Governments undoubtedly perform many useful functions, and in general the good that they do outweighs the bad. But this does not mean that their actions should never fall under scrutiny. Centralized power abides by its own logic, and has its own prerogatives; and while an enlightened ruler can work wonders when bringing noble aspirations to tangible reality, mediocre leaders can actively erode the principles of liberty, privacy, and public safety. I was reminded of this fact by reading some recent news stories.

Several days ago, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the NSA’s mass surveillance programs of its citizens, justified on the ever-shifting grounds of “national security,” are in fact illegal. The ruling arose out of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the NSA in the wake of disclosures by dissident Edward Snowden that Verizon was required to turn over to the NSA (on a daily basis) all of its domestic and international phone records.

The NSA had maintained that Section 215 of the Patriot Act allowed them to sweep up all of this “metadata” whenever it wanted to. The ACLU disagreed, taking the position that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution could not justify the NSA’s broad powers, which essentially amounted to the de facto creation of a vast database on every citizen, regardless whether they were suspects in any criminal activity.

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FISA courts: a cruel joke

Readers may recall that the government’s rubber-stamp “FISA Court” (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) had permitted such data collection provided it was related to “authorized investigation” of suspected terrorist activity. This shadowy “court” (which is not really a court at all, in any meaningful sense of the world) had given carte blanche to the program since 2006. It had never denied any government requests for information. It had been renewed over forty times since 2006. The NSA’s position was basically that everything and anything might be relevant to a terrorist investigation, so it was justified in collecting everything and anything on everyone.

And there things stood until last week. The Second Circuit, however, was not persuaded by the government’s logic. It noted the obvious: if we were to accept the NSA’s position, we would be forced to conclude that the program had no collection limits at all. The collection program was patently illegal under the very section of the Patriot Act that had created it (Section 215).

Disappointingly, however, the court refused to order a halt to the NSA’s collection program. It felt that the matter was best handled by having Congress amend the Patriot Act so that such collections abuses would no longer be an issue. In other words, the court tossed the hot potato into the lap of Congress. The predictable result, of course, is that Congress will do nothing. The NSA will continue to collect whatever it wants, whenever it wants, with the useless warm bodies in Congress continuing to collect their salaries without doing anything.  They will mouth the right platitudes for the cameras, and then turn to their reelection campaigns.

Other examples of government abuses are not hard to find. I recently wrote about the worst small arm ever designed, the French Army’s “Chauchat” light machine gun. The weapon was manufactured without any real oversight by the French government in the years before and during the First World War.

As a result, factory owners pocketed fat profits from lucrative contracts while skimping on manufacturing quality and materials. The final product was a horror, which undoubtedly caused the deaths of many Frenchmen in combat. Postwar investigations into the matter went nowhere, as the parliamentarians charged with investigating it were the same ones who had initiated the calamitous program in the first place.

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The Chauchat machine gun: a disaster that took the lives of many of its users

Power nurtures itself, and has its own logic. It can only be prevented from committing abuses by the skeptical vigilance of its citizenry. A further example (to add to the two noted above) of this principle can be seen in a recent news story coming from Brazil about the country’s so-called “rubber soldiers.” You may not have heard of the “rubber soldiers,” but the story is a compelling one.

It begins in 1942. With the United States in the midst of a massive rearmament program, there was a need for all types of strategic raw materials. One of these was rubber, which was used for a thousand military purposes. Synthetic rubber was still a laboratory aspiration; natural rubber from rubber trees was the only reliable source at that time. There were extensive rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, but these had fallen into the hands of the conquering Japanese. Only Brazil—the original home of the rubber tree, hevea brasiliensis–had the potential to meet the wartime demand.

So the American government struck an agreement with its counterpart in Brazil, whereby Washington would help finance a crash program to produce and export massive amounts of rubber. With promises of good pay and new opportunities, Brazil enlisted over 55,000 workers to go to the Amazon region and work on what they were told were rubber plantations. Using an enticing advertising campaign, the government promised to feed, transport, house, and medically care for the workers and their families.

But the promises turned out to be cruel deceptions. It took months to reach the malarial swamps of Amazonia, with workers having to pay for transport themselves. Once there, they quickly realized that there was no infrastructure to support them: no housing, no pay, no education for children, no organization, and no way of getting out. Subsistence was essentially at slavery levels.

Workers were reduced to shooting wild animals for food, and living in handmade huts of the most primitive quality. Tens of thousands died of neglect and disease; the bosses who controlled the labor made workers pay for everything, so that any wages they did receive were consumed by supplies they were required to buy themselves.

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Brazil’s “rubber soldiers”: used and discarded

At the end of the war, government promises of bonuses for the survivors of the program came to nothing. Monies earmarked for the laborers found their way into the pockets of corrupt officials, and stayed there. After nearly seventy years, the Brazilian government finally acknowledged the sacrifices of its “rubber soldiers” and awarded the survivors (now in their eighties and nineties) a bonus. The amount was only US $7,800 for each survivor.

The cruelest irony of all? For all the work and suffering, the actual output of rubber was middling at best. Rubber production limply rose from 16,135 tons in 1940 to only 22,350 four years later. This was not all. In the event, the Americans turned out not to need Brazilian rubber. Making use of its chemical industry, the United States found ways during the war of producing synthetic rubber on such a scale that it became a net exporter of rubber by the end of 1945.

What we conclude from all this is that governmental promises must be viewed with skepticism until proven effective and reliable. Concentrated power must continually be monitored by an educated, informed citizenry, so that the shadow of authoritarianism does not darken the institutions of a free society. The only antidote to governmental abuses is enlightened, vigorous leadership. Unfortunately, this has now become one of the world’s rarest commodities.

In analyzing governmental promises and statements, the following rules of thumb are useful:

1. Don’t focus on what governments or politicians say. Look at what they do. Even the most odious despotism can call itself a democratic republic.

2. Pay more attention to capabilities, rather than intentions. The stated intentions of governments can change overnight; capabilities often take much longer. Our focus should therefore be on capabilities.

3. Pay attention to a government’s “track record.” It’s the best indicator of how it will behave in the future.

4. Receive information from a variety of sources. Don’t rely on your own media for all of your information. The media often operates as the propaganda arm of the government.

Power will always create abuses. This is unavoidable. As with any institution created by man, governments will produce corruption and abuses. But an awareness of how governments operate can enable us to make informed decisions that are based on fact, rather than aspirations.

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