At our Atlas Summit last week , I had the chance to hang out a bit with John Stossel . Stossel wanted to know: why are liberty-lovers so worked up about the NSA spying revealed by Edward Snowden?

As Stossel explains here , there are many worse things that governments do. So far, the NSA spying has probably broken up some terrorist rings. And otherwise, it hasn't harmed any American citizens as far as we know.  The administration and members of Congress say the program is kept (secretly) under wraps, with independent judicial and Congressional oversight. 

Stossel told me he thinks the only real threat from the program depends on a dubious slippery-slope argument. The NSA spying isn't a meaningful threat now, he says, and it might remain under control for a long time. 

To which, I can only reply, consider the GM bankruptcy. 

The Obama Administration spent tens of billions of dollars to take control of General Motors in 2009 and to prevent GM from going through normal bankruptcy court. This let the administration privilege the unions over the bondholders, and forced the bondholders, who should have been first in line for GM's assets, to take severe losses on their portfolios —losses they might have avoided if GM had gone bankrupt, leaving the bondholders as its owners. In order to get away with the theft, the administration demonized and bullied the bondholders, as TAS Trustee Cliff Asness explained here .

We aren't facing a slippery slope with the NSA spying: it's a slippery cliff.

So let's see: we live in age when the Presidency, whenever it feels like it, will just ignore the law and force a decision that suits it, to achieve the social goals that it prizes—social goals such as protecting union labor and preventing short-term economic dislocation in battleground states like Michigan and Ohio. 

We aren't facing a slippery slope with the NSA spying: it's a slippery cliff. The power the NSA program gives to the administration is so great, and so secret, that it could be used any day now for some social goal the administration prizes. Heck, they are already spying on Americans without specific warrants because it helps them prevent embarrassing terrorist attacks. If it would help them find tax evaders—especially members of the despised one percent—what's to stop them? And why wouldn't this administration, or the previous one, or the next one, do something just like that? 

The key link between the GM bankruptcy and the NSA spying is property and contract. Today, when we use telecommunications equipment like phones and computers, our privacy depends on the contracts we have with the firms that transmit our data for us. It depends on their right to property, and our right as well. 

But contract and property are just what the administration does not respect. It didn't respect contracts in the GM bankruptcy. And it won't respect contract and property when it comes to telecom either. 

It's time to get our government back under control. It's time for the people to rise up and demand that their rights to property and their rights to contract be respected by the state. Those rights are the basis of privacy and freedom of speech —to say nothing of the ability to do business generally. We need these rights, and we need to fight and change any regime that doesn't uphold them. 

Policing Phone Calls and Perverting Principles   (2006)


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