Information is Power, Government is Control

23:55 Fri 21 Mar 2008. Updated: 16:50 24 Mar 2008
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The recent revelations that State Department contractors have been snooping through the passport records of presidential candidates, not to mention the fact that Eliot Spitzer’s purchases of sex were uncovered first by his bank and then the IRS, have highlighted the reach of the surveillance state, particularly the sheer amount of information that the government actively tracks. A recent LA Times editorial points out that purely personal privacy isn’t the real key, but rather the ability to use surveillance for political advantage—which should be pretty obvious, even more obvious given its blatant presence in the not-very-distant past.

Anyone who doesn’t understand that information is power just hasn’t thought it through. The people who aim to rule, which is what the vast majority of politicians and other political players desire, and those who do rule, are engaged in a struggle with other ruling factions and with the ruled, who might think to upset the order of things. Other factions, and the peons, are essentially enemy players in this game. As with any game, the more you know about the plans, movements, and dispositions of your enemies, the better. More information means more of an edge, an edge means greater influence—information is power.

Those who have power are going to use it if they can, and those who want to use power are going to grab whatever information is available. Unless the penalties are significant, this means that all of the surveillance powers of the state will inevitably be used for political purposes (of course, all purposes of the state and its component players are political, but that’s another story).

That government is control should similarly be uncontroversial, but this isn’t the case in mainstream discourse (whose purpose is probably to make the state of things seem palatable, rather than to examine closely that state, or the state). But government is all about governing others. Most people in a democratic society seem to believe that its presence is both necessary and justified due to the fact that other people can’t be trusted—and it is always other people, not you, who need to be controlled so that they don’t behave irresponsibly, who need to be threatened with punishment to ensure that they don’t engage in murder and plunder. Those others need a firm hand to make sure they don’t run amok. The government is what applies the controls, and, well, such controls need protections of their own, to make sure that do-gooders, external agents, and/or immature revolutionaries don’t gum up the works. Put another way: those in power are going got want to keep that power, whether they’re elected representatives or not. Once they have it, they’ll use what they have to protect and expand it. The only way to stop this is if the penalties for abuses are severe and likely to be carried out.

This is what much of the current debate about ‘civil liberties’ comes down to. One side wants to impose regulation and accountability on the various surveillance/intelligence apparatuses, to attempt to rein in the inevitable anti-democratic abuses. The other side either wants to expand the powers of the state because they feel that they will benefit from those powers as they are part of the elite who will get to wield them, or they have some bizarre (but fervent) desire to be ‘protected’ by a set of forces that seem ‘strong’ (and are usually desirous of protection from terrors that are in reality far less dangerous than commonly depicted).

That group, the second set, want to believe in a ‘good’ government, to believe that those in power are too noble to abuse that power. (Ironic, really, since this exaltation of the nobility of the rulers is normally found hand-in-hand with a distrust and fear of the ‘others’, that is other people, who fall into the category of those-who-will-run-amok-if-not-constrained.)

One more point: it’s not just the growth of the surveillance state, it’s also the growth of laws (and penalties for breach of those laws). The surveillance state is more effective as a weapon against political enemies if it’s easier to demonstrate that those enemies broke actual laws. Therefore the proliferation of laws, and particularly the criminalizing of so many things that people have historically engaged in on a wide scale, also aids those who can gather more information, as it’s simply more likely that this information will contain details about ‘lawbreaking’ by enemies.

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