David R. Henderson  

Lessons from "The Lives of Others"

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Our economic lives.

A local libertarian group showed the movie, "The Lives of Others," at the Marina Public Library last night. The group invited me to give a few remarks after the showing. What motivated them to show the movie now is the revelations by Edward Snowden of NSA's spying on "the lives of us." I was asked if I could make a connection between the Stasi's actions and the NSA's. I figured I could and so I said yes.

When it came time to make my comments, though, I realized that the connection between the two sets of actions--the NSA's and Stasi's--was not close. Stasi spied on East Germans and the NSA spies on us. So they're similar in that way. But Stasi spied in order to exert extreme control over the lives of East Germans. NSA isn't even close to doing that--yet.

So I pointed that out. The main lesson that I pointed out, though, was different. I asked the audience, of about 12 people, who had read Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Disappointingly, only one person stuck up his hand. So I gave a little background and pointed out that one of Hayek's main points is that a government that has a large amount of control over our economic lives has a large amount of control over us. That is why the Stasi was so scary.

Spoilers ahead.

Think of the playwright's neighbor who seemed like a decent woman and who saw the Stasi setting up the wiretaps and listening devices in the playwright's apartment. The Stasi official warns her that if she squeals, her daughter will not be able to go to university. Who controls who goes to state-funded universities? The state. Think about the play director who got out of line before the time in which the movie's events occurred. In a society where the state funds all art, who controls who gets to be a movie director? The state. Etc.

One of the people in the audience noted that, ironically, there was one person whose livelihood did not depend on the state: the prostitute who came to the Stasi employee's apartment.

Then I quoted from Hayek's Road to Serfdom the great quote he had from the Communist Leon Trotsky. Trotsky said:

In a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: he who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: he who does not obey shall not eat.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Pajser writes:

I think Stasi was scary because it was in service of dictators. Gestapo or Pinochet's Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional were equally, if not more scary than Stasi, although dictators didn't controlled economy that much. Hayek actually supported Pinochet. Trotsky's citation is ironic description of Stalin's politics from 'Revolution betrayed.' Not something Trotsky advocated (although I don't think Trotsky was much better than Stalin.)

Scott G writes:

I would have answered differently. I think the biggest connection is that the conversations that people have are altered for the worse when there is suspicion that another person (and in this case powerful people) might be recording and archiving the conversations. This is a type of thought control. If people aren't able to converse in private, then the benefits of conversation are reduced, and the likelihood that people will be stuck alone with their thoughts, feelings and problems are increased.

My answer is related to yours in that freedom of expression is dampened in both the NSA case and Stasi case and this of course has a negative impact on economic freedom, however even if there is no loss of economic freedom there is still the loss of privacy (i.e. psychological freedom) and the destruction of the beneficial attributes of private conversation. Of course when comparing the NSA and the Stasi we need to distinguish between the post and pre-Snowden eras. There is greater connection between the Stasi and the NSA in the post Snowden era because people are more suspicious that their conversations, private communications and actions are being recorded and archived. Further, in both the Stasi case and the NSA case, those in power defend the surveillance system even when it's obvious to most of the surveillance subjects that the surveillance system harms privacy beyond what humans consider acceptable harm. The U.S. Constitution is a brief description of a small portion of the rules privacy, and by this I mean the norms or laws of privacy. So in both the Stasi case and the NSA case, the state is breaking the law (in a Hayekian sense), but only in a legislative sense in the NSA case since as far as I know East Germany didn't have a constitution to protect its citizens from government surveillance.

~FR writes:

Doesn't the prostitute depend on the Stasi agent not shutting her down? He has de-facto power over her. That is a problem even in otherwise liberal free-market countries where prostitution is illegal.

David R. Henderson writes:

@FR,
Doesn't the prostitute depend on the Stasi agent not shutting her down? He has de-facto power over her.
Yes, but it’s symmetric because they are both breaking the law.

~FR writes:

Professor Henderson,

A fair point, but isn't that symmetry valueless? How does a prostitute in a police-state get real power against a member of the secret police?

The problem with dictatorships (or any center of unchecked power) isn't excessive lawfulness, it's that they become exceedingly lawless.

David R. Henderson writes:

@FR,
A fair point, but isn't that symmetry valueless? How does a prostitute in a police-state get real power against a member of the secret police?
Good point. So I take back my point about symmetry. Each has something on the other, but it’s not symmetric.

Ted Levy writes:

"NSA isn't even close to doing that--yet."

The problem, of course, is how hard it is to know such things with high levels of confidence. Recently we've learned our supposed guardians over misactions by the NSA--the Senate Intelligence Committee--have themselves been spied on by the NSA. So perhaps the safeguards are not strong. And of course the risk the Senators on that committee are being blackmailed and manipulated (or, more banally, have strong secret NSA-manipulated financial support to win their endorsement of NSA actions against public norms) is much higher than for any of us.

And much of Snowden's revelations have not yet been publicly revealed.

So, PROBABLY the NSA isn't close to acting like the Stasi. "Yet." Or, possibly, they're just much better at hiding it.
========
Great movie, BTW...

Sam Grove writes:

"Hayek actually supported Pinochet."

It was Friedman who offered advice to Pinochet, not support.

Ed writes:

"When it came time to make my comments, though, I realized that the connection between the two sets of actions--the NSA's and Stasi's--was not close...NSA isn't even close to doing that--yet."


I disagree. I think the connection is very close. I think one of the, if not the, main lessons from the TLOO is that the power to spy ends up being used for personal gain. And the more general lesson is that governments are ultimately run by people, and people have individual aspirations, motivations, and goals. So that, even though a government may rationalize it's use of certain powers for the "greater good" (e.g. counter-terrorism), those powers will ultimately be executed by individual people, and abused accordingly. The minister uses his power because of his connection with Sieland, not because he's a devout communist like Wiesler. There's already been various reports of individual NSA employees using information for personal reasons.


Of additional interest is that Wiesler is a true believer who wants to use spying for what he believes to be for the "greater good", but in so doing he discovers the true motivations behind spying and is relegated to a basement. This is Hayek's "the worst get on top" in action.

Andrew_FL writes:

Chile is an interesting case, though.

When before in history or since has it been necessary to use the force of state power to reduce the extent of the states control over people?

As far as I can tell the answer is "never."

Tracy W writes:

Andrew_FL: what do you mean by using the force of state power to reduce the extent of the state's control over people?
Would an anti-corruption prosecution meet your criteria, depending on what the corrupt person was doing? Or, say, convicting a policeman of brutality and jailing him?

Alex writes:

Sam Grove, I remembered reading somewhere that Hayek was in fact supportive of Pinochet. I found this article on it, http://crookedtimber.org/2013/06/25/the-hayek-pinochet-connection-a-second-reply-to-my-critics/

If the author is accurate than it appears that Hayek did support Pinochet at least to some degree.

RPLong writes:
But Stasi spied in order to exert extreme control over the lives of East Germans. NSA isn't even close to doing that--yet.
Modern governments don't need that level of control to extract what they want from citizens. As long as they allow us some semblance of "free speech" and provide the trappings of some ongoing "debate" about what we want from our government, then they can continue to prosecute us for ambiguous crimes when we step out of line. Before, the world had party insiders and party outsiders. Now we simply force someone into the criminal justice system somehow (it doesn't matter how), and they stay on the outside for the rest of their lives.

It's terrible. There is no way out that I can see, but putting an end to spying is a good first start.

...it appears that Hayek did support Pinochet at least to some degree.

All he did was point out that Pinochet saved the Chileans from a Castroite dictatorship that was being imposed by Allende. Who had assumed the presidency with all of 36% of the vote in 1970.

Allende wasn't making any secret of the fact that he was going to end democracy in Chile. He planned to disband congress and replace it with a 'people's assembly'. The Supreme Court had ruled, unanimously, that he was acting unconstitutionally (May, 1973).

In August the Chamber of Deputies came within one vote of removing Allende from office. The charges were; 'ruling by decree, refusing to enforce judicial decisions, usurping control of the news media, illegally limiting emigration, and organizing and arming socialist militias to confront the military, all with the intent to impose a totalitarian system.'

Ordinary Chileans were demonstrating in the streets in 1973. Doctors, dentists, shopkeepers, truck drivers went on strike. One of the final straws was when wives of military officers joined in the anti-Allende protests.

Allende had thousands of para-military forces, trained by Fidel Castro's henchman Manuel Pineiro, at his disposal. The torture rooms that were eventually used against Allende's people, were in fact built in the basement of their headquarters by Allende's secret police.

Yes, Pinochet's military did not go gently into that bad nightmare, but it was war. Eventually won by the 'good guys'--Chile emerged as a free and prosperous society, unlike almost anywhere else in Latin America. For a more detailed explanation of this, see the remarkable Painful Birth: How Chile Became a Free and Prosperous Society by James Rolph Edwards.

The choice facing Chile in the 1970s was not between Pinochet and Switzerland.

awp writes:

"When it came time to make my comments, though, I realized that the connection between the two sets of actions--the NSA's and Stasi's--was not close...NSA isn't even close to doing that--yet."

Person who is not me:"Why do you care about (some constitutional right/govt. power)? If you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide/fear"

Me:" No one ever gives power to the "Stasi"*. They give it to the NSA. It is that power, that once given, allows the NSA to become the "Stasi"*."

*Scare quotes intentional because "Stasi" is scary.

Mike Rulle writes:

I agree with your entire point.

Of course, the "yet" reference is the scary one as others have pointed out. But, we will always have the technology to enslave our nation. The question remains whether its very existence increases the desire on the part of the state to "control" or whether, as in all technologies past, it will be controlled by a system of culture and law which continues to find it abhorrent.

I am not sure of the answer. I fear I lean slightly toward "ability to control increasing the probability of control". So, vigilance is critical. Kind of like trust but verify.

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