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Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Nothing to Hide Clause in the Constitution

The welfare state is about to merge with the surveillance state. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. Or, do you? 


I am taking a break in the roll-out of the Withering Prosperity series. There is a pressing issue, urgently libertarian, that requires attention right now.

The presumption of innocence and the sovereignty of the individual are two cornerstones of a free society. There comes a point when government's encroachment on both will flip that society from being free to being totalitarian. All too often in human history, we have failed to see that point coming, only recognized it in the rearview mirror.

Are we approaching that point?

The White House has been briefed on a proposal to develop a way to identify early signs of changes in people with mental illness that could lead to violent behavior. Supporters see the plan as a way President Trump could move the ball forward on gun control following recent mass shootings as efforts seem to be flagging to impose harsher restrictions such as background checks on gun purchases. The proposal is part of a larger initiative to establish a new agency called the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency or HARPA, which would sit inside the Health and Human Services Department. Its director would be appointed by the president, and the agency would have a separate budget, according to three people with knowledge of conversations around the plan.
This is not just another government agency; if that were the case we could just roll our eyes and move on to even more pressing threats to our free, prosperous future. No, this is a new breed - it is a government agency that merges two big statist structures: the welfare state and the surveillance state.

It is also important to note that it not the superficial intent behind the agency that matters. It is its function, and what that function implies for the future. 

Every new function government gives itself will grow in ambition, intention and budget. It is a law as general as gravity itself. Therefore, when we consider this new HARPA agency, we have to look at not where it will start its life, but where it will go.

And that place is a dark one. If you haven't seen the movie The Lives of Others, do it now. 

Back to the Washington Post article:
HARPA would be modeled on DARPA, the highly successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that serves as the research arm of the Pentagon and collaborates with other federal agencies, the private sector and academia. The concept was advanced by the Suzanne Wright Foundation and first discussed by officials on the Domestic Policy Council and senior White House staffers in June 2017. But the idea has gained momentum in the wake of the latest mass shootings that killed 31 people in one weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.
So first we have an agency that is going to fund and manage health-care research in the intersection between government and the private sector. That means getting government even more involved in our health-care system, to the point where we eradicate the differences between the two sectors. A neoconservative ideal walks hand in hand with a socialist dream.

Then we have an agency that is going to involve itself in your mental health. It is going to involve itself very closely, in fact.

And these two agencies just happen to be one and the same. The Post again:
The Suzanne Wright Foundation re-approached the administration last week and proposed that HARPA include a “Safe Home” — “Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes” — project. Officials discussed the proposal at the White House last week, said two people familiar with the discussions. These people and others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the conversations. 
What exactly does this mean? How exactly would government stop "aberrant fatal events" - mass shootings - by "helping overcome mental extremes"?

By, the Post explains, monitoring "'neurobehavioral signs' of 'someone headed toward a violent explosive act'". In other words, government will monitor people's behavior on a daily basis. 

But how? Initially by means of
a four-year project costing an estimated $40 million to $60 million, according to Geoffrey Ling, the lead scientific adviser on HARPA ... “Everybody would be a volunteer,” Ling said in an interview. “We’re not inventing new science here. We’re analyzing it so we can develop new approaches. This is going to have to be done using scientific rigor,” he said.
The voluntary participation part is only going to last as long as the pilot project. Once the federal government concludes that it has been a success - and it will - the program will become voluntary in the same sense as it is voluntary to participate in Social Security. 

Every government agency has an inherent desire to continue to exist, to grow in size and to find new ways to motivate its own existence. When this culture of institutional perpetuation is applied to the welfare state, it ends up costing us trillions of dollars in taxes and eradicates our economic freedom. When it is applied to the surveillance state, it ends up eradicating our individual freedom. 

Imagine, now, where this program will be in ten years. Let us start with the criteria listed in the Washington Post article for what constitutes a mass-shooter red flag:
[There] are plenty of researchers and mental health experts who believe that mental health and gun violence aren’t necessarily linked. Mental illness can sometimes be a factor in such violent acts, experts say, but it is rarely a predictor — most studies show that no more than a quarter of mass shooters have a diagnosed mental illness. More commonly shared attributes of mass shooters include a strong sense of resentment, desire for notoriety, obsession with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism and access to firearms.
Turn this into a checklist for a government agency - or, rather, the individual collecting information on an individual citizen - and then ask: how many boxes would that surveillance agent have to check on a person before he or she raises a red flag?

Is it enough to identify "strong sense of resentment"? What does that mean? Is it a "strong sense of resentment" to criticize an incumbent president? Is is enough to have an argument with someone in social media?

In a moment we are going to add the welfare state to the mix, but first, let us listen to President Trump in the Washington Post article:
The president has said he thinks mentally ill people are primarily responsible for the spate of mass shootings in the United States. And this proposal is likely to be welcomed by Republicans and gun-rights activists who have argued the same thing. “We’re looking at the whole gun situation,” Trump said last week. “I do want people to remember the words ‘mental illness.’ These people are mentally ill. . . . I think we have to start building institutions again because, you know, if you look at the ’60s and ’70s, so many of these institutions were closed.” Trump has reacted “very positively” to the HARPA proposal, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions and has been “sold on the concept.” ... “Every time this has been brought up inside the White House — even up to the presidential level, it’s been very well-received,” a person familiar with discussions said. 
And then for the fusion between the two statist structures, courtesy of a person quoted by the Post:
“There is no doubt that addressing this issue helps the president deal with two issues he has yet to find real success on: one is the health-care front and one is on the gun-violence front,” the person added.
The HARPA idea puts the federal government in charge of mental health in our  country. It opens the door for de facto - even de jure - socialization of mental health care. This is a big step into the territory of socialized medicine, but it also tears down a dangerous firewall between government-controlled health care and government-run surveillance of individual citizens:
It could get done,” said one official familiar with the conversations. “We’d be able to put every resource of federal government, from the highest levels of the scientific community to say: ‘This is how people with these problems should be treated and have limited access to firearms.’
When government runs mental health, it will also be in full power to determine what mental illness is, who is mentally ill and whether or not they should be confined to an institution. 

Am I alone in seeing just a couple of small problems here?

But it gets better. Or worse. We still don't know exactly how HARPA would obtain all the information it needs in order to make mental-health assessments on us. The Washington Post again:
The idea is for the agency to develop a “sensor suite” using advanced artificial intelligence to try to identify changes in mental status that could make an individual more prone to violent behavior. The research would ultimately be opened to the public.
The term "opened to the public" actually means "applied to the public". 

Don't believe me? Let's get back to the Post:

HARPA would develop “breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence,” says a copy of the proposal. “A multi-modality solution, along with real-time data analytics, is needed to achieve such an accurate diagnosis.” 

Note the "real-time data analytics" component. That means monitoring individual citizens live, continuously, as they go through their days.

Still a skeptic? 
The document goes on to list a number of widely used technologies it suggests could be employed to help collect data, including Apple Watches, Fitbits, Amazon Echo and Google Home. The document also mentions “powerful tools” collected by health-care provides like fMRIs, tractography and image analysis. “Advanced analytical tools based on artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly improving and must be applied to the data,” states the document.
The line in this paragraph is not that hard to see:

1. A government agency is in charge of finding people with a "strong sense of resentment" or other behavior deemed by that same agency to indicate that you are a potential threat to society.
2. That government agency applies consumer technology that we all carry with us, have in our homes and use daily, to monitor our behavior, our conversations, our writings and our apparent emotions.
3. The data collected is then processed by a giant database using "machine learning", i.e., computerized algorithms.
4. When a computer finds that something you said or wrote can be a "strong sense of resentment" as government defines "resentment", the computer checks if you own a firearm. If you do, a red flag goes up. If you don't own a firearm, it checks if you could obtain one, in other words if you have anything in your personal background that bars you from buying one. If you have no criminal background, you are also red-flagged by the computer.

Once the computer has red-flagged you, government will remove your firearm from your home, then likely confine you to a mental treatment facility to assess your mental condition. If you don't own a firearm you just made the confinement part of the process easier...

Does this sound too totalitarian to be American? Consider this finishing point in the Washington Post article:
Those familiar with the project stressed it would not collect sensitive health data about individuals without their permission. The government is simply trying to identify risk factors when it comes to mental health that could indicate violent behavior, they said. “Privacy must be safeguarded. Profiling must be avoided. Data protection capabilities will be the cornerstone of this effort.”
There is no point in creating a surveillance program where only volunteers are under surveillance. This is a surveillance program that is aimed at finding threats to public safety. That is the whole purpose of the program, which means that it shares the fundamental purpose of surveillance programs looking for terrorist threats. 

Surveillance programs looking for terrorists do not ask those they monitor whether or not they want to participate. They presume that people whom they target have something to hide and therefore listen in on them without consent. It is basically self evident that this HARPA program, in order to be effective in the government's eyes, will have to operate on the same premise. 

The only other option is that the general public is "incentivized" to volunteer for the program. This will happen in two related ways. The first is the presumption of guilt: you can show government that you have nothing to hide by voluntarily participating, and nobody will be suspicious of you.

The second way to incentivize the public is to cross-check the HARPA database with other key government-owned databases. If you don't participate you may find yourself on a no-fly list; since it is unclear if you have good mental health, we can't let you get on that plane, sir. You could also fail a government background check when trying to buy a gun or even renew your driver's license. After all, as too many people have already demonstrated, a car can be turned into a weapon by mentally ill, terrorist-minded or just plain drunk people.  

There are, simply, unlimited opportunities for government to expand a program like this. It does not take ill will on behalf of government employees to do this - all it takes is a desire to grow the agency budget and to expand staff, thereby motivating higher salaries for the executives. 

And name one government program that has vanished without being replaced by another. 

A proposal that government should merge surveillance of individual citizens with socialized, government-run mental health care is a totalitarian red flag (no pun intended). It effectively ends the presumption of innocence on behalf of individual citizens, giving government precedent to universally track our daily lives - at the will and preference of government. This replaces the sovereignty of the individual vs. government with one single clause: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. 

The totalitarian threat embedded in this idea is aggravated by the potential of expanding its application to other types of health care. Once we have a single-payer health care system, which both neoconservatives and progressives want, we will all be subject to so-called QALY assessments before we are allowed treatment. This assessment method, already being used in many countries with single-payer health care, allows government to determine whether or not it thinks it is worth the while to treat you. I explain the details of this method in my book The Rise of Big Government: How Egalitarianism Conquered America; for now, let us just note that if government adds HARPA obtained data on you to its QALY assessments, you can be disqualified for health care because you exhibit signs of "strong resentment" and other undesired behavior.

Speculative? Tin-foil-hat-worthy?

Maybe. Perhaps you trust that government is only there to help you. I don't. But if you do think this is a good idea, may I suggest you read my latest book Faith and Freedom: The Moral Case for America? Then perhaps we could discuss why our Founders and the Constitution they wrote put such clear and easily understandable limitations on government. They had personal experience of what tyranny looks like. They gave us the tools to live in liberty. It is up to us to use them. 

The presumption of innocence and the sovereignty of the individual are two cornerstones of a free society. There comes a point when government's encroachment on both will flip that society from being free to being totalitarian. All too often in human history, we have failed to see that point coming, only recognized it in the rearview mirror.

May we not make that mistake again.

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