by Pierre Lemieux

We might hope that the faster growth of Leviathan in China will give second thoughts to American politicians and bureaucrats–just like during the Cold War, the fear of resembling the Evil Empire probably had a salutary effect.

Chinese surveillance.jpg

According to reports from the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese government is building the largest DNA database in the world and expanding electronic surveillance. No citizens or subjects have ever been submitted to this level of surveillance. Innocent individuals are tricked into providing DNA samples when they are not simply forced to comply. Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 and the benevolent rulers of Huxley’s Brave New World would be green with envy. The rise of the Chinese surveillance state carries a treasure trove of lessons.

A first lesson is a reminder that Leviathan exists. Borrowed from the name of a Bible monster, “Leviathan” was used by 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes to describe the all-powerful state that he believed was required to protect citizens. In his famous book Leviathan, Hobbes wrote:

This is the Generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which wee owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defence. For by this Authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to forme the wills of them all, to Peace at home, and mutuall ayd against their enemies abroad.

We may interpret the classical-liberal and most of the libertarian tradition as an effort to make peace and security compatible with individual liberty, that is, to ensure peace and security while avoiding Leviathan. It is in this perspective that James Buchanan’s book The Limits of Liberty was subtitled Between Anarchy and Leviathan. The Chinese government, evidently, is not interested in individual liberty.

The problem with government biometric databases (and other ID databases) is not that they cannot help fight real crimes, an objective that virtually everybody agrees with; obviously they can. The problem is that they decrease the cost of enforcing laws, allowing Leviathan to create new crimes that only threaten its own agenda, ensnaring innocents in government-manufactured crimes. Tyranny is more dangerous than letting some common criminals loose.

A second lesson is that Leviathans come in different sizes. All governments are would-be Leviathans, and the less constrained they are, the more they grow into adult Leviathans. The idea of a constitution is to prevent the government from becoming a grown Leviathan. The U.S. Leviathan is thankfully much more restrained than the Chinese Leviathan, but the Wall Street Journal figures overestimate the difference. The newspaper reports that 54 million Chinese have a profile in their government’s DNA database, compared to the nearly 16 million persons convicted or arrested in the FBI-administered DNA database. As a proportion of the two countries’ populations, these numbers amount to 3.9% in China (total population of 1,379 million) and about 4.9% in the United States (total population of 323 million).

A third lesson is how many Chinese obey the requirements of the surveillance state–although the authorities apparently meet some collective resistance. The picture of a Chinese citizen obediently opening his mouth to allow a cop to swab his saliva is striking. But then, consider how Americans have accepted intrusive airport searches and other violations of what everybody would have previously considered Fourth Amendment protections.

A fourth lesson from the rise of the surveillance state in China is that the liberalization that started after the death of Mao is being rapidly reversed. Many recent signs indicate that the new Chinese leadership is strengthening the hand–read: the fist–of the state in the economy and increasing social control in general. My over-optimism when I reviewed Ronald Coase and Ning Wang’s How China Became Capitalist paralleled that of the authors and testifies to the complex processes occurring in China. However, I did note:

The authors of How China Became Capitalist have not stressed enough the persistent tyrannical trends within the Chinese state and Communist Party. Power corrupts.

A fifth lesson relates to the future of China in world trade. If it is true, as we have all reasons to believe, that central planning cannot efficiently replace markets, and if the current trends continue, we would expect Chinese producers to be less and less capable of competing with other producers in the more or less free world–including in Asia. Subsidized and controlled businesses are not the most efficient and Chinese taxpayers may refuse, or be unable, to continue supporting them. Western consumers would lose the benefit of less expensive goods.

One component of a free and efficient economy is a free market for ideas. Entrepreneurs are hampered when the flow of ideas is restrained. As Coase and Wang wrote, “[w]ithout a free and open market for ideas, China cannot sustain its economic growth.” As government intervention becomes heavier and growth slows, the result will likely be a popular revolt for liberalization or an economic collapse. The worst possibility is that the Chinese government starts a war in order to divert popular discontent and maintain its control through nationalist propaganda.

Western protectionists would welcome any retreat of China from international trade. They just don’t understand the benefits of free trade. And they don’t understand that most people have an interest in trading with 19% of mankind. If the Chinese Leviathan continues to grow, most people in the world will lose, and this includes not only the hapless Chinese subjects, but us, too.

Other lessons can be drawn from the growth of the surveillance state in China. My readers will probably find some in the Wall Street Journal reports linked to above. I might also come back to this topic in a future post.