The Efficiency Trap

I have been deeply disturbed by recent revelations about the US government’s spying operations. The NSA’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution, as well as the Executive branch’s defense of spying, is what I consider to be a serious affront to the rights and liberties of American citizens. I have wanted to share something about the current situation that goes beyond outrage (my social streams have already been inundated with enough of my snarky comments). I think that the efficiency trap is what I can offer.

Greater efficiency seems to be a universally desired characteristic, but should it be? Efficiency is about automating any process that will shorten the distance/time between the beginning and end of any action. Gains in efficiency have lead to tremendous economic growth in virtually every sector of our society. It has led to wonderful and elegant solutions to the problems and annoyances of day to day life, especially in the technology realm. I am for greater efficiency in many of these areas. I love online banking, bill pay, better gas mileage, wider public transportation, online shopping, and all the other modern conveniences that have come from the drive for efficiency.

There is one part of civic life that seems to have been missed by all this efficiency, government. It seems that every time an issue arises for congress to deal with, the level of outrage among the American people rises.

“Why can’t these people work together?” “If only the (insert your least favored political party here) would play ball they could get something done.”

These familiar complaints can lead people to wonder why our government works the way it does. As I have thought about this I have come to think that our government works the way it does on purpose. This inefficiency of the process is what was intended by the framers of our constitution, and that is not a bad thing.

Checks and balances are not just a civics class factoid, they are essential to a functioning democracy. Each branch of government has power to check the other and it is easy to see why this is important in theory, but it is not efficient. The most efficient form of government would be a dictatorship, one chain of command with nonexistent or ineffectual checks to power. It is precisely this type of efficiency and singular vision that Apple has in the tech sector and Microsoft reorganized to achieve. We may like the outcomes from this structure in business, but the side effects of the same structure in government are widely condemned.

The ideas behind checks and balances are put to use in courtrooms, where trials are adversarial with impartial judges and juries deciding the outcome. This is why activist judges are roundly denounced (unless of course you agree with their leanings). Checks and balances exist (supposedly) for security agencies, in the form of congressional oversight from senators who approve their budgets. The fact that the military is divided so sharply into different branches helps prevent the type of power consolidation that so often topples governments (see Egypt for a recent example).

Checks and balances cannot prevent all problems in our government but their existence greatly reduces them. The framers of the Constitution knew first-hand the consequences of unchecked power in the form of a King effectively unchecked by a parliament that, in turn, was not accountable to the people it represented. History had taught them that unchecked power usually, if not always, leads to abuse of that power and the people with the least representation suffer the most. They created our form of government, with extensive checks and balances, as an answer to that problem and the American people have been the beneficiaries for over two centuries.

This is why the NSA spying revelations are such a huge problem. This and many of the laws passed in the last 12 years have introduced a tremendous amount of unchecked power into our government, the executive branch specifically. After 9/11, the intelligence community were caught flat footed. The problem, as they saw it, was a lack of efficiency caused by a lack interdepartmental cooperation. They were asked by the White House what they would need to fight terrorists and prevent another attack. Their recommendations resulted in The Patriot Act, a set of war powers that gave the intelligence community broad license to streamline their work with little real oversight. The NSA would need court orders to spy on Americans, but to promote greater efficiency they set up their own secret, non-adversarial courts that work off secret legal interpretations. Instead of congressional oversight where the issues could be debated openly by our representatives, all oversight was done by secret committees who were banned from discussing disturbing revelations publicly, if they were told the truth at all. In effect there is no check to the power of the NSA. Any semblance of oversight is tightly controlled by those who are supposed to be watched.

We have given our presidents war powers before, World War II comes to mind, but there was always an end objective in those conflicts. The “War on Terror” has no end point, so these laws that empower the executive branch and security agencies to act with impunity, will we be with us perpetually unless we do something about it. What can we do? We can do something hard, be squeaky wheels. Here are my suggestions, take them how you will:

  1. Contact your representatives. Let them know that this breach of the Constitution should not be tolerated and that they will lose your vote should they not work to make secret surveillance of US citizens clearly illegal (this will mean repeal of much, if not all, of the Patriot Act) and defund any agency that does not comply. Let them know that the choice between safety and security is a false choice and they are in Washington primarily to guard our liberties and uphold the law, not be lifeguards. If your representative does not comply then actually vote for someone else and tell your family and friends to do the same. Their willingness to stop these programs is probably best indicated by how they have voted for The Patriot Act in the past, although, being politicians, they can change if properly motivated.
  2. Tell everyone you know about it. The disregard for our rights being perpetrated by our government would have seemed like conspiracy theories a few years ago, but they are real and every revelation is worse than the last. If you’re wondering where to point people, this timeline, the Washington Post’s Top Secret America, The Guardian’s NSA articles, The Economist’s op ed, and Bruce Schneier’s piece on privacy are good places to start. This is an issue that should not be bumped out of focus by Syria or whatever else the executive tries to distract us with in the coming months.
  3. Let tech companies know, by your lack of patronage or by direct contact, that it will hurt them monetarily to leave open backdoors for the NSA. They may not have a choice, but they’re much more likely to make a bigger stink in Washington if it’s costing them money.
  4. Make life difficult for the NSA. If you are technically inclined, increase the time and effort it takes them to track your information. Here’s an article showing you how to get started.

The organizations that are abusing our fear of terrorism by increasing surveillance may seem so entrenched that we can’t do anything about it, but America was unique in the world when it was formed in an interesting way. We have the ability through our electoral system to have a peaceful revolution every few years. We can choose our leaders and no matter what they say about the benefits of institutional knowledge they can be replaced, just as all their predecessors have been. If we do not like the way our government treats us, we can replace them, all of them. The road to tyranny may seem long, but the NSA and the executive branch’s powers are shortening it a great deal. It may be hard to imagine our nation turning to tyranny today, but try to imagine who will be in power in 15–20 years. I can’t and I imagine you can’t either. This is too much power for any government, no matter how well intentioned. Let’s do something about it. We can show the world that efficiency is not more important than checks and balances and that liberty is more important than expediency.