President Obama’s pen signed the Patriot Act extensions today, touching off a brief teapot tempest over whether it was important for his hand to be involved in the process. It seems petty to insist on flesh-and-blood humans pushing the pen around to create signatures on documents nobody reads any more. No one who signed ObamaCare had the faintest clue what it said. What difference would it have made if they had used robot pens?
The Patriot Act rolled through Congress with very little opposition, save for Rand Paul of Kentucky, who punched far above his weight as a freshman Senator to introduce a few speed bumps… which were duly flattened by huge majorities.
I must admit, I’m generally inclined to support terror-fighting measures. There are measures in the Patriot Act that seem excessive today, years after the last massive terror strike on American soil. They would have seemed extreme on September 10, 2001, too.
However, the more I studied Paul’s amendments, the more reasonable they seemed. At the very least, it’s important and useful that he raised the question of how far we should be willing to compromise privacy in the name of security.
Of course we do that, and we always will. This is an ongoing debate, which we will never stop having, especially since information technology evolves so quickly. It was not “settled” by the passage of the Patriot Act extensions, and would not have been settled if the Rand Paul amendments had passed.
What made me more sympathetic to Paul’s arguments was a moment of reflection on the essential blindness of big governments. You don’t have to fear emerging as an individual pop-up target on the radar screen of an angry politician, like “Joe the Plumber,” to be queasy about having the blind machinery of the State running through your personal information.
The federal government routinely crusades against things it subsidizes, creates duplicate programs whose bureaucrats don’t realize their clones exist, and creates regulations no one really understands. It creates programs which endlessly mutate in order to survive. Simple imperatives cause it to collapse into a nervous fit when they pass through the twisted anti-logic of class, race, and gender politics.
The State has a vested interest in creating crises to solve, and manufacturing villains to oppose. It has been running without a budget for over 700 days. It has rules that say food stamps must be issued to millionaire lottery winners. It desires swift access to the personal files of any American who catches its eye, while at the same time insisting that maintaining an accurate database of the legal status of immigrants is impossible.
In short, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that our massive federal government just isn’t very good at managing data. It seems like something more sensible than paranoia to slow the execution of its deeply flawed programming down a little bit.