The Incontrovertible Firm
“How Disclosed NSA Programs Protect Americans, and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries”
The official title of the recent and rare public US House Select Committee on Intelligence oversight hearing of the NSA
For the past three years, I have used this blog as a forum(to an admittedly limited readership) to rail against the security state. A particular gripe has been that while the admission of the thing has always been acknowledged the violation it constituted nonetheless usually remained outside the purview of consideration.1 At best, the violation may have been treated as a secondary or tertiary one. But this dereliction(of intellectual method) can no longer stand. The past two weeks, Edward Snowden, a NSA contractor, has now verifiably leaked what has hitherto been the elephant in the room: the totalitarian US surveillance enterprise.
And make no mistake, it is an enterprise. I call it The Firm, borrowing heavily from Anthony de Jasay’s heterodoxical method of Rational Choice that treats the State as a type of unitary actor2. But the Firm encompasses more than the what is traditionally thought to mean by the State. It stretches across an integrated nexus of political economy, media, academia, ingraining itself into every institution of civil society. As I have previously stated, the Firm is a rational choice casting of libertarian class theory.
The key insight of LCT–in contradistinction to liberal social contract theory–is that the State and civil society are in conflict. Liberalism holds that the State is an artificial construct to secure civil societal ends. However, practice has demonstrated that the State instead serves to subvert societal institutions, using them as “natural hosts” to effectuate an artificial process of political economy. Borrowing from Bastiat, we might depict this a the transformation of law as an instrument of justice(specifically, as the correction of injustice) to one of a perpetuation of injustice(plunder). The division of class then refers to those who depend on this perpetuation of injustice(or benefit from it) vs those who do not3.
In the jargon of rational choice, we would cast LCT as the “incentive-incompatibility problem” of collective choice to abide by the “unanimity” of the so-called social contact. In plain terms, this simply means that “constitutions” are not rational constraints against the rule-making power or authority of the State. If we dispense with this myth, then we can begin to actually examine the actual rational pattern of collective choice. What we often find is a hierarchical organization pattern serving as a de-facto decision-making rule. In public choice, a decision-making rule is the type of collective action method that imposes the decision-making costs(the price we pay for civilization) for participation in organized society. For Buchanan and Tullock, the only legitimate decision-making rule is unanimity4. In practice, this means super-majoritarian constitutional rules and amendments are the only legitimate decision-making rules.
In the original “Calculus of Consent,” side payments create marketable property rights in voting which often mitigate the external and decision-making costs of legislative action. However, later developments in the theory by Tullock advanced the idea of “rent-seeking” and the all pay auction at the methodological core of treating government/politics like a market. This rent-seeking game, however, can be very wasteful–in theory, infinitely wasteful. So, following Oliver Williamson’s treatment of The Firm–firms are DROs that arise as institutional mechanisms to mitigate wasteful bargaining costs–firms arise in political competition as means to fray the wasteful costs of the Tullock rent-seeking game5. This introduces the Firm as potential method of collective action. If we can identify high external costs of a firm’s rule making that nonetheless remain impervious to correction or reform, then we can explain this by treating these costs as decision-making costs. This would then gives us the Firm as a decision-making rule. And the Firm as a decision-making rule gives us “the State as its own Agency.”
Empirically, a firm can be demonstrated via a rent-seeking condition of rents >> outlays within a given market sector(of political economy). However, to show the Firm is not sufficient to show a decision-making rule.6 For this, we have to demonstrate external costs of the Firm equate to decision-making costs. A clear way to demonstrate this is to show a rule which overrides one derived from a legitimate decision-making rule. Put differently, showing enforcement of a firm’s rule that is blatantly unconstitutional is sufficient to show that firm as a decision-making rule.
For example, the public choice method excludes a statement such as “total surveillance is the price we must pay for the security to participate in organized society” because total surveillance overrides a number of rules derived from a legitimate decision-making rule, the unanimity of the bill of rights. To treat these costs as external costs is contra the public choice method because these costs are, in fact, decision-making ones. Now public choice per se certainly does not exclude legislative actions from imposing decision-making costs(if the decision-making rule is a simple majority system, then this is to be expected), but the standard method encounters an agency problem in explaining how decision-making costs are passed off as external costs to thwart a decision-making rule rooted in unanimity. Particularly, if this agency exhibits a concerted, coordinated organization pattern that encompasses military and intelligence organs, congressional leaders, the Dept. of Justice, media and journalistic organs, tech, telecommunication and defense industry sectors, political science academia and the like, etc. The agency problem is further compounded by an apparent legality established by secret courts, the public disclosure of such carrying a penalty of “aiding the enemy” and espionage. This is a vexing problem for standard public choice theory because there is a manifest agency afoot that appears to equate the public to “the enemy.”
The NSA as a Decision-Making Rule
Now let us return to Edward Snowden. What Snowden actually discovered amounted to a NSA/Intel decision-making rule. However, Snowden’s documentation trove, when fully revealed, will elucidate just how much of these rules are actually oriented around enforcing a 21st century mercantilist political economy rooted in data analytics(which I have dubbed “The Fifth Monopoly”). The so-called “liberty vs security trade-off debate” is a phony one. The decision-making cost is not this:
total surveillance is the price we must pay for the security to participate in organized society
Rather, it is this:
total surveillance is the price we must pay for the operational security of American dominance and control of the global political economy of data analytics
The latter is a decision-making cost that can only be implemented by decision-making rule such as the NSA. If we go by Russ Tice, a noted NSA whistleblower from the Bush tenure, the NSA, for all intents and purposes, is now the agency of the US government. This would put the US as a full-blown secret intelligence State.
The method of The Firm is an anathema to the traditional classical liberal schools of Chicago and Virginia because of the inversion of Milton Friedman’s famous relationship regarding capitalism and freedom. Capitalism is a necessary(though not sufficient) condition for political freedom. The Firm, however, employs a method that predicts a rent-seeking pattern that will eventually produce a decision-making rule that will displace legitimate decision-making rules rooted in unanimity. The Firm’s succinct relationship motto: Capitalism is a sufficient(though not necessary) condition to destroy liberal political freedom.
Still, one may ask how can capitalism result in a totalitarian regime of social control? Perhaps this short answer: when you stop being the customer and instead become the product itself. But “why” is not really the pertinent question here. Rather, the pertinent question is “why not”? From “incentive-incompatibility problem” of collective choice outlined above, there is no reliable “why not” constraint.
1 for the most part, radical libertarianism excluded
2 The Firm differs a bit from de Jasay’s account in that the former is squarely rooted in public choice, which is a narrower subset of rational choice. But the conclusions derived from each are more or less identical.
3IMHO, Class Theory is only a coherent methodological tool when it is institutionalized, i.e., classes are cast in institutional terms. In this sense we would say there are a class of institutions, or an institutional arrangement, that is entirely dependent on an artificial process of political economy, without which, it would disappear literally overnight.
4 Unanimity is required because of the potentially high external costs of collective action. By definition, an external cost is that cost to a party who did not choose to incur that cost. Unanimity ensures the cost is thus a decision-making one and not an external one. In other words, unanimity ensures “consent.”
5 Theoretically, Firms are a difficult thing to explain. But empirically, they obviously exist and are a fundamental organizational unit of market rent-seeking. It is simply not plausible to acknowledge them in free-market competition but deny them in political competition. Its not a defensible position(that is, there is no rational argument that necessarily explains them away in political competition, particularly given the difficulty of a rational argument to begin with to explain their existence in a free market). Legal distinctions/arguments are a red herring.In political competition they may not take the form of a de jure entity, but they are nonetheless, a de facto one.
6 Tullock himself had wrestled with the apparent persistence of Firms in (political) rent-seeking and succeeded in partially explaining them away by resorting to intellectual gymnastics vis-a-vis the efficiency of the rent-seeking technology. However, the persistent of firms would only be treated as an anomaly, and its attendent costs viewed primarily as external. The anomaly perhaps existentially threatened the validity of public choice as a method, but the threat was not viewed as something that extended to liberal democracy itself.