Thursday, August 28, 2008

Recommended Reading

So I've been meaning to read something by Cory Doctorow for a while. The guy has class, and he's a prominent member of today's civil-rights community, which I have a lot of respect for.

I've finally gotten round to looking up his site, and read one of the e-books he makes freely available: Little Brother. It freaked the hell out of me. And it prominently raised a question that's been bothering me for a while: why don't most people pay any attention to attacks on their rights?

Why do people cheer when the government arrests people, locks them up without trial, and won't release them even if they're proved innocent? Why do people accept the government's right to snoop on people in the hope of catching them in minor misdemeanours? In short, how can anyone hear the words "if you've nothing to hide then you've nothing to fear" without spitting soft drink all over their keyboard?

Governments are made of people. People can get things wrong. Worse, a decent minority of people are power-hungry bastards. Any organisation that possesses power will tend to attract such individuals like wasps to a picnic. Once a critical mass of bastards builds up, a powerful organisation can go bad real fast.

Terrorist groups are also made up of people, most of whom can be legitimately considered to be bastards. However, there are several important differences here:

1) Governments have better raw materials. So far no terrorist has ever got hold of a nuke; the government of the USA has about 10,000 and once blew up two whole cities.

2) Governments have more manpower. Al Qaeda is estimated to have on the order of 20,000 members worldwide, many of whom have day jobs. The UK Civil Service has 500,000 full-time employees, and that's just one component of one country's government.

3) Governments have stronger surveillance capacity. Fraudsters have to struggle to get access to even a few people's records; the UK government has lost 30 million personal records this year alone, including mine.

4) Governments tend to get the benefit of the doubt. If any non-governmental group had killed as many dogs as the various USA police forces, they'd have been (ahem) hounded out of the country.

Governments have 99% of the power, 99% of the weapons, and 99% of the mob support. Goverments have a long history of going bad. And yet we're worried about those terrorists who don't work for the State?


Dunc said...

I believe at least part of the answer to this may be a concept which I've noticed before, but only recently discovered had a name and has been studied: System Justification.

I also think there's something to Alice Miller's suggestion that most people are conditioned to accept this sort if thing in childhood, when they are taught to obey and respect their parents unquestioningly and reflexively. As they mature, this obedience and respect is then transferred to other authority figures.

[First time commenter here... Been reading for a while, found you via Bronze Dog. Anyone who names their blog after a central concept in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is fine by me. :)]

Lifewish said...

So this system justification thing is basically "government as comfort blanket"? That makes a fair amount of sense.

It explains the outrage against people who demonstrate holes in security: they're deliberately undermining our ability to retain faith in government/blankie, at a time when we feel we need that faith. It also explains the Guantanamo effect: if the government wants to lock someone up then clearly they must've done something naughty. Believing anything else would make us feel insecure so therefore it must be true.

The only thing I don't like about this model is I can't see an obvious way to test it (unless it's only supposed to be a model of the managerial variety). This may just be me being thick, though. Any suggestions?

P.S. Good grief, I have regular readers?

Dunc said...

Psychological models are notoriously difficult to test...

However, this article may shed some light on the matter: A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo [PDF] - although I haven't read it myself yet. ;)

As for being a regular reader... It's amazing what I'll read as an alternative to doing work. ;)