Archives For national security

Like most libertarians I’m concerned about government abuse of power. Certainly the secrecy and seeming reach of the NSA’s information gathering programs is worrying. But we can’t and shouldn’t pretend like there are no countervailing concerns (as Gordon Crovitz points out). And we certainly shouldn’t allow the fervent ire of the most radical voices — those who view the issue solely from one side — to impel technology companies to take matters into their own hands. At least not yet.

Rather, the issue is inherently political. And while the political process is far from perfect, I’m almost as uncomfortable with the radical voices calling for corporations to “do something,” without evincing any nuanced understanding of the issues involved.

Frankly, I see this as of a piece with much of the privacy debate that points the finger at corporations for collecting data (and ignores the value of their collection of data) while identifying government use of the data they collect as the actual problem. Typically most of my cyber-libertarian friends are with me on this: If the problem is the government’s use of data, then attack that problem; don’t hamstring corporations and the benefits they confer on consumers for the sake of a problem that is not of their making and without regard to the enormous costs such a solution imposes.

Verizon, unlike just about every other technology company, seems to get this. In a recent speech, John Stratton, head of Verizon’s Enterprise Solutions unit, had this to say:

“This is not a question that will be answered by a telecom executive, this is not a question that will be answered by an IT executive. This is a question that must be answered by societies themselves.”

“I believe this is a bigger issue, and press releases and fizzy statements don’t get at the issue; it needs to be solved by society.

Stratton said that as a company, Verizon follows the law, and those laws are set by governments.

“The laws are not set by Verizon, they are set by the governments in which we operate. I think its important for us to recognise that we participate in debate, as citizens, but as a company I have obligations that I am going to follow.

I completely agree. There may be a problem, but before we deputize corporations in the service of even well-meaning activism, shouldn’t we address this as the political issue it is first?

I’ve been making a version of this point for a long time. As I said back in 2006:

I find it interesting that the “blame” for privacy incursions by the government is being laid at Google’s feet. Google isn’t doing the . . . incursioning, and we wouldn’t have to saddle Google with any costs of protection (perhaps even lessening functionality) if we just nipped the problem in the bud. Importantly, the implication here is that government should not have access to the information in question–a decision that sounds inherently political to me. I’m just a little surprised to hear anyone (other than me) saying that corporations should take it upon themselves to “fix” government policy by, in effect, destroying records.

But at the same time, it makes some sense to look to Google to ameliorate these costs. Google is, after all, responsive to market forces, and (once in a while) I’m sure markets respond to consumer preferences more quickly and effectively than politicians do. And if Google perceives that offering more protection for its customers can be more cheaply done by restraining the government than by curtailing its own practices, then Dan [Solove]’s suggestion that Google take the lead in lobbying for greater legislative protections of personal information may come to pass. Of course we’re still left with the problem of Google and not the politicians bearing the cost of their folly (if it is folly).

As I said then, there may be a role for tech companies to take the lead in lobbying for changes. And perhaps that’s what’s happening. But the impetus behind it — the implicit threats from civil liberties groups, the position that there can be no countervailing benefits from the government’s use of this data, the consistent view that corporations should be forced to deal with these political problems, and the predictable capitulation (and subsequent grandstanding, as Stratton calls it) by these companies is not the right way to go.

I applaud Verizon’s stance here. Perhaps as a society we should come out against some or all of the NSA’s programs. But ideological moralizing and corporate bludgeoning aren’t the way to get there.

Seth Weinberger and I have a new article up at SSRN injecting some IR theory into the debate over international antitrust law.   Abstract:

The article, written jointly by a law professor and political science professor, endeavors to explain why the United States is particularly resistant to various efforts at international harmonization of antitrust law. While others have wrangled with this question over the years, none has assessed the question from within the broader political framework in which all relations between nations exist. Our article endeavors to fill this intellectual gap.

Existing efforts to describe or explain the lack of international harmonization have generally focused on the direct economic effects, and the narrow political difficulties, of the harmonization of competition laws through certain international mechanisms, most notably the WTO and the OECD. Largely absent in these accounts is a background theory of international politics against which the practicalities – and the ultimate desirability – of international competition law harmonization can be assessed. Our article presents such a theory. It places the conflict over international competition laws within the larger framework of international relations, and in so doing draws out some novel and important implications of the debate.

An important insight of this Article is that, largely independent of the economic calculus regarding the costs and benefits of entering into a multilateral international antitrust agreement, there is an inherent “transaction benefit” in the act of engaging in political exchange between states. Traditional economic and legal analyses of international relations have focused largely on the choice of organizational form (market exchange (no explicit agreement) versus bilateral versus multilateral institutions) and the likelihood and nature of compliance with each type in the absence of a central enforcement authority. By contrast, we strive here to develop a political theory of international law which accounts on the one hand for the costs of entering into international agreements, but also accounts for the state’s political preference for a specific form of agreement.

The novel implication of this understanding is that, by crafting international agreements in which the other parties are made to alter their domestic institutions as a condition of agreement, the dominant state (here, the United States) receives a credible commitment from the other state as to its willingness to adhere to the terms of the specific agreement under negotiation which, in the absence of centralized enforcement, might not otherwise be forthcoming. Additionally, the alteration of domestic institutions in a manner directed by the dominant state will in and of itself be viewed as a benefit of the agreement. By facilitating domestic normative change, the dominant state will gain a measure of transformative power from the change of domestic institutions. As a result, nations derive political benefits from international agreements in a way that transcends the substance of the agreements themselves.

The process of internationalizing and harmonizing competition law provides fertile ground in which to examine these ideas. Negotiations over antitrust policy are particularly important because as government barriers to trade have fallen they may well be replaced by private barriers. At the same time, as tariff barriers to trade have fallen, governments may resort to the discriminate application of antitrust law to maintain preferred local monopolies, and therefore to make payoffs to politically important constituents. The prospects for the illiberal application of antitrust laws and their economic importance make the debates over their form an issue of abiding concern for the process of global economic liberalization.

Get it while it’s hot!

My friend Seth Weinberger over at Security Dilemmas has a great post on why the left is actually to blame for the post-9/11 national security apparatus it (and many others) hates so much.  Basically, it comes down to “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  When bigger government is your answer to every problem, don’t be too surprised when big government tries to actually solve every problem.  And, as Seth points out, in this regard, the right has happily capitulated (the Republicans are laughably far from being the party of Reagan anymore).  So for the moment the government is being enlarged in the service of the particular problems that the right (the party in power just now) wants to solve.  But the modern path to this ever-expanding use of power — the justification and the moral basis — was paved by the Big Government lefties (oh, sure, and Nixon.  But he was just ahead of his time).

So here’s my question (this version is really for the left, but there are analogues for the right):  Why, if “Big Oil,” “Big Pharma,” Wal-Mart and Microsoft are so scary, does it make sense to turn to the biggest of the big, the most oppressive of the oppressive, to constrain those other big baddies, to keep them from getting too big, too powerful?  Is there anyone who really has so much faith in our democratic process that despite, say, the legal monopoly on the use of force and the ability to print money, he is worried less about “Big Government” than about “Big Tobacco”?  I don’t get it.  Don’t get me wrong:  I realize the biggest of the big is a really effective hammer with which to pummel all those pesky nails.  But is it so hard to see the broader, bigger, long-term implications of consistently handing over that power to the government?