Topic: Cato Publications

National Surveillance Programs and Their State Impediments

Having originally come to Washington to defend federalism, I am always delighted to see the division of powers among the states and the federal government have its proper effect: to protect liberty and limited government.

As with REAL ID, the E-Verify federal background check system is meeting up with state resistance. The Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire reported yesterday:

This afternoon, the House passed HB 1549, which would prohibit the state’s participation in the E-Verify system, with a nearly unanimous voice vote. The House also killed HB 1492, which would require employers to verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the United States using the E-Verify System, with a 226-59 vote.

E-Verify is essentially a national identification system that requires employers to verify all job applicants’ citizenship in a national database system before they can employ them. If the state agreed to participate, all citizens would have to be listed in this national database as a U.S. citizen in order to get a job.

You want to fix immigration, feds? You do it without putting American citizens into a national ID system. Good message.

Here’s the clear language of HB 1549, which the New Hampshire House has approved to govern release of motor vehicle records. It embraces legitimate law enforcement while rejecting national identification schemes.

III. Motor vehicle records may be made available pursuant to a court order or in response to a request from a state, a political subdivision of a state, the federal government, or a law enforcement agency for use in official business. The request shall be on a case-by-case basis. Any records received pursuant to this paragraph shall not be further transferred or otherwise made available to any other person or listed entity not authorized under this paragraph. No records made available under this section shall be used, directly or indirectly, for any federal identification database. (New language in bold.)

To learn more about E-Verify and its role as a nascent national identification scheme, read my Cato Policy Analysis: “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

Ex-Im Shenanigans, cont’d

Kudos to Tim Carney, who has a great piece in the Washington Examiner today highlighting some of the politics and policy substance behind the fight over reauthorisation of the Ex-Im Bank.  It’s gratifying to see a journalist take a stand against outrageous corporate welfare. If only it were more common (I’m looking at you, New York “the bank is self-financing” Times).

My new paper on Ex-Im, in which I expand on this blog post from a few weeks ago, was released yesterday. You’ll find even more evidence –as if it were needed – of why the Ex-Im Bank, rubber stamped through Congress by both parties on behalf of their rent-seeking friends for almost 80 years, has got to go.

Hating the Rich, and Other Curiosities

Readers of Cato-at-Liberty should also check out our latest blog, Free Thoughts on Libertarianism.org. Lots of interesting stuff there.  Like Aaron Powell on “Why We Get Mad at (some kinds of) Rich People.” And Jonathan Blanks on “Black History and Liberty.” And Jason Kuznicki on NPR and Ayn Rand. And Aaron’s profound disappointment with Sam Harris’s latest book.

Not to mention, of course, an ever-increasing amount of other great material on Libertarianism.org, including

  • George Smith’s essays on libertarian ideas
  • “Exploring Liberty,” a series of original videos introducing libertarianism
  • the complete text of the classic journal Literature of Liberty
  • vintage, never-before-seen videos from people like Hayek, Friedman, Rothbard, and most recently David Kelley from 1991 on the faultlines in the Objectivist movement
  • essays on major libertarian figures from Lord Acton to Mary Wollstonecraft
  • and more!

The Government’s Surveillance-Security Fantasies

If two data points are enough to draw a trend line, the trend I’ve spotted is government seeking to use data mining where it doesn’t work.

A comment in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently argued that universities should start mining data about student behavior in order to thwart incipient on-campus violence.

Existing technology … offers universities an opportunity to gaze into their own crystal balls in an effort to prevent large-scale acts of violence on campus. To that end, universities must be prepared to use data mining to identify and mitigate the potential for tragedy.

No, it doesn’t. And no, they shouldn’t.

Jeff Jonas and I wrote in our 2006 Cato Policy Analysis, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” that data mining doesn’t have the capacity to predict rare events like terrorism or school shootings. The precursors of such events are not consistent the way, say, credit card fraud is.

Data mining for campus violence would produce many false leads while missing real events. The costs in dollars and privacy would not be rewarded by gains in security and safety.

The same is true of foreign uprisings. They have gross commonality—people rising up against their governments—but there will be no pattern in data from past events in, say, Egypt, that would predict how events will unfold in, say, China.

But an AP story on Military.com reports that various U.S. security and law enforcement agencies want to mine publicly available social media for evidence of forthcoming terror attacks and uprisings. The story is called “US Seeks to Mine Social Media to Predict Future.”

Gathering together social media content has privacy costs, even if each bit of data was released publicly online. And it certainly has dollar costs that could be quite substantial. But the benefits would be slim indeed.

I’m with the critics who worry about overreliance on technology rather than trained and experienced human analysts. Is it too much to think that the U.S. might have to respond to events carefully and thoughtfully as they unfold? People with cultural, historical, and linguistic knowledge seem far better suited to predicting and responding to events in their regions of focus than any algorithm.

There’s a dream, I suppose, that data mining can eliminate risk or make the future knowable. It can’t, and—the future is knowable in one sense—it won’t.

This Week at Libertarianism.org

Libertarianism.org keeps adding new stuff, so if you’re not a regular reader, now’s a great time to become one. This week we added the following:

This Month’s Cato Unbound: What Is Due Process?

What is due process?

Virtually everyone would agree that “due process” refers to a set of judicial procedures that create at least a strong tendency toward fair results.

But why do we have these procedures and not some others? Why do we have trial by jury, and not trial by fire? Why not just flip a coin? In this month’s Cato Unbound, our lead essayist, Timothy Sandefur, says that we have the procedures we do for one very simple reason: We recognize them as fair.

In other words, “due process” ultimately points back at a larger – and much thornier – legal and philosophical issue, that of fair treatment itself. If it didn’t, “due process” would just guarantee some empty (or possibly harmful) rituals.

So far, so good. Sandefur doesn’t stop there, however. He adds that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ guarantees of due process mean “not only that government must take certain procedural steps (hearings, trials, and so forth) when it imposes a deprivation, but also that some acts are off limits for government, “regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them.”

In other words, due process is a check both on the procedure of the judiciary and on the substance of legislation. Some kinds of laws, Sandefur argues, cannot be implemented by any fair process – there’s no good reason for them, and there’s no lipstick enough for pigs like these. In such cases, the guarantee of due process is either a mockery of itself – or it’s enough to strike down the law. Sandefur picks the latter.

Is he right? Professor Lawrence Rosenthal of Chapman University disagrees, writing:

Deciding whether a law is supported by “good reason” is the essence of policymaking. Our Constitution guarantees a republican form of government, and in a republic, policy is made by those who are politically accountable for their decisions. Sandefur’s conception of due process of law, however, creates a judicial platonic guardianship that must approve every policy decision.

One side risks judicial overreach. The other side risks the tyranny of the majority. Which one is right? Stay tuned for the rest of this month’s Cato Unbound, which will also feature commentary by legal scholars Ryan Williams of the University of Pennsylvania and Gary Lawson of Boston University. Legal scholars will also want to review Sandefur’s paper in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (pdf), which develops the argument in fuller detail.

This Week at Libertarianism.org

It’s been a busy week over at Libertarianism.org. We began with a new Excursions essay from George H. Smith. Provocatively titled “Fingering the King on the Road to Independence,” Smith’s piece examines how the pre-Revolution Coercive Acts led Americans to blame the king for the conspiracy to strip them of their rights and liberties.

We posted two new videos featuring the philosopher Douglas Rasmussen, one to our Libertarian View series and the other of a lecture he gave in 1991 on morality and capitalism. Here are embeds of those videos:

We also added a speech by Ted Galen Carpenter dealing with the impact of a country’s foreign policy on its domestic policies.

Libertarianism.org’s magazine section grew with the addition of Literature of Liberty, published from 1978 through 1982, first by the Cato Institute and then by the Institute for Humane Studies. Each issue begins with a long essay exploring and analyzing the literature and thought in a particular field, such as Eric Foner discussing “Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War” or John Hospers writing about “The Literature of Ethics in the Twentieth Century.” The second half of each Literature of Liberty contains a wealth of summaries of academic articles and books of interest to libertarians.

Finally, the Exploring Liberty series of introductory lectures on libertarian theory and history is now available in podcast form, so you can listen on the go. It’s on iTunes as well as direct from the Exploring Liberty podcast feed.

As always, you can keep up to date with Libertarianism.org on Facebook, Twitter, via RSS, or by visiting the site.