“When it comes to government snooping, in a transparent society people will know how government agencies use the information that it obtains. When agencies abuse or misuse information, people will have the ability to punish officials and force changes.”

Early in June 2013, a major news story was the revelation of a government program called PRISM, which taps into electronic communications in an effort to identify and disrupt threats to America. The controversy over this discovery sent me reaching to my bookshelf for David Brin’s 1998 work, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?1 Re-reading it made me realize that Brin articulated more than just an unusual approach for addressing the issue of surveillance technology. He offers a perspective on the relationship of citizens and the state which challenges conventional libertarian thinking.

In brief, Brin sees liberty as flourishing not when the state is weak, but when the state is accountable. Accountability in turn requires that government processes must be open, and that citizens must be vigilant and effective in monitoring and challenging the actions of public officials.

In the case of PRISM, the individual who leaked the information, Edward Snowden, was denounced as a “traitor” by Republican House Leader John Boehner. As of this writing, the Obama Administration seemed likely to seek to prosecute Snowden.

From Brin’s perspective, Snowden should be viewed as a hero. Government secrecy is most likely to result in abuse and/or incompetence. We are better off with citizen oversight. In Brin’s metaphor, whistle-blowers are the body politic’s equivalent of T-cells, which are specialized white cells that scour the bloodstream to locate harmful substances.2

However, unlike many civil libertarians who are alarmed by PRISM, Brin is not determined to see the government relinquish surveillance technology. Brin sees limiting the government’s capabilities as neither feasible nor desirable. Instead, consider the following matrix, adapted from one he uses.3

Government uses surveillance technology Government lacks surveillance technology
Citizens use surveillance technology Transparent Society Unstable government
Citizens lack surveillance technology Oppression Privacy Utopia

Many civil libertarians advocate for something on the right side of the matrix, in which government must relinquish surveillance technology. Some people, who Brin calls “strong privacy advocates,” would like to see surveillance technology unavailable to anyone, leading to the “privacy utopia” of the lower right quadrant.

Even if the lower right quadrant were desirable, Brin points out that it is not feasible. The use of surveillance technology cannot be suppressed. Indeed, if I want to suppress your use of surveillance technology, it is hard to imagine being able to do so without using surveillance technology myself.

Instead, Brin argues that we should aim for the upper left quadrant. I cannot suppress your use of surveillance technology, but I can influence how you use it. If you are a Peeping Tom, I will have the technology to know when you are invading my privacy, and I can expose you, shame you, or initiate legal action against you.

When it comes to government snooping, in a transparent society people will know how government agencies use the information that it obtains. When agencies abuse or misuse information, people will have the ability to punish officials and force changes. In addition, citizens will have the opportunity to suggest better ways to use information, reducing incidents of government incompetence—think of the government’s failure to take advantage of Russian intelligence that might have prevented the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Many libertarians might be inclined to prefer the upper-right quadrant. That is, they see no need to limit surveillance capabilities in the private sector, but they want to see government’s use of surveillance technology tightly restricted. In Brin’s view, this approach for trying to restrain government is short-sighted and ultimately misguided. If it could be applied, the result would be to weaken government. That in turn would reduce safety, and unsafe environments where government is weak are fertile breeding grounds for subsequent tyranny. Brin writes:

Weak governments can reverse this situation in a flash, whenever an emergency gives some charismatic leader an excuse to claim new powers. From Caesar to Napoleon to Lenin to Mussolini to Hitler, this has been one of the classic methods of creating an instant dictatorship out of a formerly feeble central authority. Few modern governments were ever as weak or “blind” as 1788 France, 1917 Russia, 1926 Italy, or 1933 Germany. Yet governmental blindness is what strong privacy advocates recommend.4

Brin argues against those who view government surveillance as inherently authoritarian:

Turning our gaze to the past, we see that nearly all forms of tyranny have counted on the same ultimate methods of control: indoctrination, subornation, terror, surveillance, and informers.

(Subornation, he explains, “involves using secret police methods to trick individuals into situations where they suddenly find they are already working for the Master, with no choice but to continue.”)5

Brin argues that without the other methods, surveillance alone is not a threat. The key to preventing tyranny is to ensure that citizens have the ability to resist the other methods.

Even if restricting government’s surveillance capability is what libertarians want, they are unlikely to achieve success. Instead, there is a great deal of popular support for government snooping, including the PRISM program. Brin anticipated this. Three years before the September 11th attacks but after the first (failed) attempt to blow up the World Trade Center using a truck bomb, he wrote:

As a mental experiment, let’s go along with FBI director Freeh and try to envisage what might have happened if those bombers had actually succeeded in toppling both towers of New York’s World Trade Center, killing tens of thousands. Or imagine that nuclear or bio-plague terrorists someday devastate a city. Now picture the public reaction if the FBI ever managed to show real (or exaggerated) evidence that they were impeded in preventing the disaster by an inability to tap coded transmissions sent by the conspirators. They would follow this proof with a petition for new powers, to prevent the same thing from happening again.6

Brin would argue that instead of fighting to limit government surveillance, where libertarians should make their stand is on what he calls accountability: On p. 119, he writes,

What is healthy for a nation? Accountability. Many minds and talents working to solve problems through a market of ideas. Since no single ruler can ever spot all errors, especially his own, open criticism helps a nation evade disasters.

What is healthy for a king, high priest, or tyrant? The exact opposite! Criticism is inherently dangerous to those perched at the privileged top of a pyramid. It can undermine absolute authority, and even lead to rebellion.7

Brin goes on to say that the propensity for individual tyrants to engage in persistently harmful policies is exacerbated by the human tendency to engage in deception, including self-deception. He says that leaders only improve when they can be challenged by citizens:

If criticism is the best know antidote to error… and leaders naturally hate criticism… then clearly a society is best served by ensuring that leaders cannot suppress or evade critical appraisal. (bold and ellipses in the original)8

Overall, I see Brin as offering a path to a libertarian society that differs from that proposed by most libertarians. He explicitly rejects the zero-sum framework in which any increase in government power or effectiveness must come at the expense of individual autonomy. In seeking a free society, he does not put his chips on mechanisms for ensuring weaker government.

On the narrow issue of privacy and surveillance, rather than look for laws that require everyone to relinquish the use of technology, he suggests that there may emerge a sort of spontaneous order in which what he calls “mutually assured surveillance” leads people to adopt forms of self-restraint. He offers the analogy of a crowded restaurant. There, each of us has the technology (ears) to eavesdrop on conversations at the next table. However, a spontaneous order has evolved in which, knowing that we do not want others eavesdropping on us, and knowing that we could be looked down upon for eavesdropping on others, people refrain from eavesdropping. Thus, the order that emerges is one in which people can have private conversations in restaurants.9 More broadly, within the order that emerges, we will develop customs that allow us to know when we can expect eavesdropping and when we can expect privacy.

One can adapt this same philosophy to government powers other than surveillance. Rather than try to fix government power for all time, we can allow it to evolve in response to circumstances, observation, custom, and criticism. As long as citizens have avenues to criticize and change government, the order that emerges will be a free, liberal society.

For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcasts Schneier on Power, the Internet, and Security, June 10, 2013, and Kling on the Three Languages of Politics, June 3, 2013.

In the end, what Brin seems to be saying is that what matters is what we as citizens believe about our relationship to government and its leaders. If we are able to monitor, free to criticize, entitled to complain, and responsible for seeking improvement, then we can have liberty, even if government is strong and even if it has surveillance technology. On the other hand, if people are willing to allow leaders to act in secret and stifle criticism, then government does not need surveillance technology or legal authority in order to crush freedom.

I am inclined to protest that big government’s apologists and propagandists are able to distort public perceptions, and thus the order that emerges is one with far less individual freedom and autonomy than I believe is optimal. However, I suspect that what Brin could say in reply is that the best way to address this is to constantly seek greater transparency.


David Brin’s The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Technology and Freedom? Basic Books (Cambridge), 1998.

Ibid, pages 131-134.

Ibid, page 272.

Ibid, page 198.

Ibid, page 219.

Ibid, page 206.

Ibid, page 119.

Ibid, page 120.

Ibid, page 14.


*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.