At the height of anti-NSA furor in January 2014, The New Republic (TNR) published a hit piece on Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald that criticized their anti-government beliefs, portraying the leakers as “paranoid libertarians” and traitors to progressive government ideas.
By exposing the secrets of the government, they claim to have revealed its systematic disregard for individual freedom and privacy. Theirs are not the politics of left against right, or liberals against conservatives, or Democrats against Republicans, but of the individual against the state. To oppose them is to side with power against liberty, surveillance against freedom, tyrannical secrecy against democratic openness.”
“Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange hardly subscribe to identical beliefs … [their] outlook is neither a clear-cut doctrine nor a philosophy, but something closer to a political impulse that might be described […] as paranoid libertarianism. Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that’s hardly their goal. In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it. [emphasis added]
One wonders how “paranoid” were those who were ruthlessly harassed and held at gunpoint for questioning the NSA’s authority, such as whistleblower William Binney, whose story was prominently featured in the Snowden documentary CitizenFour. But in arguing that all men were compelled by an essentially libertarian idealism, TNR was right on the money, and this has serious implications for both the future of libertarian thought as well as anti-state activism.
The threat to free expression posed by unrestrained government institutions has created the need for a new front against the quiet, malignant growth of state power over the web granted to it by its rapidly-increasing technological capabilities. The anti-institutional radicalism inherent in libertarian ideals provided Snowden, Assange and Greenwald with an intellectual basis for their extralegal activism and a politically active community for support; it likewise ensured that libertarianism earned a way to not only distinguish itself from conventional “right wing” political thought in the public eye, but provided a real-world justification for its radical characteristics and brought its ideas to a wider audience. This sort of electronic civil disobedience could provide a resilient, anti-fragile bulwark against unchecked state power that legislation and conventional activism has been otherwise unable to create.
Snowden’s libertarian political stance is no mystery. In private chats on the ArsTechnica website back in 2008, Snowden voiced support for Ron Paul and even endorsed the gold standard. According to the chat logs he also told people about his general disdain for welfare-state policies. He is also widely known to have donated to Paul’s 2012 campaign.
Greenwald, like Snowden was likewise inspired by the anti-authority elements of libertarian thought. According to TNR, Greenwald,
began to envisage… [dissolving] the usual lines of political loyalty and unite the anti-imperialists and civil libertarian activists on the left with the paleoconservatives and free-market libertarians on the right in a popular front against the establishment alliance of mainstream center-left liberals and neoconservatives.
In his own words, Greenwald explained a “political re-alignment” had occurred, one that rendered “traditional ideological disputes” irrelevant. That re-alignment, to Greenwald, was of man versus government, no matter who was in charge.
When Snowden was spirited away from Hong Kong in mid-2013, his escape was arranged by Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, another anti-state libertarian who had been long established in the cypherpunk community. According to the TNR piece, Assange, like Greenwald, came to see “the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution,” a core concept of libertarian thought.
In a Forbes interview back in 2010, Assange noted he was influenced by Ron and Rand Paul as well as American libertarianism in general. “So far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian” Assange stated. “To put it simply, in order for there to be a market, there has to be information. A perfect market requires perfect information.”
Assange’s libertarianism goes far beyond markets however; his own comments on the nature of state authority are steeped in traditional libertarian notions of coercion. He notes in his book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet that,
states are systems through which coercive force flows… factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application… of violence. [Cypherpunks] saw that the merger between existing state structures and the internet created an opening to change the nature of states.
Even though most of the media has not seemed cognizant of the strong ideological association between libertarianism and some of the most prominent privacy activists of the last few years, the inspiration evinces the role of libertarian radicalism in their activity: an intellectual tool that provides a framework for activists to question the legitimacy of major institutions at a critical historical juncture, which in our case, is the breakdown of restraints on state power through the rapid development of invasive spying capabilities by federal agencies.
This helps to put modern libertarianism in an important historical context. Radical institutional criticism has proved critical to the development of civilization as we know it today. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, John Locke’s Treatises, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and various works by Irish patriots, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil libertarians all have something critically important in common with modern libertarian activism: the inflammatory, yet foundational concept of natural rights.
A New Libertarian Activism
Natural rights were considered a long-settled set of foundational principles and have resided at the bottom of the stacked assumptions that make up western political thought. At the top of the stack are the assumptions most often dealt with, i.e., should we have higher or lower taxes? More welfare or less?
Despite its importance to our civilization as a foundational legal and political concept, natural rights very rarely come up in politics. Essentially, the theory says that human beings have fundamental, inalienable rights intrinsic to their nature that cannot be contracted away even voluntarily, and that either come from nature’s laws or, depending on the source, God himself. These rights were enumerated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (alternately, “estate” according to John Locke.) The most important aspect was the “inalienability” of these rights, i.e. they superseded all government authority, no matter how seemingly necessary or just.
But when an institution is perceived as violating natural and civil rights with impunity, such as the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the British Empire in the 20th, or the NSA in the 21st, activists are forced to dig deeper into long-held assumptions to question major institutions and remind the public that those institutions only have borrowed authority that actually resides within individuals. “Natural law” is the philosophical equivalent of Excalibur, a weapon so deeply imbedded in our moral framework it can only be drawn out by a select few, and so powerful it can only be wielded when all else has failed.
According to the libertarian-anarchist Murray Rothbard:
The natural law is, in essence, a profoundly “radical” ethic, for it holds the existing status quo, which might grossly violate natural law, up to the unsparing and unyielding light of reason. In the realm of politics or State action, the natural law presents man with a set of norms which may well be radically critical of existing positive law imposed by the State. At this point, we need only stress that the very existence of a natural law discoverable by reason is a potentially powerful threat to the status quo and a standing reproach to the reign of blindly traditional custom or the arbitrary will of the State apparatus.
This foundational essence of libertarian thought that provides a connective thread to today’s institutional critics and anti-state activists primarily because it has been proven effective in both justifying and motivating anti-institutional activism through history. Edward Snowden illustrated during a February 2015 Reddit AMA his belief in natural rights and underpins his own act of defiance as an affront against the supposed “rights” of government:
Our rights are not granted by governments. They are inherent to our nature. But it’s entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy.
…Here and there throughout history, we’ll occasionally come across these periods where governments think more about what they ‘can’ do rather than what they ‘should’ do, and what is lawful will become increasingly distinct from what is moral.
In such times, we’d do well to remember that at the end of the day, the law doesn’t defend us; we defend the law. And when it becomes contrary to our morals, we have both the right and the responsibility to rebalance it toward just ends.
Well, when we look back on history, the progress of Western civilization and human rights is actually founded on the violation of law. America was of course born out of a violent revolution that was an outrageous treason against the crown and established order of the day. History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality.
The remedy for a violation of civil rights, according to Snowden, is an activist disobedience that prevents their criminal behavior through the development of defensive capabilities by individuals:
How do we make that work for us? We can devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.
Snowden’s Reddit manifesto is a full-throated endorsement of both natural law and civil disobedience, entirely consistent with the grand American tradition of defiance of bad laws that are inconsistent with those founding Enlightenment virtues.
Along similar lines, Assange clearly states his support for electronic civil disobedience in Cypherpunks: “cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action … strong cryptography can resist an unlimited application of violence.”
Assange evoked the Transcendentalists in his Wikileaks Manifesto in 2006, likewise proponents of the disruptive idea of natural law:
Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act we become a party to injustice. Those who are repeatedly passive in the face of injustice soon find their character corroded into servility.
Compare with Thoreau’s quote on injustice from his essay “Civil Disobedience”:
…if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
These men were all in a position where they had to deal with knowledge of grave injustices being committed by the state. TNR is probably correct to argue they had no common ideology because they all may not have been fully committed, bow-tied libertarians. But how much Mises or Hayek each of them digested seems to matter less than what ideas motivated them to act. Ideologies exist to explain and map out solutions to complex social and economic problems that arise from time to time. This is of little concern to the civil disobedient, whose high-stakes action is laser focused on the remediation of a singular grave injustice.
Without a doubt, the core principles of that “paranoid” libertarian impulse were present to both motivate and justify their selfless defiance of bad laws. That “impulse” led them to actions that exemplify a historic unification of radical libertarianism and civil disobedience as underwritten by natural law, a potentially powerful combination of ideas if it is wielded responsibly and inspires others to follow suit.
Where this intellectual synthesis will lead in the future is unclear. If Snowden’s actions inspire other leakers, as seems to be the case, the threat of repeated embarrassing leaks could lead to increased pressure for reform; the resulting information lockdown within the government could even result in increasingly sclerotic information flow and bureaucratic inefficiency as the NSA struggles to plug leaks, according to Assange. Certainly, the Snowden leaks have turned up the heat on governments in a way conventional political activism was unable to do. Public anger toward the NSA has already cooled, diminishing momentum for reforms being pushed by some libertarian activists. Future actions by dissenters, however, could turn the heat back up, and perhaps more importantly, set alight new “brushfires of liberty” in young minds.
Dissenters naturally gravitate toward the most compelling political narrative in order to provide corroboration for their personal alienation experiences. That could serve to explain how these three found libertarianism and each other, and indicate how future leakers may come to justify their actions. But with much of today’s digital activism seemingly unmotivated by any particular set of values, the ideological convergence between libertarianism and disobedience is still fitful and incomplete: The activism of Snowden, Assange, and Greenwald, among scores of others, is only a representation of what it might become.