‘Until August 1914,” A. J. P. Taylor wrote, heartbreakingly, at the beginning of English History, 1914–45,
a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. . . . All this was changed by the impact of the Great War.
Thus did Liberal England begin to suffer its quick and “strange death.”
Here in America, eyebrows are being raised. In the middle of Queens this weekend, I heard a moderate-seeming father of three tell his friend that he generally had “no time for the conspiracy people.” “But,” he continued, shrugging his shoulders, “you look now and think, ‘Well, yeah.’ Those guys were always going on about this or that. Maybe I should have listened more closely?” What strange bedfellows the last two months of scandal and revelation have made. And what a disgrace that it has taken so long.
Nonetheless, who really needs “the conspiracy people” when so many of our institutions are tasked with spying on us in plain sight? “No one likes to see a government folder with his name on it,” wrote Stephen King in Firestarter. If this is true, we tolerate it manfully. Every year, as a condition of my being alive, I furnish the IRS with a huge range of personal information. As of next year, I will be required to alert them of my health-care arrangements, too. Who among us was honestly surprised when the IRS used the vast powers with which it has been endowed against the people who object to its existence? Nowadays, the government openly keeps files on each and every one of us. Lord knows what happens in secret.
In the country that I left behind, it is worse. The streets of England are paved with cameras that film day and night without rest or interruption. On the roads, “average speed check” equipment tracks drivers along their way, recording where they have been and averaging out the time it took for them to get to each checkpoint in order to ensure that they are not traveling too fast. Number-plate-recognition systems are commonplace, and intended to become ubiquitous. At 3.4 million strong already, the National DNA Database grows like Topsy. No distinction is made between innocent and guilty; everyone falls into the net.
Because the British government owns and runs almost all the hospitals and employs the vast majority of the medical staff, if you wish to access the care for which you are forced at gunpoint to pay, you must hand your most sensitive information over to a bureaucrat. This process is not only accepted in the country of Locke, Mill, and Orwell; it is wholeheartedly celebrated, as if it were the national religion.
So complete has been the destruction of liberty’s cradle that, a few years back, the ruling Labour party felt comfortable suggesting that all British automobiles be mandated to carry state-owned GPS equipment that would track each car’s movements and automatically calculate one’s road taxes. With a few admirable exceptions, the ensuing debate was over whether this was practically feasible. One hundred years ago, the very suggestion would have been treated as downright treasonous. Now, it is blithely ignored. If this can happen there, it can happen here.
Indeed, it already is. America, which has proven better than most at resisting the ills that afflict so much of the world, is rapidly joining the international status quo. The FAA predicts that by the end of the decade, 30,000 drones will patrol the air, many equipped with high-definition cameras that can recognize a face from five miles away. Already, the Border Patrol “has been lending out the drones to federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies with no oversight,” the watchdog group the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveals. About this insidious development, there has been little outcry. If you are concerned about the government’s collecting metadata, imagine what flying squads of law-enforcement vehicles will do.
Relative to what we’ve been accustomed to lo these five years, their messianic zeal is subdued, but the president’s chastened defenders are correct when they insist that the government saw fit to obtain a warrant before it ventured to collect user information from Verizon and other private companies. This, however, is a strictly technical defense. Legality does not equal morality, just as something’s being permissible does not render it wise. That the American state could do all manner of things in order to make us safer is not an irrefutable justification for its doing so.