Archives: 05/2010

Walter Olson Joins Cato

I’m pleased to report that Walter Olson, known to many Cato@Liberty readers for his Overlawyered website, has joined the Cato Institute. Wally led the Manhattan Institute’s litigation reform program for more than a quarter of a century. He’ll be a senior fellow in our Center for Constitutional Studies, with a wide-ranging portfolio.

A Yale graduate, Wally began his career at Regulation magazine, back when it was published by the American Enterprise Institute. He has authored three books, 1991’s The Litigation Explosion, 1997’s The Excuse Factory, and 2003’s The Rule of Lawyers, and countless articles. And another book will be out in the fall on bad ideas coming from the legal academy, Schools for Misrule. At, Jim Copland, director of Manhattan’s Center for Legal Policy, gives us a rich account of Wally’s contributions. We’re delighted to have Wally on board.

While You Were Watching the Economy, Health Care, Wars…

…the federal government was taking over education. At least, it was moving a lot further in that direction, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wielding billions of “stimulus” dollars to coerce states to do Washington’s bidding. And that’s not just my take. It’s also the New York Times’:

Mr. Duncan is a man in a hurry. He has far more money to dole out than any previous secretary of education, and he is using it in ways that extend the federal government’s reach into virtually every area of education, from pre-kindergarten to college.

Race to the Top. SAFRA. National standards. For well over a year, we at the Center for Educational Freedom have issued warnings about all of these escalations of utterly unconstitutional federal power in education, but it has been nearly impossible to cut through all of the huge, non-education stories to get much notice.

Unfortunately, the hits just keep on coming. While the nation is fixated on oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the supposed evils of Wall Street, the administration continues to change the constantly moving target that is the Race to the Top program, now essentially offering individual districts in California a chance to compete in RTTT round two. This despite states explicitly being identified as THE competitors in the current RTTT. It almost makes you conclude that you just can’t trust anything you’re told about RTTT by the administration, and that there is no good reason for any state to expect a fair race.

Thankfully, there is some good news to report. According to the Times, the ever-expansive Department of Education is now about as popular as the tax man – but not quite:

A new survey by the Pew Research Center found distrust of government at its highest level in 30 years. Of all federal agencies, the department of education’s approval rating had fallen most sharply, to 40 percent from 61 percent in 1998. In fact, the department got the lowest rating of any federal agency, including the Internal Revenue Service.

And that is with ED operating largely under the radar. Imagine if people actually knew what Duncan and company were doing!

Help Kareem Now

We’ve written about the jailed Egyptian blogger known as Kareem before. Now the people who are working for his release are asking that people “flood the jail with mail” so that Kareem and his jailers will know that the world is watching. I hope you’ll take a moment to help.

Kareem attended a conference for Arabic liberal and libertarian bloggers and writers in 2006, when he was 21 years old. Within months he was arrested and sentenced. He has served more than 3/4 of a four-year sentence for writing about freedom, democracy, and women’s rights on his blog, and yet he still has not been released. He has suffered not only the loss of his freedom, but continuing abuse. It is important to let the Egyptian authorities know he is not forgotten. Please help by writing to him. And please follow the guidelines and not include anything incendiary or likely to lead to his being harmed further.

As Tom Palmer and Raja Kamal wrote in the Washington Post, “People should be free to express their opinions without fear of being imprisoned or killed. Blogging should not be a crime.”

In 2008 students at the first convention of Students for Liberty rallied for Kareem on the steps of Columbia University (at right). Others around the world, on the web and in person, have tried to keep a light shining on Kareem’s case. But it’s hard to maintain such a campaign for years, as the Egyptian authorities refuse to let this young man go. Don’t let them think that no one notices.

More details about the case can be found here.

Surveillance Cameras and Civil Liberties II

In a piece at Politico today, David Rittgers raised a number of important points on the role of surveillance cameras in law enforcement, about which I blogged yesterday at Politico Arena and Cato@Liberty. To add still more to the subject, David is quite right: the cop on the beat, assuming he’s there, will be better than the camera at preventing crime. In at least two cases, however, cameras can fight crime not only ex post but ex ante as well. First, cameras monitored in real time – as private cameras often are in apartment buildings, casinos, warehouses, and elsewhere – can facilitate crime prevention by alerting monitors to suspicious activity. And second, would-be criminals who are concerned about being caught may think twice if they suspect they’re being monitored. Cameras will not deter suicide bombers, of course; nor will they deter those who are unaware they’re being monitored, as may have been the case with the incompetent bomb maker in Times Square – who seems at this writing (we await more facts) to have wanted to “get away,” all the way to Pakistan.

But to add further to the civil liberties point I made yesterday, not only are surveillance tapes usually more accurate that eyewitness accounts in identifying criminals, thereby lessening the very real problem of mistaken prosecutions and convictions, but they aid also in the equally real problem of police (and even prosecutorial) abuse. Two weeks ago David blogged about the recent University of Maryland case involving the notorious Prince George’s County police department, where a video showed police brutality that the police later falsified in their report. And surveillance tapes can work in the other direction too – to protect police from false accusations of brutality. So the civil liberties implications of surveillance cameras are many, and often not what they seem on first impression.

Life under Prohibition

Washington, D.C., has the highest percentage of marijuana smokers in the nation, reports the Washington Post. “More than 11 percent of Washingtonians older than 26 reported smoking marijuana in the past year – the highest percentage of any state in the nation, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.”

Is that a problem? Well, back around 1990 a satirical revue described the city government as “the nation’s first work-free drug zone.” But the people described in the Post article seem to work pretty hard, as scientists, businessmen, and so on.

One problem is inadvertently described by D.C. Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham:

“People don’t feel marijuana is dangerous, but it is, because of the way it is sold,” he said. “We frequently recover weapons when serving search warrants associated with the sale of marijuana.”

Exactly. Because marijuana is illegal, it’s not sold by kindly old liquor store owners. It’s distributed by people who are by definition criminal and who tend to engage in criminal behavior to protect their markets.

Its illegal distribution also accounts for another phenomenon that the Post notes:

Teenagers in parts of the city said they can buy pot more easily than beer or cigarettes.

Legal products, for sale to adults only, are harder for teenagers to obtain than a product that is illegal for everyone. Maybe it’s time to rethink the success of drug prohibition.

The City That Never Blinks?

A few points about closed circuit surveillance cameras, since their relative uselessness in the camera-festooned Times Square doesn’t seem to have stemmed the call for yet more cameras as an anti-terror measure.

First, I think it’s helpful to be clear just what we’re talking about when we say “urban surveillance cameras.” Lots of private businesses and apartment buildings have their own cameras trained at least in part on public spaces.  And at this point, most of us are carrying around miniature cameras in our pockets 24/7 as well. I’ve read reports suggesting that the most promising video police obtained  of the suspected bomber came not from the many CCTV cameras the city has in place there, but from a tourist who’d been taping in Times Square. These provide many of the same advantages as official surveillance networks—after a crime occurs, police can obtain and collate footage from the scene from the various owners—without creating a centrally controlled surveillance architecture. For the remainder of the post, I’ll assume “cameras” means just such a citywide network of government controlled cameras, of the sort famously deployed in the U.K. and planned for New York—but it’s worth noting that a city without these kinds of cameras is not necessarily a city without video evidence of crimes.

Second, while there will of course be the odd case one can find where cameras were instrumental in solving a crime, the research that’s been done on public CCTV networks shows tha they’re of stunningly little evidentiary or deterrent value. There are a few specific types of locations where the presence of cameras does seem to reduce, crime, or at least push it elsewhere. They seem to be fairly effective in parking lots. But on the whole, at the city level, they just don’t work very well. In Britain, famously festooned with CCTV cameras, they’re only rarely useful in apprehending street criminals, and the boroughs with more cameras don’t seem to be any better at catching crooks than those with few.  Anecdotal evidence can be beguiling here, because once you’ve created such a system of course the history of a few memorable apprehensions will involve the use of that system.  If we gave cops lassos instead of guns and tasers, they’d end up lassoing a few crooks sooner or later too, but that hardly goes to show lassos are the right tool for the job.

Third, if citywide surveillance cameras are merely ineffective as a response to street crime, they’re ludicrous as a response to the threat of terror. The point is, I think, well illustrated by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s invocation of the 7/7 bombings in London as an argument for installing an elaborate network of CCTV cams in New York: “You don’t want to wait until 52 people are killed here and then say, ‘Oh, now it’s time to do it.’ The trick is to learn by experiences, but it’s other people’s experience you’d like to learn by.” What Bloomberg did not learn from the British experience, alas, is that 52 people were still killed. The billions spent on CCTV did nothing to deter the bombers, nor to disrupt their plan in action.  The Times Square bomber, far from being deterred, chose one of the most recorded locations in the city as his target—and ultimately failed because of his own incompetence, not because of any of the dozens of cameras trained on the Square.

This kind of scenario, incidentally, presents the strongest case for surveillance cameras: A failed attack where you actually have a perpetrator to try and track down after the fact.  London’s cameras did indeed help out on that score after the second, failed attempt at a bomb attack on the transit system: Since they had intended to die with their victims, the terrorists hadn’t bothered with countermeasures like disguises, something that might conceivably occur to a non-suicidal terrorist plotter in the future.  Of course, those failed attackers were also seen by dozens of their intended victims, so there’s little reason to think it would have been impossible to track them down but for the cameras. 

Stipulating that the cameras did add some value in that rather unusual case, though, we need to step back and ask:  Is this really the best security use we can make of a few hundred million dollars per year? An elaborate camera network that doesn’t reduce crime, but might be of marginal benefit in tracking down perps after failed terror attacks by inept bombers?  If we’ve gotten this disconnected from any rational cost/benefit analysis once the word “terrorism” is uttered, let’s just start building enormous mousetraps made of gold and bait them with South Park DVDs; maybe we’ll catch a few jihadis that way.

Finally, there’s the question of privacy, which I leave for last because I don’t actually think you can reject citywide camera networks on security grounds alone. Still, it’s worth pushing back on the notion that there are no privacy concerns worth speaking of because, after all, the cameras are only trained on “public” places.  Lying in the background of that argument is a rather crabbed notion of privacy that Daniel Solove has called the
“secrecy paradigm,” and it assumes that privacy just means limiting the exposure of information that had otherwise been completely secret. But in practice, much of our privacy is not a function of the secrecy of information, but of its searchability and aggregability. There is a world of difference between knowing that any of your public behavior can be observed by others, and knowing that all of it is—that, indeed, a complete record of your public movements and actions can be automatically reconstructed from a central digital archive. Most of us probably don’t mind shopping at “public” pharmacies full of indifferent strangers, but most of us would also be upset if a permanent record of our purchases were posted on the Internet with our names attached. And there’s a difference, again, between merely being recorded and knowing that an automated behavioral analysis algorithm is apt to send up a red flag if any of your actions trigger a program’s definition of “suspicious behavior.”

To the extent that popular privacy discourse is saturated in the secrecy paradigm, it might be better to do away with “privacy” talk altogether, because the exercise of categorizing various kinds of information in a binary public/private schema may help while away the hours on a rainy Sunday, but it’s not ultimately that interesting.  The question we ought to be asking is whether and to what extent monitoring technologies facilitate social control. Sometimes that will be a price worth paying for security, but here, the case is quite weak.

A Cuban Exile Speaks for Millions

Renowned Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner speaks for millions of Cubans in his statement on freedom below. It is a translation of the speech he gave in Madrid last Friday upon accepting a well deserved award given by the Instituto Juan de Mariana for defending liberty.  

 Freedom for What?*

 In 1980, shortly after making a dramatic exit from Cuba, the magnificent writer Reinaldo Arenas collected in a book his more combative articles and essays and titled it “The Need for Freedom.”

It was a shout. Reinaldo felt the need to be free. Human beings need to be free. He was asphyxiating in Cuba. He lived in sadness, fear and indignation. None of those three emotions is pleasant, and sometimes they twisted in his heart to the point of desperation.

After finding exile, Reinaldo felt profound relief and said something that was both wondrous and painful: for the first time, he had shown his true face. He had “unmasked” himself and felt the warm sensation of being himself, without the fear that such an act might bring him punishment and alienation.

In totalitarian societies, the pain of not being free and moving about in disguise becomes somatic in various ways, from a knot in the throat to a diffuse malaise expressed by assorted neurotic behaviors.

What is freedom? It is the ability we have to make decisions based on our individual beliefs, convictions and interests, without external pressures.

Freedom is choosing the god who best fits our religious perceptions, or choosing no god if we don’t feel the spiritual need to transcend.

Freedom is fearlessly offering our affection and loyalty to the people we love, or to the groups with which we feel a kinship.

Freedom is choosing without interference what we want to study, where and how we wish to live, the ideas that best reflect our vision of the social problems or the ideas that best seem to explain them.

Freedom is selecting the artistic expressions that please us the most, or, conversely, rejecting them without consequences.

Freedom is being able to undertake or renounce an economic activity without reporting to anyone, beyond the formalities established by law.

Freedom is spending our money as we see fit, acquiring the goods that satisfy us and disposing of our legitimate properties. Without freedom, the creation of wealth is weakened to the point of misery.

José Martí, the illustrious journalist who generated Cuba’s independence, contributed another definition: “Freedom is the right of every man to be honest, and to think and speak without hypocrisy.”

Tyrannies deny us the right to be honest when they force us to applaud what we detest or reject what we secretly admire.

When Cubans parade, shouting slogans they don’t believe in, they are not honest. When they applaud the leader they abhor or laugh at the nonsense he spouts, they are not honest.

That simulation creates in us an uncomfortable psychological dissonance. When we sacrifice our honesty, when we renounce our internal consistency to avoid harm or obtain a privilege, we feel “dirty” and internally ashamed. Hypocrisy is a behavior that wounds the person who practices it and repels the person at whom it’s directed.

But there’s more. At some point in the evolutionary process, when human beings abandoned the rule of instinct and began to guide themselves by reason, they discovered the agonizing process of making decisions by constantly shuffling the prevailing moral values, material interests, and psychological impulses.

To make such decisions, it was necessary to become informed. Totalitarian violence tries to prevent people from becoming informed. Why become informed if all the decisions are made by the State and all the truths have already been discovered?

In Cuba, there are numerous police brigades whose task it is to remove parabolic antennas, find satellite phones, confiscate banned books, and deny Internet access to anyone who is minimally independent. I cannot think of a more wretched activity.

When Spanish socialist Fernando de los Ríos asked Lenin when he was going to institute a regime of freedoms in the fledgling Soviet Union, the Bolshevik answered with a question loaded with cynicism: “Freedom for what?”

The answer to that is manifold: freedom to investigate, to generate wealth, to seek happiness, to reaffirm the individual ego in a human tide, all of them tasks that depend on our ability to make decisions.

The history of the West is the history of societies that have progressively expanded the horizons of free people.

Gradually, they took away from the monarchs and the religious and economic oligarchies their exclusive powers to decide in the name of the whole. The poor and the foreigners attained their rights. The same happened with the races considered to be inferior, with the women, with the people who were alienated because of their sexual preferences. Slavery was finally eradicated.

It is possible to narrate the long, historical trek of human beings as the constant adventure of our species in the quest for a gradual increase in the number of people given the right to make their own decisions.

Sometimes, the exercise of that ability assumes heroic proportions. Some weeks ago, Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo decided to die of hunger and thirst to protest against the injustice and abuses of the dictatorship. All he had to defend his dignity as a human being was his life — and he gave it. To him, to his sad memory, with deep emotion, I dedicate these words.


 * Speech by Carlos Alberto Montaner, upon receiving the “Juan de Mariana Award for an exemplary trajectory in the defense of freedom,” Madrid, April 30, 2010.