Former East German Stasi Now More Liberal Than The Chicago School?

“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true.”

Former Lieutenant Colonel in The East German Stasi, referring to the NSA Spying Apparatus

From a simple, straightforward, technical legal standpoint, there’s absolutely no question that Snowden violated the law.

Why I think he deserves punishment? …Well, the fact is, Snowden’s just an ordinary guy with absolutely no expertise in public policy, in the law, in national security. He’s a techie. He made the decision on his own, without any authorization, without any approval by the American people, to reveal classified information about which he had absolutely no expertise in terms of the danger to the nation, the value of the information to national security.

Geoffrey Stone, Chicago Law School

McClatchy recently published an interesting interview with Wolfgang Schmidt, a former East German Stasi officer, where Schmidt, in between waxing a certain admiration for current NSA surveillance capability, issued an obvious warning:

“It is the height of naiveté to think that once collected this information won’t be used. This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

To me, this qualifies our former east german officer as more liberal, or least more cognizant of a liberal methodology, than our esteemed scholars of official classical liberal orthodoxy represented by the Chicago School here in the United States. To wit, this recent drivel penned by Richard Epstein. Recall the likes of Peter Boettke once proclaimed Richard Epstein the sharpest libertarian thinker alive. At the time, I responded with this, which more or less summarized a case why if that were so, then we were accordingly fucked. Now Epstein himself labors to conclusively demonstrate the point.

Now to Geoffrey Stone. Stone uttered the above prefatory quote in a debate with Chris Hedges on Democracy Now. Stone’s position more or less is that Snowden’s actions were prima facie criminal and Snowden lacked sufficient qualification to determine if his actions would actually serve the public interest. This, of course, is an attack on both Snowden’s actions and motives. The easy rejoinder to Stone need not appeal to any higher moral principle but simply unravel the loosely tied knot of Stone’s own sheer hypocrisy. The prima facie criminality argument fails the “second-blush” inspection test because there is a de facto “prescriptive custom” in place that every day excuses leaking of classified information if such leakage is deemed to be in the “national interest.” Since Stone has never publicly called for a criminal crackdown on this prescriptive custom, a custom that more or less overrides the de jure letter of the written code, he, at the very least, implicitly accepts it. So, Stone’s prima facie criminality argument is a dishonest one.

The second part of Stone’s case is really the crux of his argument: Snowden is not qualified to determine if his actions served the public interest, hence he should be punished. However, I would contend that the construction of the argument begs an illiberal premise that renders any conclusion irrelevant to the liberal mind. I simply reject the premise that Stone or his like-minded colleagues are the arbiters of “public interest.” To accept that premise would be to concede a more generalized argument that the you and I are not qualified to know what our own interests are. This putrid argument from authority is particularly laughable in this particular case given that Stone is a technological ignoramus who–on this matter– carries all the authority of a certified clown(apologies to Penn Jillette).

Frankly, the question of “national interest” is an impossible one to answer. Like “social justice,” it’s a fake abstraction. What is answerable, however, is what is not in the public interest. In an earlier interview, Stone asserted we had to accept “total surveillance” to avoid the likelihood of a worse alternative of permanent martial law. I would counter that a system of governance that offered a choice between total surveillance and martial law is one that serves only the interests of the few and not worth protecting.

Stone and Epstein are professionally linked as collaborative editors of this early 1990s volume, The Bill of Rights in the Modern State. A contemporaneous edition of that volume would now arbitrate a consensus of “be happy with what you’re granted, it could get–indeed it is likely to get–much worse.” A consensus predicated on argument from secret authority, reassurances of procedural technicalities as sufficient protections and dismissal of dissent on the grounds of loony endangerment to national security. Call this what you may, but it ain’t liberalism.

Frankly, I’m not surprised by the descent of these two pillars of “the Chicago School” into outright authoritarianism, or squishy totalitarianism, if you prefer. For some time it has been evident that Milton Friedman’s aphorism of Capitalism to Freedom was not only flawed but fatally severed. What remains standing is political economy as an instrument of social control. If Jeremy Bentham is credited as the first designer of the panopticon, Richard Epstein and the Chicago School are only fulfilling the tradition that they inherit from.