When There Are No Good Guys

The 35th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in March, 2016.


Tim Cook v. the FBI is a sort of Eastern Front in miniature: whoever wins, we all lose.

Time has weighed in with the most persuasively pro-Cook account so far. (Tim, your PR people deserve some extra options for engineering that one.)  The mag then follows up with two other pro-Cook pieces (including one from Jesse Jackson!) and, in the other corner, a blunt-force op-ed from the much-prayed-for conservative heir to the Reagan legacy Tom Cotton. Leaving aside the 3-1 imbalance, rhetorically, the score is even more lopsided.  Cook wins in a rout.  But of course: this is Time.

A more interesting question is revealed when you compare Cook’s interview to Cotton’s op-ed.  Each says something wholly different about the central fact of the case and Time declines to elaborate—or even notice.  Is it true, as Cook alleges, that the only way for Apple unlock the phone is to design a deliberately compromised operating system?  Or is Cotton right that Apple could crack that phone well short of such a measure?  Since the FBI has asked the courts to force Apple to do exactly what Cook says he doesn’t want to do, it would seem that Cook is right and Cotton is … misinformed.

Cook and his defenders score some other good points.  The suspect in question had a personal phone, which he went out of his way to destroy; this Apple phone, issued by his employer, he didn’t bother with, which suggests he didn’t care, which suggests there’s nothing incriminating or exploitable on it.  Also, with the whole universe of exploitable data out there, why obsess over this one phone? Because there might be something valuable on it, sure—but the overwhelming likelihood is that there isn’t.  So is it worth compromising the security of the whole iPhone network, and setting a dangerous precedent, for this longshot that will likely yield nothing?

Which brings us to the larger point.  This whole spat is just a proxy fight, a diversionary feint, over vastly bigger issues that no one wants to face.  “Conservatives” who bleat on about “limited government” (and its contentless little cousin, “small government”) don’t really understand what’s at stake.  The issue is not the government’s size or spending or even, in the final analysis, scope.  While far from irrelevant, these are but epiphenomena of the real problem.  The permanent question in all political theory and practice throughout history is: Who rules?  (There is a deeper issue; viz., a difference between ancient republicanism, which admits no “private sphere” and therefore no a priori limits on government power over the individual, and modern republicanism which—owing primarily to the emergence of Christianity—carves out a space for the conscience into which the government is not supposed to intrude.  We may come back to that later.)

America would eventually be doomed anyway because of the cycle of regimes.  Unfortunately for us, this great civilizational Maytag turns more quickly in modern times because of the pernicious influence of modern philosophy.  The original American answer to the fundamental question—based on a judicious combination of ancient and modern philosophy, scripture, the lessons of history, and practical experience—was: the people, mediated through representatives and well-designed institutions.  But as modernity ground on, the other sources were deliberately jettisoned until only modern philosophy itself—and a later version than the one our Founders relied on—was left.  Its answer is: experts.

“Limited government” is fine and dandy—in the modern context, we prefer it, too—but unlimited government is, in modernity, just a consequence of the administrative state, which is the root of conservatives’ complaints, or would be if they understood it.  When a conservative says “big government,” the administrative state is usually what he means.  There is nothing terrible about “big government” per se.  We realize how blasphemous that sounds.  But would it really be possible to govern 320 million people, nearly 4 million square miles and more than 12,000 miles of coastline with a “small government”?  In some cases only big government will do. For instance, one of the reasons New York City—even under the clown de Blasio—remains so much safer than any other large city is that it can afford to deploy a non-small 35,000-man police force (and which in the recent past has topped 40,000).  Libertarians are no doubt reaching for the defibrillator; we can only remind them that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Broadly speaking, conservatives have a built-in instinct to distrust the administrative state when it comes to domestic policy but to favor giving it carte blanche for national security.  To some extent the rationale is sound.  According to Aristotle and Jefferson alike, the alpha and omega of politics are to further the safety and happiness of the people.  By its nature, government can be quite effective at the former, though it often needs to be larger rather than smaller relative to those tasks in order to be so.  Also by its nature, government best achieves the latter not by trying itself to produce happiness but by instituting and preserving the conditions in which happiness can emerge and thrive.  A properly limited government, then, is large and powerful enough to accomplish security and to secure the conditions of happiness; but not so large or intrusive that it uses either as a pretext for doing things it shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

The classic, perennial, ever-presently-dangerous reason why governments transgress these limits is tyranny: i.e., the person or persons who control the government do whatever it is they want, typically to further their own narrow, selfish interests.  Later modernity adds a new twist: the tyranny of “science” or “knowledge,” which in practice really means the tyranny of ideology. That is the heart of the administrative state.

Conservatives concerned about limitless government—that is to say, the usurpations and abuses of the administrative state—in the domestic sphere shouldn’t be too sanguine about the effects of same in the external or foreign sphere.  The national security apparatus is far from infallible.  9/11 and the subsequent decade-and-half should have made that abundantly clear.  Conservatives ought also to know that powers ceded to government tend never to be given back; indeed, they only grow, with often unforeseen and disastrous consequences.

We hold no brief for Tim Cook.  In almost nothing that matters do we believe he is on our side, or on the side of the American nation. Were he ever able to buy his way into political power, we’re confident he would be one hundred times the hectoring, intrusive, micromanaging busybody scold that his current perch allows him to be.  Which is to say, a near ur-perfect embodiment of the administrative state.  We’re also well aware that a victory for Cook and Apple will only increase the oligarchic power and cultural dominance of our hubristic tech-overlords.

Such a win may even make it harder for legitimately patriotic and judicious officials to fight genuinely dangerous enemies.  Which brings us to the other ducked issue.  Somehow America got along fine without a surveillance state for more than 150 years.  We’re not absolutists on this issue: we understand that the new circumstances of the Cold War imposed new necessities.  We also believe that the safeguards put in place to prevent domestic spying were reasonable and effective.  The operative word, of course, being “were.”

That assertion now appears to be highly questionable.  We’re not—yet—too worked up.  If the sky is falling, it’s doing so slowly and remains well above our heads.  If the situation were as bad as all the chicken-littles insist, wouldn’t there be some evidence of the government using illicitly collected data to abuse its power, a la the Gestapo, against politically irritating but otherwise innocent citizens?  Still, there’s appears to be little question that government is collecting data that the law says it can’t, that most Americans think it shouldn’t, and that will give it the power to change its mind and start being abusive whenever and to whomever it wants.  All in the name of “national security.”  They can already read all your emails and listen to your calls.  Do you want them to be able to crack your phones, pads and pods as well?

The reason—the only reason—we are told we “need” this surveillance state is to keep track of terrorists.  Which—as much as the government tries to muddy the waters with scare-warnings about rightwing militias—is just code for radicalized Muslims.  Who are here—in the thousands if not more—because we’ve admitted millions of their co-religionists in contravention of the explicit wishes of the American people, and with no benefit to the interests of the country or its people.  Your every move and word must be tracked (at least potentially), my fellow Americans, because the idea of not continuing to invite by the millions all these potential terrorists is just absolutely unthinkable.  There must be immigration—millions of Muslims included—and so there must be mass domestic surveillance.

On that, Tim Cook and the FBI—hell, everyone in the tech industry and the federal government sans ICE—entirely agree.  The techistocracy likes mass immigration because it pounds down wages and further corrodes the cohesion of the American nation and historic American norms that would otherwise be  obstacles, and threats, to their power.  The administrative state likes it because bureaucrats prefer subjects they can control to citizens with the assertiveness, and awareness of their potential power, to control what by rights is their government.

Cook and the FBI don’t fundamentally disagree about any of this.  The only real difference between them is that Cook prefers not to get his own hands dirty.

—Decius

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