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The Growth of the Chinese Leviathan

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Further thoughts on corporate ... I Win All My Ebola Bets...

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.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Alec Fahrin writes:

Maybe this isn’t a convincing argument, but during my years in China I haven’t noticed these supposed “recent signs indicating that the new Chinese leadership is strengthening the hand--read: the fist--of the state in the economy and increasing social control”.

In my eyes, Chinese today are freer and happier and more educated than ever before. I grew up in a small village in the recent past and remember what it was like to go hungry for days and not know how to operate a phone. Not starving is a freedom in and of itself. Being wealthy enough to travel and own phones is even more of a freedom.
I didn’t notice my supposed lack of social freedom because I noticed only my lack of a freedom to life.

At least my experience makes me believe that no matter how hard the Chinese govermment might try to control its people, richer and healthier and better educated people are simply freer than those who are not. The forces of liberalization and freedom appear to be winning the struggle against those of control. Sometimes I am just left flabbergasted at the articles I read about China’s oppression and supposedly collapsing economy since I just don’t see it around me.

Call it an anecdote, but that’s my life.

Scott Sumner writes:

I fear that the surveillance state is already here in America. It's too late.

Regarding China, I agree with Alec. Freedom of speech has declined in recent years, but economic and lifestyle freedoms have increased.

Thaomas writes:

The Chinese experience seems to have encouraged the wealthy in the US to see the advantages of overtly plutocratic policies and voter suppression that helps make them possible.

Craig J Walenta writes:

http://www.nj.gov/health/fhs/nbs/

I reside in the State of NJ where the law requires that newborns give a blood sample which is tested for up to 55 genetic disorders. During the hectic birth if my twins, it never even occured to me that this was even happening. However, about 8-12 weeks later letters from the state arrived and with respect to my daughter I was advised that if she were to have children with a person with some genetic characteristic, there could be soke type of problem. I considered challenging the constitutionality of this law, or at least to challenge the non-anonymous method it was performed, ie the doctor could take a blood sample and submit a numbered sample to the state which would then return the result to the doctor....but life interposes.

Pierre Lemieux writes:

@Alec: Note that I take freedom to mean the absence of arbitrary coercion, as defined by Hayek in chapter 1 of The Constitution of Liberty. Wealth and freedom are not the same (even if most people are more likely to get the first if they have the second). In this perspective, it is not true that not starving is freedom, although one might be willing to make trade-offs between them, for better or for worse.
@Scott: If the WSJ reports are right, we would expect surveillance to soon visibly limit economic and lifestyle freedoms, ceteris paribus. Isn't control the goal of surveillance?

Pierre Lemieux writes:

@Thaomas: What do you mean by "voter suppression"?

Pierre Lemieux writes:

And Happy New Year to all!

ZC writes:

Craig J Walenta
Sounds pretty horrific, the state screening your new bundle of joy for a host of diseases, several of which can be easily treated if identified early and others can be avoided with foreknowledge.

Your concerns are about as well founded add those of the anti-vaccine crowd. While the state almost always moves towards Leviathan, it is certainly beneficial when organized bodies protect people from risks they're too stupid to avoid themselves.

ZC writes:

Craig J Walenta
Additionally, it's amusing that you'd complain about a minor intrusion which yields substantial benefit...all the while continuing to willfully live in New Jersey likely paying obscene taxes. Seems like forcible confiscation of a sizeable sum of your resources by the state annually would be more off-putting than some lab work...

Ron H. writes:

ZC

I doubt that Mr. Walenta is opposed to medical testing itself, but to the fact that the state of New Jersey is collecting personally identifiable medical information about everyone born in the state that it has no legitimate reason to have. Whatever happened to doctor/patient confidentiality?

Testing to determine risk factors for an individual by a medical facility and advising on potential future problems is no doubt beneficial, but no one except the doctor and the patient, or in this case the patients parents has any right to that information.

Apparently you don't hold individual liberty and autonomy in very high regard, and perhaps you are unclear about the difference between citizens and subjects. The purpose of government is to protect the rights of peaceful individuals, including their right to be left alone, not to keep tabs on everybody by gathering as much information as possible.

Would you approve of the state preventing Mr. Walenta's daughter from someday marrying someone with the concerning genetic characteristics mentioned in the letter?

BTW Mr. Walenta - not you - will determine whether this medical testing is a "minor intrusion". It concerns him and his family, and is not at all your business.

Craig Walenta writes:

My direct point of posting was in response to this paragraph in Professor Lemieux' article:

"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)."

Clearly he is citing a figure based generally on the federal and state governments collecting DNA samples of individuals making their way through the criminal justice system. My point in citing the practice in NJ on the birth of newborns is to suggest that the number of DNA samples in the possession of the government could very well be much larger. Obviously just because NJ does it, doesn't mean other states do it, but clearly NJ had a sample of my childrens' blood.

As an aside, my second point, even if we presume that the state possesses a 'compelling state interest' here is that even if we concede that point, the scheme in question is not narrowly tailored to achieve that interest when balanced against the privacy interests of my children.

In fact, as noted, the state could compel the submission of numbered samples which the state would be unable to attribute to a specific individual, or, alternatively, the state could simply compel obstetricians/hospitals to perform the tests and be reimbursed by the state.

I would suggest that even if the IV Amendment did not bar such a scheme, that federal statutes, specifically HIPAA would trump state law in this respect. I didn't pursue it but I was surprised that this had actually happened.

As for your second comment, 'ZC',

"Additionally, it's amusing that you'd complain about a minor intrusion which yields substantial benefit...all the while continuing to willfully live in New Jersey likely paying obscene taxes. Seems like forcible confiscation of a sizeable sum of your resources by the state annually would be more off-putting than some lab work"

As if somehow my comments here on one particular practice somehow constitute a 'waiver by omission' of the innumerable other gripes I may have with NJ. Really?

ZC writes:

As a
Yes, I'd approve of the state preventing him from reasonably trying to reduce the risk of him producing offspring with horrible diseases and burdening society with the costs. Genetically transmitted diseases are why marrying familial relatives is illegal. Is that a law you take issue with as well, Ron? Seems pretty widespread here in the states, not many people taking to the statehouse to fight that one...stinkin' state telling people who they can marry.

He's free to move from his uber nanny state of NJ, but chooses not to. Guess that's his revealed preference.

Pretty much every US state has some sort of public health newborn screening program...and pretty much all of them allow you to opt out. It's not some secret, deep- state database, it's things any reasonable person would elect to have their newborn screened for if they had the time and intellect to sort through thousands of medical studies about a host of complex diseases. Not that illiterate 15 year old girls with no family support ever have babies and need someone to guide them to pursue relatively inexpensive testing that may identify a condition which can be treated for a few bucks but left untreated would cost taxpayers millions over the life of the disabled ward of the state. I'm sure they'd be up to date on the latest on phenylketonuria and cystic fibrosis and HIV, right Ron?

Oh, and when your medical care is paid for the by the state (billions annually, especially newborn care as single, jobless females seem to be really good at having kids when they're paid to have them) and the consequences of making a really dumb decision regarding the health of your child (neglecting simple neonatal testing) will likely be borne by the state, it becomes my (and every other taxpayers) business.


Ron H. writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

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