For civil liberties, public outreach trumps contacting your congressional representative

Patrick is almost exactly wrong about The-Government-Has-Been-Collecting-Information-On-All-Our-Phone-Calls-gate:

Look, people, you don’t want this stuff going on any more?
Look up your Congressional representatives’ voting records and act accordingly.
Your Facebook memes are useless.

Actually, your Facebook memes are probably the only useful thing you can do.

Radley Balko tells us what we should already know: what the Fourth Amendment (and, indeed, much Bill of Rights) says is immensely unpopular policy both within Congress and among the public.

[I]n early 1995, [a representative named] Watt introduced the following amendment to [a] bill:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

That of course is the exact language of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The House killed Watt’s amendment by nearly a 3-1 margin.

There have been a number of public opinion polls over the years showing majorities of American opposed to the Bill of Rights when they aren’t told the language they’re being polled about is actually from the Bill of Rights.

The overwhelming majority of Americans have nothing more to say to Congress on this issue than “good job”. Even if a vocal minority were able to kick their representatives out, their replacements would probably be just as opposed to the text of the Fourth Amendment.

If you support civil liberties, you actually want the will of the people to be contravened. The people generally think that the only people who have something to worry about are the ones who have something to hide and that any prospect of crime justifies whatever the government might want. Further, as articulated by Dennis Sanders this morning, civil liberties are perceived as expenses to be continually justified rather than hard constraints that the government must abide by:

Whenever I hear libertarians complain about this, I have to wonder what they think is the proper response when terrorism happens. More often than not, the answer is that such things like 9/11 won’t happen again or the chances of terrorism happening to us are slim. I would agree that a 9/11-style attack was probably a one-shot deal. But in the years following 9/11 we have had other smaller scale threats such as the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner over the skies of Detroit, or the guy that wanted to set off a car bomb in Times Square and of course, the Boston Marathon bombings. So, how does government best respond to these threats? How do we try to protect the American people and yet uphold the ideals we cherish? How do we keep the balance?

Facts about Dennis’s concerns:

  1. They put the onus on civil libertarians to justify why the rights they care about matter, with the implication that if the answer is not convincing, then the only practical action is to abandon those rights.
  2. They use any evidence of attempted crime (let alone terrorism) as proof that rights need to be rescinded even among people who have done nothing to merit suspicion. No attempt is made to evaluate the costs of lost rights compared to the direct costs of the crimes to be averted. (If an attempt is made, the costs of the crimes perversely include the very overreactions by the government that civil libertarians argue against.)
  3. They are well-intentioned and sound totally reasonable to anyone who isn’t a civil libertarian.

If your Facebook memes educate your friends about the importance of privacy even among the law-abiding, they are probably more effective than identifying yourself to Congress as a weirdo who needs to be added to a watch list. A sea change in public opinion must happen first before the government can be reasonably expected to change its tack.

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.


  1. I’m not convinced, Burt.

    Those memes are meme-ingless without accompanying change in the halls of government.

    Right now, every town, every fire department, every police department is getting grant funding for much of their ‘improved’ capability to meet the requirements, and this happens in a way that removes burden from local property tax payers. I offer this as one of the many ways we’re bought off, bought into acceptance of security-state creep. It is, in some ways, a mirror to what many conservative governors say the fear in Obamacare’s promise for building insurance exchanges; a little help now to hook you into the system forever.

    And it is creepy.

    • >Those memes are meme-ingless without accompanying change in the halls of government.

      This is true, but the people in government won’t change until the people electing them do.

      There is a certain parallel to be drawn with the gay-marriage debate. It seems that gay marriage will succeed, but not because of people calling up Congress. The public has changed its viewpoint, and Congresspeople are doing so in response. Obama opposed gay marriage right up until a majority of Americans supported it, and his views miraculously evolved. You’ll see that with civil liberties if you can get the people to actually support them.

      • I think that’s actually a very good parallel, in that it serves to remind that sea-changes don’t often happen overnight (in absence of cataclysmic event).

  2. Given that 7 out of 9 Congressional Seats are “safe”, I tend to agree. One must resort to public shaming given:

    1) Congressional Approval Ratings, when they’re not meaningless in the first place, hover between 10 and 20 percent.

    2) The seats that aren’t “safe” will flip back and forth between the two parties based upon the whimsy of the electorate. The whimsy of the electorate is manipulable via such things as facebook memes. Dang them.

  3. Until the people feeling the “sting” of this abandonment of liberty and principles start to look like the people who makeup our Congress (i.e., overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly well-educated, overwhelmingly upper class), the imperative to change will be low.

    Which is not to say that such folks aren’t being impacted by these new policies or that they were enacted specifically to target other groups, just that the real world implications of the continued erosion of liberty tend to be much greater for some than for others.

    • If we have to wait for the makeup of Congress to change, we might have a very long wait ahead of us indeed.

      I think it is possible to get the “overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly well-educated, overwhelmingly upper class” to represent the interests of the minority by imposing the proper kinds of guilt trips. Rich white males outlawed slavery, after all.

      If for good to win, rich whites must lose, then we are in bad shape.

  4. Do Facebook memes really change minds about real issues? My concern is that so many Facebook memes are jokes or about obviously frivolous matters like celebrities or peoples’ cute pets, reducing actual social activism to funny photographs on the net will trivialize problems.

    Or, perhaps just as bad but in a different direction, it will tribalize them.

    There’s certainly a place for humor and spreading the humor around the internet could be part of social activism. But there must be more than that.

    • I would rather live in a world where people were informed by reading more serious fare than Facebook memes.

      But what is the world we live in? I would argue that Facebook memes tend to work to advertise the views of the sharer rather than change people’s minds, but maybe some of them do. Also, advertising one’s views might actually be enough. If a friend of yours cares about civil liberties, maybe you should care too, even if the signal of caring is a puppy mid-sneeze.

    • Patrick, I hope you address the partisan splits in Pew’s statistics. They suggest (to me) that about 20% of the people surveyed, a plurality of them Democrats (which sort of surprises me but maybe it shouldn’t) base their opinion of the government using power like this on either their identification with or their trust of the people holding the White House. As I commented above, that suggests a higher margin of tribalization than I’m comfortable with seeing.

      • Frankly, I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s only 20%, though I’m less than thrilled about the large baseline that’s willing to trust a President of either party.

        Note also the difference in the questions. It seems plausible to me that, particularly among Independents, the shift is partly due to people preferring broad secret court orders to no judicial oversight at all.

    • Polls are often hard to interpret. I’m on a particular side of the debate, so I feel the question isn’t fairly worded to favor answers I don’t agree with. The question doesn’t make it clear that the people being surveilled have done nothing to warrant suspicion. It characterizes such surveillance as an attempt to “investigate terrorism” when the data collected is from everyone, terrorist or not.

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