Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Catch of the Day

The Catch goes to John Sides for pointing out some interesting research from last year. As John sums it up, Jeffery Mondak and Jon Hurwitz found:
For civil libertarians dismayed at many (most?) Americans’ willingness to accept an expanded “national security state,” the problem may lie not so much with the threat of terrorism, but with a general failure to defend civil liberties.
That's worth knowing; terrorism isn't a special case, but part of a more general lack of commitment to civil liberties.

That's generally a pretty big problem for the small group (and I'm in that group) who really do consider civil liberties a priority. Basically, you can get lip service support, but it's not deep at all, and for many it doesn't take much to get to where the trade-offs are worth it.

What's more, the incentives for politicians are asymmetrical in a way that biases against civil liberties. That is: the downside of an incremental loss of civil liberties isn't ever going to be very large. But the downside, or at least the perceived downside, of insisting on civil liberties at the expense of some competing value is almost always going to be lopsided in favor of the other value.

And unfortunately, I don't think it's a problem that can be solved. About the best we can hope for is either luck of the draw with politicians who just happen to care about these issues, or, more likely, the courts stepping in.

At any rate: nice catch!


  1. It is true, the average citizen simply does not care. I think of (more than one) young woman at my large place of employment, sharing with all her girlfriends and the interested young men, the stories of her struggles with the unworthy/often absent/addicted or otherwise criminal boyfriend. She shares most of these details willingly, there is no sense of hiding or being ashamed of all this.

    They assume the authorities know the worst of them already? They think that since they are ordinary citizens with near-zero political consciousness or involvement, the authorities could care less? Or its just the social environment they've grown up in, the only one they know?

    That last one seems a big factor, undoubtedly there are several and complicatedly-mixed feelings and understandings going on.

    1. You obviously think that your colleague is unfathomably foolish for sharing personal details with near-strangers. But why? Why should she hide or be ashamed? If her boyfriend wants to keep his foibles a secret, then I guess she's violated his trust. But then, that's between them, isn't it?

      I think the passive attitude toward civil liberties shown by young people can be chalked up to three things, two of which you touched on:

      (1) They didn't grow up reading Orwell. The notion of an all-encompassing dystopian State oppressing the populace is as foreign to them as "duck and cover."

      (2) They grew up experiencing 9/11. They have made a rational decision that, in order to minimize the chances of something like this even recurring, you must sacrifice something, such as... the abstract, comforting feeling of knowing that the government will never collect your communications data.

      (3) They grew up in the internet age. They know that anything you post online can be seen by anyone, anywhere, for eternity. They did not grow up expecting telecommunications to be an impenetrable fortress of privacy.

    2. I wouldn't say I think these people are foolish, it is just a very different kind of ethic going on.

      I did grow up among people who, at least verbally, really cared about
      their liberties, their options, their ability to choose. And yes,, there was a greater consciousness of not discussing potentially personally embarrassing things in public.

      Now, there were many things that "straight" society considered embarrassing that we blasted through in our quest for freedom and options, yet even as young hippies, we were more conscious of "presenting your best face to the world" than I see today.

      No one is essentially "better" or "smarter," just very different times and societies. And I admit I don't understand this new one very well.

  2. There is a giant partisan element. Look at that turnaround on the dem side! When Bushitler was in office, dems really cared about civil liberties.

    Politics: always asinine. Always.

  3. I had PS 100 students in my office today, and since civil liberties is on Friday's midterm (summer course), I mentioned the NSA thing (balancing order vs. liberty, that kind of thing). Seriously, not even a thought that the NSA stuff might be a big deal.

    I'm actually wondering if the NSA reaction is playing out like the press and (some) politicians dragging a very reluctant public kicking and screaming into the debate. These are SERIOUS issues, and the public's reaction so far seems anything but. I'm not saying that the NSA has necessarily gone way too far (though, my opinion is that) and that anyone who disagrees with me is a fascist. These are big questions, involving fundamental freedoms and terrorism. But, the "ho hum" response from non-elites to this is interesting.

    Supporters of the program in Congress, for example, have been very careful to say free speech and unreasonable searches are bad things, but they think the NSA thing is more important. I'm not getting that reaction from everyday people.

  4. For civil libertarians dismayed at many (most?) Americans’ willingness to accept an expanded “national security state,” the problem may lie not so much with the threat of terrorism, but with a general failure to defend civil liberties.

    I didn't read the Mondak/Hurwitz article, but this summary sentence doesn't make much sense, given the portion of the article excerpted by Sides:

    We find that respondents are almost as willing to sacrifice civil liberties to fight crime as to fight terrorism, and that attitudes regarding terrorism and crime policy exhibit considerable structural similarity.

    A more accurate summary would therefore be something like: For civil libertarians dismayed at many (most?) Americans’ willingness to accept an expanded “national security state,” the problem may lie not so much with the threat of terrorism, but with a combination of the threat of terrorism and the threat of crime.

    Americans care about civil liberties, they just care more about preventing terrorism, crime and other mayhem. Can you blame them?

  5. What's more, the incentives for politicians are asymmetrical in a way that biases against civil liberties.

    Can you expound on this? Seems to me that neither an incremental loss of civil liberties or a slight ratcheting-down of the security state has much tangible downside to a politician. With the former, you risk a constituent's privacy being violated; with the latter, you risk failing to anticipate and possibly prevent an attack.

    Either way, those risks are infinitesimal, and so any downside would necessarily result from perceptions - i.e., the perception that the politician is turning us into a Surveillance State vs. the perception that the politician is soft on terrorism. The incentives work both ways.

    1. Andrew, I don't think this is what JB meant, but the security-industrial complex probably exerts a lot of influence. In the private sector alone, there are half a million people with top security clearance. Unlike Edward Snowden, I presume that most of them are not interested in parting with their six figure salary in return for a stricter adherence to the Constitution.

  6. I've long believed that civil liberties have a natural tendency to be unpopular, because they uphold a concept of abstract rights against more tangible fears of crime and terrorism. Having the government tap one's phones and read one's emails may create discomfort for many people, but I don't think it carries the same primal force as the fear of another 9/11.

    It's one of the differences between civil liberties and civil rights. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably and there is in fact significant overlap between them, civil rights usually involves the emancipation of particular social groups (blacks, gays, women) which is something that tends to increase over time as people grow to accept the idea of treating these groups as equals. Civil liberties, on the other hand, often requires one to defend the rights of some highly unsympathetic individuals from the Westboro Baptist Church to terror suspects who may indeed be guilty--all based on the abstract notion that it will make us a freer society overall. It's no wonder politicians find it easy to demagogue against these issues when they arise.

    Democrats, in particular, have been terrified of pursuing civil liberties since the defeat of Dukakis. In the 2008 election, there was enough noise by Democratic activists that Obama signed on to certain causes such as closing Guantanamo Bay (which was helped by McCain's support as well), but once in office he mostly tossed them over his shoulder. (Not that I'm blaming him for failing to close Gitmo--it's hard to imagine what he could have done against 90 no-votes in the Senate. But he doesn't have that excuse with the wiretapping issue, which he showed signs of abandoning as early as mid-2008.) Even if politicians were more willing to defend civil liberties, it's far from clear how big an effect it could have on public opinion.

  7. Really, the simple fact, observable to all with even half-open eyes, is that most people by far simply have no use for civil liberties. I don't mean that in the idiomatic sense of "dislike" but literally. They never have any occasion to call on them for themselves: they don't use them. They support them as slogans in a vaguely religious way (thank goodness even for that) just as they support Jesus's teachings (the people I grew up among were Christians, nominally). But every few weeks (or so it has come to seem to me over many decades, now) some smartaleck conducts and publishes a poll that asked people about specific rights (flag-burning, unpleasant political speech, etc.) and gets all the "wrong" answers. Can it be than anyone even semiconscious is surprised by that any more?

    1. Do you ever have use for civil liberties? If so, how?

    2. Well, yeah, we all do, don't we? I certainly like being able to learn all I can about whatever my attention happens to fall on, including some things only a minority of us all really approve of as subjects of study. I'd quickly feel bereft if I couldn't read such stuff as all this here. I used to work in book publishing--published things critical of public policy (nothing very outrageous or brave--anti - Vietnam War things, for instance--but certainly needed and cherished the freedom to do that). Did my post create the impression that I shared that (what looks to me like) general indifference?

  8. My sense is that there are a couple of things that contribute to the relative lack of concern in young people. One is that we are now more than 20 years since the breakup of the USSR. The visibility of large governments who actively abuse their citizens is simply much less for young people than it was for us boomers.

    Second, the actions of the NSA aren't really that different from everyday actions by organizations like Google and Amazon. I get an e-mail from my brother suggesting a joint vacation in Italy, and literally minutes later, ads for Tuscan villas show up in my browser on the NYTimes website. A lot of people, young and old, find this creepy -- but its become commonplace and people do get used to it.

  9. Let's talk about how civil liberties have been compromised by the "war on drugs." Teams of armed police officers can storm a residence, shooting any resistors. Your vehicle can be impounded. If there is a presumption - not proof, but a presumption - that you have sold drugs, all your property and assets can be seized. You have to prove to a judge that you obtained them through legal means in order to get them back. In some communities, a full quarter of young men have served hard time for drug crimes. These developments in American society are decades-old.

    The Fourth Amendment has been in tatters for a very long time.

    Why exactly do you expect young people to believe it matters to American society?

  10. I get what Jonathan's saying about support for civil liberties, but the First Amendment still does pretty well. Some years back the Repubs tried to win elections based on the asinine issue of flag burning. They may have won a few places, but got absolutely nowhere on the constitutional amendment.

    I think the polling is missing something about the political strength of civil liberties, or at least certain civil liberties.

    1. The polls, if I recall, showed a majority of Americans supporting a ban on flag burning. The amendment never went anywhere because amendments almost never go anywhere--it's extremely difficult to amend the Constitution, even with majority support from the public.

  11. "But the downside, or at least the perceived downside, of insisting on civil liberties at the expense of some competing value is almost always going to be lopsided in favor of the other value."

    So, Obama vetoes the Patriot Act = No Healthcare?

    Does anyone really think this way? It sounds more like a rationalization we tell ourselves to feel better about an administration that we're going to blindly support anyway.

    In any case, that's not what I would call the thought process of a civil libertarian. Of course, most people aren't libertarians. Most people aren't automatically pro or anti-liberty because they haven't really thought these things through --so their position is easily altered (hence conflicting polling results), at least for those who don't just outsource their views to one party or another.

    When the issue is framed right, I think most Americans favor liberty -- but few political leaders are doing that, and the leadership of both parties is actively supportive of the security state.


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