Can Self-Governance Survive Surveillance?

Surveillance and self-governance are like oil and water. They do no not mix well. Increasingly, US cities are turning to surveillance systems in an effort to undercut the rise of violent crime. However, these efforts could result in the subversion of the foundations of the constitutional system that birthed American freedom.

Self-government is the bedrock of the American way of life. Representative democracy is built into the structure of the United States government. This system relies on the active participation of everyday people. If individuals decide to abandon self-discipline, the system collapses.

The founders understood this truth. When James Madison wrote Federalist No. 55 in defense of the Constitution, he argued that individual moral control was necessary to the functioning of the nation. “[S]incere friends of liberty who give themselves up to extravagancies of the passion,” he wrote, “are not aware of the injury they do their own cause.”

Throughout United States history, arguments have been presented stating undisciplined people cannot self-govern. President Lincoln argued against Senator Douglas’s morally hollow ethic. While Douglas saw the issue of slavery as unimportant, Lincoln argued the issue was one of great moral, social, and political importance. 

Indeed, it was a serious wrong that threatened the integrity of the founding contract embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Of course, slavery and surveillance are nothing alike, but both threaten the foundation of America. The hypocrisy of slavery threatened our founding ideals. Surveilla nce threatens our ability to engage in the process of representative government.

Today, scholars and commentators still debate the meaning of self-governance. Michael Joyce, writing for the Hoover Institute, articulated two general meanings given to self-governance. The first definition is the image envisioned by Madison. This perspective sees self-governance as the process of morally responsible individuals engaging in the political process. The second view of self-governance means nothing more than doing whatever the public, collectively, chooses.

The problem with the second view of self-governance is that it separates freedom from responsibility and, over time, destroys liberty in favor of short-sighted self-interest. Most who favor a traditional understanding of self-governance argue, as Joyce does, that the return of individual capacity for “personal self, for reflection, restraint, and moral action” is essential.

However, this traditional understanding of self-governance faces practical obstacles. For all their wisdom, the Founding Fathers were incapable of conceiving of the speed with which twentieth century technology would advance. In 1776, the ability of governments to effectively gather evidence to prosecute the most arbitrary of laws was limited by the difficulty of obtaining necessary resources.

The human capacity for evil has remained stable over time, but the ability to invade every aspect of individual private life has grown by leaps and bounds. The dangers and pitfalls of technological innovation are widely discussed. Many reasonable people, such as well-known psychology expert, Jonathan Haidt, now see the negative consequences of our collective attachment to smart devices. 

Unfortunately, the problems are often discussed only within the context of social media. Although social media has many problems, it is not responsible for all of society’s faults. While the psychology of online communications is fascinating, the problems associated with the state harnessing behavioral databases collected through private commercial activity is far more dangerous to the future of the nation.

Devices tracking an individual’s physical location, preferences, desires, and personal habits have only grown in popularity. These new technologies are convenient, but there is a dark side to monitoring and analyzing every aspect of human behavior. If these issues are not discussed and resolved, the capacity for individuals to engage in the experiment of self-government will come to a slow, anticlimactic halt. 

Societies governed by full surveillance are, by definition, not free. People simply do not behave the same when under observation, or otherwise perpetually connected to collective society. The threat to self-governance is no longer purely fought in the moral realm. Instead, the most pressing problems revolve around maintaining the sense of safety and security that comes from having reasonable boundaries between public and private life. 

The culture wars will continue to rage, but they will ultimately serve no purpose if self-governance itself dies through government co-option of vast, powerful databases that monitor and analyze human behavior.

There is no silver bullet solution that will instantaneously save self-governance. But, if America’s experiment in ordered liberty is to survive, policy makers, legislative bodies, and responsible citizens must be willing to address the challenges head-on. This requires understanding the problem and the proper roles of legislation and individual action.