A few other lunchtime news articles have caught my eye while I’ve been on vacation. In the first, CBS News is asking “Do voters want less government, or just a government that works?” The second is a report on how a US Federal Judge has ruled NSA’s wiretaps as legal. Here’s what they have in common…
In the first, I posit that voters want a government that gets out of the way. Its not an issue of “more” or “less” — they want a government that does what it needs to do, does that efficiently, and without an overblown bureaucracy that gets in the way. The Obamacare debacle is a great example of this. I think that the people want insurance to be affordable and available to everyone, and to provide some defined set of minimum coverage. They want that to be able to happen with the least amount of hassle. This is what the Obama administration tried to provide, but they never clearly communicated how they were going to do it and what that meant. They let the other side shape the conversation, or they incorrectly stated what they were doing. For such a great communicator on the campaign trail, Obama failed miserably at conveying the message while in office. The Republicans were no better: they understood what the people wanted, but the only message they could convey was “block and appeal”. They never detailed the precise problems in an understandable way, nor did they work to correct the problem. So, again, what we have was a failure to communicate.
Now, let’s look at the second issue. One judge rules the program legal, the other illegal. This again is a failure of communication, and a failure of understanding. Both sides have failed to communicate the key notion: it is legal under the constitution to conduct surveillance outside of the country, and inside the country on non-citizens. Protections against unwarranted search and seizure apply only to US citizens. That’s how the Constitution is written boys and girls: protections are for citizens. Thus, to the extent that the NSA data collection has at least one side of the conversation being a non-citizen, they are legal. For the courts, that’s what this will boil down to.
The failure of understanding regards making a distinction between “legal” and “right”. Just because something is “legal”, boys and girls, doesn’t make it “right”. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself about all the outrageous things corporations and bankers are doing that are “legal”, but morally questionable. Similarly, although what the NSA is doing here may be legal, when seen through the eyes of today’s generation, it may not be right. By that, I mean that one thing the Internet has done is to break down country barriers; when dealing with information flow across the networks, citizenship status seems secondary to basic human rights. If we judge a right to some level of privacy to be a basic human right, then what is being done is wrong. Of course, if we are making this judgement, we can’t just judge against the US — we need to judge against all organizations that are violating the right of privacy, including other governments (including fundamentalist religious governments) and corporations that fail to protect the data.
The other legal issue in the second question has to do with balance. Suppose, for instance, that we determine there is a right of privacy. However, the government also has a right to protect its citizens. Where is the balancing point of privacy vs. protection? Can there be some level of information that could protect the people by deterring, preventing, or permitting discovery of an attack, and could that level of information be an acceptable tradeoff. This isn’t a black and white issue — we make such tradeoffs every day, giving up privacy for medical care, or everytime we post on Facebook.
In short, both of these questions revolve about having clear communications of the issues. That seems to be the theme of the day.