the flawed case for benevolent authoritarianism

March 14, 2013

surveillance camera array

New America Foundation’s fellow Charles Kenny recently outlined his case for Big Brother for a group of casual policy wonks and argues that because a lot of biometric and surveillance data could be used for good, we should let it be used to catch tax cheats, keep tabs on criminals and crime patterns in general, and more efficiently allocate help to the poor. It’s not a new argument, in fact it’s the political science version of the benevolent technocratic authoritarianism you could hear from some TED luminaries if you spend a little time in the right circles. But there’s a reason why it’s not a very popular idea and why it has a lot of skeptics, and those skeptics are not from the tinfoil hat contingent by a wide margin. Give a government wide-ranging powers to track you and intervene in your daily life, and you open up enormous potential for abuse. The trains might run on time, just like in Mussolini’s Italy, but at what social and personal costs? What happens if you manage to run afoul of the government’s plan for how to best use you to boost GDP?

To be fair to Kenny, he’s not necessarily advocating that Big Brother is great, but that there are some benefits to programs to which we reflexively react with fear. Well meaning projects to find and catch criminals or stabilize shaky economies have been used as arguments for benevolent authoritarians for centuries, and they do tend to feed into many people’s preference for stability even if it’s at the cost of democracy. After all, people have to eat and it’s a lot easier to buy food when you have a government agency looking after your jobs and your safety. And while people tend to trust themselves not to be dangerous lunatics, the reality is that they often don’t object if their neighbors were periodically watched just in case because hey, you never know what might happen, right? One day you’re living next to perfectly quiet people and the next, bam, there’s an axe murder, the police are on your front porch, and there’s a maniac on the loose.

But again, there’s huge potential for abuse involved here. We could do such seemingly positive things as monitor all traffic and tell people when they should or shouldn’t drive, or even route all traffic by communicating with mandatory GPS units. We could also have a computer monitor an electronic version of all your health records and recommend you a diet and exercise regimen for a healthier lifestyle. However, we would also be taking away your choices and your responsibility for your own actions. People like to have choices. Yes, they hate traffic and yes, they want to be healthier and live longer, but they also want to be in control behind the wheel and if they want a doughnut at 3 am, then by FSM’s noodles they want the option to have one even if a protein bar would be better for them. Plus, and here’s the dark side of all this paternalism, who will enforce all this order and how will punishments be meted out for not following the rules? If we’re dealing with a government that can track you anywhere, how far can or will it go to discipline you?

Share
  • TheBrett

    I would be more supportive if we had rules allowing us to get prompt access to the entire body of information collected on us by surveillance, but that seems unlikely.

    That TED authoritarianism tendency you mentioned is rather strange. Have these people ever read any decent accounts of China, as opposed to Tom Friedman articles?