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Sowell and Spying

by William L. Anderson
by William L. Anderson

In my early libertarian days, Thomas Sowell was one of my heroes. First, he was a very good scholar (and I have used his book Classical Economics Reconsidered as a text — Sowell's dissertation on Say's Law was one of the few dissertations worth reading). His book, Knowledge and Decisions is a rigorous and excellent economic analysis, using F.A. Hayek's classic paper, "The Use of Knowledge in Society" as a foundation.

Second, Sowell has been prolific as a writer, and I always admire productive people. Third, the personal attacks that leftists — black and white — have laid upon him have been merciless and mostly evil, and I admire someone who is the target of people like that. Unfortunately, his support of the Bush Administration in particular and Republicans in general has damaged his credibility.

However, I fear the Former Great Man has crossed his own Rubicon, with his recent column in support of the administration's post-9/11 domestic spying. What makes things even worse is the line of argument that he employs:

The way the question is posed by many in the media and in politics, you would think our intelligence agencies were listening in on you talking on the phone to your aunt Mabel.

Be serious! There are more than a quarter of a billion people in the United States. Intelligence agencies have neither the manpower, the time, the money, nor the interest to listen in on you and your aunt Mabel.

In other words, writes Sowell, these actions are OK because the chances that you actually may be caught up in an FBI dragnet unjustly are near zero. He further goes on to declare:

Lawyers may differ on fine legal points about the Constitutional powers of the commander in chief during wartime versus the oversight powers of the courts. But, a Supreme Court Justice once pointed out that the Constitution of the United States is not a suicide pact.

The Constitution was meant for us to live under, not be paralyzed by, in the face of death.

When some honcho in the international terrorist network is captured in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the phone numbers in his computer are found by his American captors, it is only a matter of time before his capture becomes news broadcast around the world.

In the hour or two before that happens, his contacts within the United States may continue to use the phones they have been using. Listening in on their conversations during that brief window of opportunity can provide valuable information on enemies within our midst who are dedicated to our destruction.

Precious time can be wasted filing legalistic documents to get some judge's permission to tap the domestic terrorists' phones before CBS or CNN broadcasts the news of the captured terrorist leader overseas and the domestic terrorists stop using the phones that they had used before to talk with him.

Now, Sowell may think he is employing common sense, but let us apply the basis of his argument in a different way. Assume that instead of just listening to phone calls, the government decides to kill one "potential terrorist" a day in the United States by picking someone out at random and shooting him or her. Now, with more than a quarter billion people in the USA (as Sowell points out), the chances that one of us might fall to a government bullet are pretty slim. Thus, if we are to apply Sowell's logic to such action, none of us should protest, since (1) the government will be "protecting" us from "potential" terrorism, and (2) the probability that any of us would be shot will be almost nil.

No doubt, Sowell would say that my proposal is a huge (and unjustified) leap from what he is defending. After all, listening to someone's telephone conversation is NOT the same as putting a bullet in him.

But whether an FBI agent is listening to someone talk on the telephone without a warrant or is gunning him down, both actions are wrong. We are opposed to such government wiretaps on the basis of principle, just as we oppose wrongful killings. Yet, Sowell defends the wiretapping, at least in part, by claiming that its harmful effects are innocuous, but that its good effects overwhelm any negative ones. To put it another way, his defense is pure utilitarianism, something that would have made Jeremy Bentham proud.

But suppose that for every 100 people that the FBI kills at random, one or two might have been planning a terrorist attack, and that each attack would kill on average at least 200 people. Could we not then justify such an attack using Sowell's Benthamite logic?

One wishes that the FBI or other government authorities would be able to pick out only guilty people when they "investigate" potential terrorists or other criminals. However, we know all too well that the government's track record is one in which the innocent are swept up with the guilty. Furthermore, we have found that the government finds it much easier to go after innocent people, since they are less likely to resist or have the resources to resist government attacks.

The ideas behind the U.S. Constitution — whatever its flaws — were based upon the idea that people in authority were prone to abuse their power, so those people had to be held in check. I do not think that the framers had in mind Sowell's probabilities — that government abuses would only harm a tiny fraction of individuals, which meant that such abuses were justified.

In the end, we are left with the same issues — and the same answers. Government is based on coercion and abuse and anyone who thinks otherwise does not understand the real nature of the state.

February 9, 2006

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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