Sunday, February 21, 2016

Someone actually wrote this: Government, Apple, and privacy

In an op-ed in today's New York Times, "In the Government vs. Apple, Who Wears the Black Hat?," Robert Levine asks, "Shouldn’t the government have more legal and moral authority to weigh complicated issues of privacy and national security than a company that makes phones?" He does not make the case that it should.

Levine answers the question thus: "It should. After all, nobody ever elected Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, to public office." So what? History, particularly American history, is full of people of people who successfully stood up for their own and other people's rights without having been elected to public office, often by resisting the dictates of those who had been.

He continues:

The government, not Apple, should guarantee our privacy rights. But this dispute has arisen precisely because the government hasn’t done so. Instead, it squandered much of its legal and moral authority when the National Security Agency engaged in widespread surveillance of American citizens for so long. Some N.S.A. abuses targeted Silicon Valley directly.
In other words, he asserts that government "should guarantee our privacy rights" and immediately shows that trusting it to do so is a fool's errand. The problem with trusting government to guarantee our privacy rights is that we have privacy rights against government for a reason.
Important choices about the future of technology and privacy should be made by the American people and their representatives, not by Silicon Valley, where even the noblest intentions are mixed with huge financial stakes.
So, everything within the state, nothing outside of the state, nothing against the state?
[W]e are left with Silicon Valley executives making engineering decisions that could determine what information the government can and can’t have. That’s both bad policy and fundamentally undemocratic.
Instead of making a valid argument, Levine simply uses "undemocratic" as a snarl word. The outcome that he fears is no more undemocratic than the idea of privacy itself — which is undemocratic in a way, but in a good way.
But the current choice is between a government that doesn’t seem to recognize limits to its own power to access personal information and a technology company that does. It’s a bad choice, but an obvious one. While nobody elected Mr. Cook to protect our privacy, we should be glad someone is.
Except for "It's a bad choice," that is exactly it. The problem with comparing an idealized version of government to technology companies in the real world is government in the real world.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Live by the Political Sword, Die by the Political Sword

In Virginia, Christian social conservatives are calling for a law protecting freedom of association and freedom of religion — or, more accurately, cherry-picked versions thereof:
The bill would ... prohibit state agencies from punishing discrimination against people who are transgender or who are in same-sex marriages. The provision about sex outside of marriage was added minutes before lawmakers voted.
A state legislator justifies the bill thus:
“I think people of faith feel the tide turning so strongly that all they’re looking for is some reasonable accommodation, because they view that there is this secular church, if you will, that’s trying to impose its belief system upon every­body else,” he said. “As in, ‘You agree with all this or else.’ ”
I wonder how many Christian social conservatives see the irony in complaining about any other group that is "trying to impose its belief system upon every­body else." Government action to impose one belief system on everyone is what they demanded for decades. Like so many others who demand coercive government solutions, they apparently did not imagine that they or people like them would ever fall under the juggernaut that they had helped to set into motion.

The right holds no monopoly on that lack of foresight. Radical feminists, such as those at the blog Gender Trender, have experienced cognitive dissonance because anti-discrimination laws, which they otherwise support, are being used to force them to admit transgender people into womyn-born-womyn-only events. Those radical feminists have even uttered the forbidden words “unintended consequences.” Similarly, progressives have long urged greater government control over market forces, only to see socially conservative politicians take them at their word and propose new restrictions on everything from yoga pants to gay bars. Also, the Catholic Church supported Obamacare up to, but not including, requirements that would violate that church’s positions on abortion and contraceptives.

In fiscal matters, politicians in America's major cities have long used their cities' muscle in the state legislatures to shape their states' spending policies to their liking. However, many of the same cities have lost enough population that their state governments can now ignore them at no political cost. What happens next should not surprise you.

I predict that we shall see more calls for government intervention backfire similarly. For example, a recent Supreme Court decision cheered by progressives, Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., found (through reasoning that strikes me as intellectually dishonest and in defiance of the way in which appellate courts are supposed to handle questions of fact) that vehicle license plates identifying organizational membership or other interests are government speech rather than individual speech and consequently held that the First Amendment does not protect such license plates. Anyone who does not see the obvious implication for specialty license plates for liberal causes, such as Virginia’s “Trust Women; Respect Choice” plates, must be using some weapons-grade self-delusion.

Thus, people on opposite sides of various issues have switched talking points, as they must to preserve their positions, on whether government should impose the majority’s views on everyone. They both ignore the obvious lesson and refuse to acknowledge that the tide will indeed turn and that the majority to which they appeal will not always take their side. If you live by the political sword, do not count out dying by the political sword.