Sunday, August 11, 2013

Watching the Leviathan watching YOU

In an interview for Our Kingdom, Quentin Skinner discusses liberty, liberalism, and the surveillance state. 

Skinner talks about LIBERTY, but not just about freedom from State power.
The power of corporations seems to me capable of posing a serious threat to liberty, in particular through their capacity to put pressure on states, especially developing states. Suppose a corporation wants to invest in a country but finds that its environmental laws, or its labour regulations, are inconveniently demanding. It can easily put pressure on the relevant government, especially in the case of developing states, to give it a break from these obligations. There need be no threat to refuse investment unless these special privileges are granted. It may be enough that the government is aware that the investment could be lost unless special privileges are granted for it to agree to grant those privileges. The government is placed, in other words, under an obligation to behave in a servile way that may also be undemocratic in that various laws that have been agreed by the people’s representatives may have to be set aside. Nor is this only a problem with respect to the power of multi-national corporations in their dealings with developing states. Think of the tax breaks that multi-nationals are given in this country, and the recent revelation that some are allowed to get away with paying virtually no corporate tax at all.

Much of the interview focuses on the surveillance powers of the LEVIATHAN.  While other critiques of the NSA et. al. tend to focus on the state's violation of your privacy, Skinner points out that liberal concerns about State coercion fall short of making a good argument against overreaching surveillance because they focus on the kind of coercive power that might not appear to exist in, say, reading your email.  He tries to reorient the conversation to include the freedom of people to express themselves in civil society and not only to be protected from the State.

To be free we not only need to have no fear of interference but no fear that there could be interference. But that latter assurance is precisely what cannot be given if our actions are under surveillance. So long as surveillance is going on, we always could have our freedom of action limited if someone chose to limit it. The fact that they may not make that choice does not make us any less free, because we are not free from surveillance and the possible uses that can be made of it. Only when we are free from such possible invasions of our rights are we free; and this freedom can be guaranteed only where there is no surveillance.
I think it very important that the mere fact of there being surveillance takes away liberty. The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.
The situation is made much worse once you come to know — as all of us now know — that we are in fact subject to surveillance. For now there is a danger that we may start to self-censor in the face of the known fact that we may be being scrutinised by powerful and potentially hostile forces. The problem is not that we know that something will happen to us if we say certain things. It’s that we don’t know what may happen to us. Perhaps nothing will happen. But we don’t know, and are therefore all too likely to keep quiet, or to self-censor. But these are infringements of liberty even according to the liberal account. Surely the liberal and the republican can agree that, if the structures of power are such that I feel obliged to limit my own freedom of expression, then my liberty has to that degree been undermined.

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