Once again, it’s the old question: who guards the guardians?

Allister Heath
AS ever, the ancient Greeks and Romans got there before us; they couldn’t conceivably have dreamt of the internet, of the cloud or of National Security Agency (NSA) super-computers in Fort Meade, Maryland, in an as yet undiscovered continent, combing through trillions of phone calls, emails and Facebook pages, but they’d already nailed the gist of the issue.

One of the most fundamental questions in political philosophy is, as the Roman poet Juvenal first put it, “Who will guard the guardians themselves?” While the original context was – somewhat bizarrely – one of trying to monitor marital fidelity, the question of who watches the watchmen – be they the secret services, the establishment, those with power – is at the heart of the current row about privacy, spying and the internet.

Juvenal, writing in Satires, was on the realistic side: he didn’t trust anybody. Those of us who believe in checks and balances, the need for scrutiny and strict limits to the powers of the state are on his side. Utopians, who have convinced themselves against all of the evidence of the past few millenia that ruling elites don’t abuse their powers, are on Plato’s side. In the Republic, his character Socrates insisted that the guardians could be self-policing: they would work in the general interest. But his reason for being able to argue this was that the guardians would be made to believe in a “noble lie” – sadly, a ridiculous assumption.

The case for capitalism itself is wholly in the Juvenal tradition; that for authoritarian modes of economic organisation in Plato’s. State created monopolies have too much power and are able to exploit customers and staff; but private firms competing with one another while respecting contracts, private property and the rule of law are forced to serve their customers’ needs to the best of their ability, and to fight to attract staff.

Competitive markets are the best way of ensuring that those entrusted with vast economic resources are accountable and are forced to make the most efficient use possible of the assets at their disposal.

Unlike some, I take very seriously the threat of terrorism. It is wrong to demonise the security services, who in most cases are having to work very hard to contain all sorts of threats. A number of attacks have been thwarted, and in many cases these successes have received insufficient publicity. But the present system – mass, indiscriminate surveillance, with big firms either co-opted despite their denials or tapped in to, with very little genuine scrutiny – is not right. The US constitution appears to have been brazenly defied. Simply stating, as many have done, that none of the revelations of the past few days ought to have come as a surprise is not good enough.

The balance between government and individuals has been surreptitiously changed; with free speech under threat, traditional liberties are facing their gravest threat since the second world war. In the US, journalists have been put under surveillance and conservative groups hostile to the present administration persecuted by the tax authorities. There are endless instances of officials abusing their powers in a scandalous fashion. In the UK, the snoopers’ charter would do nothing to make us safer.

The state would reduce crime if it introduced hidden microphones in every home, and tapped every conversation in every pub, in every car and train, and in every workplace – but the costs to privacy would be unacceptable. We would no longer be a free society. In the same way, while the authorities need to be able to track down terrorists, their remit needs to be strictly limited and debated openly. There needs to be as much judicial supervision as possible.

So here is the challenge: we need to rediscover libertarian principles while simultaneously taking security concerns seriously. Do I know what the detailed solution should look like? No, but it is clear that the current road won’t lead us anywhere pleasant. Whoever gets the balance right will have cracked an age-old dilemma, one that even the Greeks didn’t resolve.

Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath