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Saturday, September 7, 2019

The New Totalitarian State

The Trump administration is considering a draconian citizen monitoring program that brings us straight into 1984. Now merge this surveillance state with the welfare state, and you have the recipe for a new, totalitarian government.


There is no nothing-to-hide clause in the Constitution, but the clause is more and more the de facto foundation for legislation and rule-making in Washington. The latest example is the idea of a HARPA, a Health advanced Research Projects Agency, which - mimicking defense-oriented DARPA - would develop systems for monitoring the mental health of individual citizens. The systems would be based on your electronic devices, from monitors in your home (think Alexa) to presumably your smart phone.

The federal government would use those systems to record your daily lives. It would then run your conversations and other communications through an algorithm designed to detect "resentful" attitudes and other language that government deems are signs of potential mental instability. 

Initially, participation is going to be voluntary, which of course nullifies the purpose of the program. The idea is the same here as in every other expansion of government: to create a legal, financial and organizational structure for a program, so that it can be conveniently expanded over time. This is how government always grows.

It is easy to point to major problems with this HARPA program. Its moral premise is the idea that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to be afraid of. When accepting that premise, program participants also concede that it is government, not they, who will decide whether or not they have something to hide. 

Right here, the citizen monitoring program becomes a formidable threat to our liberty. It is unlikely that it will become mandatory any time soon after its creation; more likely, it will start out as a pilot program strictly based on voluntary participation. Over time, though, the federal government will add incentives for those who participate - perhaps credits toward enrollment in Trusted Flier programs - and sooner or later there will be disincentives. If you don't participate, you will have a harder time renewing your conceal-carry permit; you may have to go through extra background or security checks, in addition to the ones that exist now, when entering a federal building or getting on an airplane. Your tax return may end up in second-tier processing.

So far, this seems like annoyances that we can cope with. But broaden the perspective just a little bit and consider what else government is doing for us. Pair the citizen monitoring program with a not-yet-created single-payer health care system. 

As I mentioned in my previous article on HARPA, the program is supposed to assess our mental health. Congress and President Trump have begun talking about getting the federal government back into the mental-health business, with taxpayers funding and providing mental health care. This will probably result in some kind of "MentalCaid" style expansion of Medicaid. 

Now couple this with the citizen monitoring program where our mental health is being assessed by a government agency, by means of listening devices in our homes and portable electronic devices. (Again, if this sounds too draconian to be even conceivable, go back and read my original article on HARPA.) Suppose the computer algorithm that monitors your mental health red-flags you for something that you said. The list of red flag "triggers" is vague and generalized in nature, making it easy to expand the "triggers" largely at government's discretion. All it takes is that you make "resentful" comments and "may have access" to guns.

In other words, you may not even own a gun or plan on buying one. The fact that you would pass a background check would be enough to deem that you "may have access" to a gun. 

At this point, the government agency in charge of the citizen monitoring program sends out a request to the appropriate law enforcement agency to retrieve you and take you to a government-run mental institution for evaluation. There, a government employee, properly trained and instructed by government, will make a more detailed assessment of your mental health.

That may take a while, depending on your cooperation.

I cannot repeat often enough that this is not an Orwellian fantasy. It is the realistic extension of a new government program being discussed in the Trump White House.

But we are not done yet. The worst part of this lies in the merger between the citizen monitoring program and the welfare state. It is not just the mental-health component that is worrisome, although obviously that is bad enough. Imagine what happens when government runs our entire health care system, as practically every Democrat presidential candidate is suggesting. 

The first fusion point between Medicaid for All and the citizen monitoring program comes in the form of a disincentive: if you do not participate, you will be put into the same second tier for health care as you would for airport security checkpoints or tax-return processing. You will have to wait longer to be referred to a specialist, with the motivation that your application needs "security processing". 

The second fusion point comes in the form of a QALY-style evaluation of your health needs. The acronym stands for "Quality Adjusted Life Years" and is used in most countries with a single-payer health care system in order to determine whether it is worth government resources to treat a person. If a patient is deemed not to experience enough life quality - with quality defined by government - to make it worth the while to cure him, the patient is denied care. 

It is not far-fetched to expand the "quality" definition to a patient's general lifestyle, even attitudes on various issues. If a person has an inadequate score according to the monitoring program, it reduces his quality scores under the QALY assessment of his health needs. 

Government gives health-care priority to citizens whose attitudes and life choices are to its liking. 

Then add a government-run universal child-care program, another welfare-state staple of liberals, progressives and many Democrats. Do you want your child to be enrolled at a more desirable facility? Do you want your child enrolled, period? If your score under the citizen monitoring program is too low, you will be sent to the back of the line. 

For decades, people have been called tin-foil hats, delusional conspiracists, alarmists, and worse, for pointing to the totalitarian risks associated with government growth. For decades, there were governments in Europe whose daily operations were every bit as totalitarian as those alarmists warned. 

For decades now, we have forgotten about those governments.  Perhaps it is time for us all to remind ourselves of what those governments were like - and how they, too, monitored their citizens.

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