Motives Aside, the NSA Should Not Spy on Us

By:  Sheldon Richman
06/21/2013
       
Motives Aside, the NSA Should Not Spy on Us

You need not suspect the motives of those responsible for NSA surveillance to detest what they are doing.

In fact, we may have more to fear from spies acting out of patriotic zeal than those acting out of power lust or economic interest: Zealots are more likely to eschew restraints that might compromise their righteous cause.

For the sake of argument, we may assume that from President Obama on down, government officials sincerely believe that gathering Americans’ telephone and Internet data is vital to the people’s security. Does that make government spying okay?

No, it doesn’t.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” Although often attributed to George Washington, that famous quotation was probably was not uttered by him. Nevertheless, its value lies in what it says, not in who said it.

At best, government represents a risk to the people it rules. Even under a tightly written constitution and popular vigilance — both of which are easier to imagine than to achieve — government officials will always have the incentive and opportunity to push the limits and loosen the constraints.

But if their purpose is to protect us, why worry?

It doesn’t take much imagination to answer to this question. A purported cure can be worse than the disease. Who would accept the placement of a surveillance camera in every home as a way of preventing crime? By the same token, gathering data on everyone without probable cause in order to locate possible terrorists should be abhorrent to people who prize their freedom and privacy.

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