Petition for TSA to Obey the Law

Thousands Standing Around in Denver

From Jim Harper (via Josh Cutler):

A year ago this coming Sunday, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ordered the Transportation Security Administration to do a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its use of Advanced Imaging Technology (aka “body-scanners” or “strip-search machines”) for primary screening at airports. (The alternative for those who refuse such treatment: a prison-style pat-down.) It was a very important ruling, for reasons I discussed in a post back then. The TSA was supposed to publish its policy in the Federal Register, take comments from the public, and issue a final ruling that responds to public input.

And the wording of the petition:

In July 2011, a federal appeals court ruled that the Transportation Security Administration had to conduct a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its policy of using “Advanced Imaging Technology” for primary screening at airports. TSA was supposed to publish the policy in the Federal Register, take comments from the public, and justify its policy based on public input. The court told TSA to do all this “promptly.” A year later, TSA has not even started that public process. Defying the court, the TSA has not satisfied public concerns about privacy, about costs and delays, security weaknesses, and the potential health effects of these machines. If the government is going to “body-scan” Americans at U.S. airports, President Obama should force the TSA to begin the public process the court ordered.

You can sign the petition, or read more about the ineffectiveness of current TSA procedures here.

Does the Internet Have a Political Disposition?

Photo credit: The Cultured Traveler

This question may seem as strange as asking, “what does technology want?” or “does the Earth care if I drive a Prius?” But it is a question worth considering, and Mike Barthel answers in the affirmative. He argues that the structure of the internet gives it a libertarian disposition:

If you’ve spent any time around the comment sections of political blogs (which, sorry!), you know that they’re frequented by a lot of people boosting Ron Paul or calling for drug legalization. We tend to think that the problem is that those people are libertarian. But… [i]t’s not that a lot of people on the internet are libertarian. It’s that the political ideology of the internet itself is, in some deep way, libertarian.

This seems too strong to me. I see the internet more as a landscape upon which political behavior can occur, rather than a determinant of outcomes. Barthel disagrees:

We’re accustomed to thinking of the internet as being a neutral place, a blank sheet upon which we are free to write and do whatever we desire, whether liberal or conservative, corporate or anarchist, commercial or free. The internet is just a tool, and it is up to us what we do with it. But tools are not neutral…. The development of the internet and of web culture, in other words, partially determines how it is used.

Rather than thinking of the internet as a tool, I would liken it to geography. This point of view still allows for Barthel’s position, and in fact many scholars argue that geography has a major influence on political outcomes (for a recent example, see here). That type of thinking leads to statements in the study of political conflict like, “mountains (or forests) cause civil war.”*

My position is much more akin to that of James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed. Scott describes the history of peoples in upland Southeast Asia fleeing to the mountains to avoid governance by the lowland kings. In the words of the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远,人穷志气短。: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” I have gotten a bit far afield from Barthel’s original argument but my point is that people with political dispositions use geography, they are not controlled by it. In other words, libertarians flee to the internet for the same reason that Southeast Asian tribes fled to the mountains–because it is an as-yet ungoverned place. In Barthel’s words:

The internet has chosen, time and time again, efficient corporate power over any form of (visible) state control.

Perhaps in the end Barthel and I are closer to agreement than disagreement. At the very least, he makes several important points. The first is that corporate governance of the internet is not necessarily any more benevolent than state control. The second great point is near the end:

This is not to argue that the internet is bad, though it would be great if we stopped thinking the internet is entirely and always good. Rather, it’s to suggest that if you are the kind of reader who thinks the government is, generally speaking, better than corporations, we might apply that to the internet as rigorously as we do the offline world. Governments in China, Pakistan, Egypt, and sure, even America have intruded on our legitimate rights online, but that doesn’t mean governments are inherently hostile to online activity. It just means we need to work harder to make sure those decisions are responsible and just…. We used to think that strong, persistent collective organizations dedicated to protecting our rights were the best way to ensure we weren’t trampled on by moneyed interests. Now we think everything will be OK if we flip out on Twitter en masse, or change the background color of our avatar. That’s fine for now, but if the internet really is becoming a central part of our lives and a place where we conduct our most important activities, then maybe we should have the same protections there as we do when we’re not on our computers.

I could not have said it better.

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*Note: I’m only partially kidding about this geography-civil war nexus. For a recent example, see the first page of this recent paper by a top scholar in the field.

Traffic and Property Rights

This blog has recently discussed jaywalking, and has covered traffic signals as both metaphor and fact numerous times (here and here, for example). But Matt Yglesias does not read this blog, so he writes:

A political movement genuinely focused on freeing people from the coercive authority of the state would spend a ton of time tackling the everyday tyranny of traffic signals, lane striping, jaywalking laws, and the dozens of other similar regulations that impinge upon the day-to-day lives of hundreds of millions of law-abiding American citizens.

To which Will Wilkinson responds with this from David Schmidtz:

Consider that the whole point of fences, and of rights, is to get in the way. Or to use a different metaphor: rights are like traffic lights. A mere liberty is a green light. A full-blooded right is a green light combined with a correlative red light. Some rules are better than others at unobtrusively enabling people to get on with their business. Traffic lights facilitate traffic movement not so much by turning green as by turning red. Without traffic lights, we all in effect have a green light, and at some point traffic increases to a point where the result is gridlock. By contrast, a system in which we take turns facing red and green lights is a system that keeps us out of each other’s way. Of course, the system itself gets in the way when it presents us with a red light, but almost all of us gain in terms of our overall ability to get where we want to go, because we develop mutual expectations that enable us to get where we want to go more peacefully and more expeditiously….

Property rights are, among other things, red lights that tell you when the right to use the intersection belongs to someone else. Red lights can be frustrating, especially as a community becomes more crowded, but the game they create is not zero-sum. When the system works, nearly all of us get where we are going more quickly, safely, and predictably than we otherwise would, in virtue of having been able to coordinate on a system that enables us to know what to expect from each other.

This idea of rights as traffic signals is not one that I have considered before, but I will be thinking more about it in future micro-institutions posts. By the way, I am not doing full justice to the arguments of Schmidtz, Wilkinson, or Yglesias in this post; I am mainly trying to make the connection between their ideas and similar things that I have written as a jumping off point for future conversations.

Peter Thiel on Innovation, Science, and Politics

Francis Fukuyama interviewed Thiel for a recent piece at The American Interest. We join their conversation in progress:

[Thiel:] If there is going to be a government role in getting innovation started, people have to believe philosophically that it’s possible to plan. That’s not the world we’re living in. A letter from Einstein to the White House would get lost in the mail room today. Nobody would think that any single person would have that kind of expertise.

Francis Fukuyama: Well, clearly, Silicon Valley was in many ways the product of a government industrial policy, DARPA. So much of the early technology, the creation of the internet itself, the early semiconductor industry, were really spinoffs from investments in military technology that were obviously pushed very strongly by the government.

Peter Thiel: My libertarian views are qualified because I do think things worked better in the 1950s and 60s, but it’s an interesting question as to what went wrong with DARPA. It’s not like it has been defunded, so why has DARPA been doing so much less for the economy than it did forty or fifty years ago? Parts of it have become politicized. You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different. There are very few people who are both great scientists and great politicians. So a conservative account of what happened with science in the 20thcentury is that we had a decentralized, non-governmental approach all the way through the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, the government could accelerate and push things tremendously, but only at the price of politicizing it over a series of decades. Today we have a hundred times more scientists than we did in 1920, but their productivity per capita is less that it used to be.

Francis Fukuyama: You certainly can’t explain the survival of the shuttle program except in political terms.

Letter: A. Einstein to F.D. Roosevelt

I will refrain from commenting on Thiel’s assessment of DARPA, other than to make two brief notes. First, Thiel’s ideas resemble those expressed by Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation, and the two men acknowledge their mutual intellectual debt. The second is that I too, as someone who believes in free enterprise and bottom-up innovation, have wrestled with the fact that much of the technological innovation of the last century benefitted from government funding. One can brush it off as low-hanging fruit, or–the perspective I prefer–acknowledge that there are high barriers to entry in the technology realm that require massive up-front capital. I will have more to say on this topic over the next week or two.

At its base, Thiel’s argument seems to be that there is a much higher noise-signal ratio in the innovation process today than there was 70 years ago. That seems right, and unfortunately mechanisms such as peer review have been unable to keep up with the flood of research being produced. I suspect that alternative processes will emerge, but they have yet to do so on a large scale.