's 20th century problems stemmed so much from a liberty/security dichotomy. I guess it depends partially on which mistake you're thinking of. I suppose if one's primary motivation for embracing Hitlerism was motivated by fear of Communism, it might apply. But Hitler's a pretty touch act to follow. (I don't buy the "Hitler was an evil genius" idea - he was a moron who thought killing off his talent while invading the Soviet Union would be an excellent way to do things - his successes are a credit to the people he had working for him, if we want to give credit as such).

The more interesting mistake was that of the DDR - the belief that you could perpetually clamp down on dissent through total surveillance and intimidation. In so far as Americans are only incidental victims of NSA surveillance, it probably really isn't a big deal... they'll get away with it in perpetuity. But it's not going to work against the primary targets (Muslim terrorists) and if the surveillance state ever really does take a hard turn towards clamping down on internal dissent, it won't work against Americans either - at least not forever. After all, the point isn't to provide security. The point is to keep the money flowing and look like you're doing something useful... like the TSA.

Andrew said...

As indication of how universal the dislike of surveillance, I largely agree, especially point 2.

With regard to the security/liberty dichotomy, you should comment on Malte Spitz's column as well. The author might clarify.