Modern day political prisoners

Here is a list of political activists who have been imprisoned and/or seriously harassed by governments for speaking truth to power. The list is, of course, far from complete. These are just the ones I know about from the top of my head. Some people still think that we live in a free society under the rule of law. This post is an attempt to wake these people up.

  • While not technically a prisoner at the moment, Edward Snowden would be one if the US government had its way. His crime, of course, is telling the truth about abuse of state power. However, as Snowden himself points out, telling the truth is not a crime.

    If you know about additional political prisoners or activists being persecuted by governments, send me an email and I will add them to the list!

    The Importance of the Individual

    Earlier tonight, I read a post on Facebook (non-public link) by fellow libertarian Robert Sundström which contained, among others, the following sentences:

    The individual is without doubt the most important entity in society. Only the individual think, reason and act. Only it know how to satisfy its wants. [...] A group of individuals are nothing but equal potential to spontaneous order and imminent chaos - depending on the formalization of the structure. There is nothing special about it - not even when it comes to an outcome of a democratic process.

    This was said in the context of economic theory, where it is not unreasonable, but it inspired me to write a few paragraphs about a wider point that I have thought long and hard about. As I perceive it, statements of this type are often made as a kind of libertarian dogma, being applied far beyond the realm of economics. I am not accusing Robert of this, only thanking him for stimulating me to think and write.

    In any case, the status of the individual is a core issue for libertarianism and I think many libertarians need to think more carefully about it. Here is what I wrote about it in a comment:

    Individuals are almost completely defined by the groups they come from. Just think of language, religion, all kinds of values and other customs. These things play a much bigger part in defining who you are, than your individual personality traits or even your individual actions. For example, if you had grown up in the country-side in Afghanistan, you would almost certainly be a hard-core muslim. Your individual capacity to reason about such things and come to your own conclusions amounts to almost nothing if the comparison is between cultures, rather than between individuals within a single culture.

    Human beings are flock animals, like chimpanzees. Not solitary animals, like orangutans. We are biologically hard-wired to live in symbiosis with with a small group. To say that there is "nothing special" about such groups is profoundly unrealistic. So speaking from biological facts, rather than romantic ideals, the flock/tribe/village/community is the most important entity in society. Individuals are secondary, since they are basically extensions of these groups. I also think it more realistic to consider the community to be the proper level of autonomy, rather than the individual, since communities are the only entities that are actually capable of long-term self-determination.

    (Incidentally, this solves a number of common problems associated with libertarianism. For example, what about the individual rights of children? That question is based on a false premise - the much more important issue is the autonomy of the groups children grow up in.)

    In my view, the root of almost all societal problems, not least things like over-sized governments, is the destruction of organic communities. The reason people are dependent on the state is that they do not have local communities to support them, which was the way things worked for tens of thousands of years until the process of civilization gradually shifted the dependency from organic communities to governments. Conversely, the only way to decrease dependence on government is to recreate local communities. It is simply not an alternative for everyone to create their own lives according to their individual preferences, because again, if you are even able to reason about such things, e.g. if you can use a language, you are already created in the image of some group.

    Libertarians open themselves up for ridicule when they focus too much on the individual, because everyone else is very aware of the degree to which everyone is dependent on social factors. Instead, we should focus on changing which kinds of groups are considered important. Instead of identifying with nations, we should try to form natural-sized communities (30-100 individuals perhaps) which function so well that the government becomes redundant. Without such communities, removing the state from the equation might even be very dangerous, which is why I have stopped arguing for abolishing the government, to instead focus on building a good community around myself.

    In answer to this comment, I got the question whether or not individuals are to be considered as insignificant, due to their biological hard-wiring, and the objection that the human mind is adaptive and can break out of specific influences. This is an additional comment I made with regard to this:

    That the individual is not the most important entity in society does not mean that individuals are not important, and indeed, most great leaps forward seem to spring from the minds of individual people. But note that progress can only happen if the ideas of a great individual takes root in a well-functioning group, i.e. when a community starts pursuing the ideas together.

    A point I was trying to make is that your ability to "break out from specific influences" is very limited, since all your ideas, even about the concepts of influence, breaking out etc is very tightly connected to what culture you grew up in. Sure, you can change many details, but you will have no desire to change many of the big things, since you have taken them for granted since birth. Do you think you would be able to become a libertarian if you were born in a small Afghani village or in a stone-age tribe?

    Snowden: A Manifesto for the Truth

    This article by Edward Snowden was published today in Der Spiegel. Since I could not find a translation online, I decided to publish one (suggestions for improvements are welcome). I previously published the full text in German.

    In a very short time, the world has learned much about unaccountable secret agencies and about sometimes illegal surveillance programs. Sometimes the agencies even deliberately try to hide their surveillance from high officials and the public. While the NSA and GCHQ seem to be the worst offenders - this is what the currently available documents suggest - we must not forget that mass surveillance is a global problem in need of global solutions.

    Such programs are not only a threat to privacy, they also threaten freedom of speech and open societies. The existence of spy technology should not determine policy. We have a moral duty to ensure that our laws and values limit monitoring programs and protect human rights.

    Society can only understand and control these problems through an open, unbiased and informed debate. At first, some governments feeling embarrassed by the revelations of mass surveillance initiated an unprecedented campaign of persecution to supress this debate. They intimidated journalists and criminalized publishing the truth. At this point, the public was not yet able to evaluate the benefits of the revelations. They relied on their governments to decide correctly.

    Today we know that this was a mistake and that such action does not serve the public interest. The debate which they wanted to prevent will now take place in countries around the world. And instead of doing harm, the societal benefits of this new public knowledge is now clear, since reforms are now proposed in the form of increased oversight and new legislation.

    Citizens have to fight suppression of information on matters of vital public importance. To tell the truth is not a crime.

    This text was written by Edward Snowden on November 1, 2013 in Moscow. It was sent to SPIEGEL staff over an encrypted channel.

    Snowden: Ein Manifest für die Wahrheit

    This was published today by Der Spiegel. It is currently a bit tricky to get the full text, since it is behind the Spiegel paywall, and also in a very strange format. So I decided to re-publish it.

    Update: Here is the article in english translation.

    In sehr kurzer Zeit hat die Welt viel gelernt über unverantwortlich operierende Geheimdienste und über bisweilen kriminelle Überwachungsprogramme. Manchmal versuchen die Dienste sogar absichtlich zu vermeiden, dass hohe Offizielle oder die Öffentlichkeit sie kontrollieren. Während die NSA und (der britische Geheimdienst –Red.) GCHQ die schlimmsten Missetäter zu sein scheinen – so legen es die Dokumente nahe, die jetzt öffentlich sind –, dürfen wir nicht vergessen, dass Massenüberwachung ein globales Problem ist und globale Lösungen braucht.

    Solche Programme sind nicht nur eine Bedrohung der Privatsphäre, sie bedrohen auch die Meinungsfreiheit und offene Gesellschaften. Die Existenz von Spionagetechnologie darf nicht die Politik bestimmen. Wir haben die moralische Pflicht, dafür zu sorgen, dass unsere Gesetze und Werte Überwachungsprogramme begrenzen und Menschenrechte schützen.

    Die Gesellschaft kann diese Probleme nur verstehen und kontrollieren durch eine offene, ohne Rücksichten geführte und sachkundige Debatte. Am Anfang haben einige Regierungen, die sich durch die Enthüllungen der Massenüberwachungssysteme bloßgestellt fühlten, eine noch nie dagewesene Verfolgungskampagne initiiert, die diese Debatte unterdrücken sollte. Sie schüchterten Journalisten ein und kriminalisierten das Veröffentlichen der Wahrheit. Zu dieser Zeit war die Öffentlichkeit noch nicht imstande, den Nutzen dieser Enthüllungen zu ermessen. Sie verließ sich darauf, dass ihre Regierungen schon richtig entscheiden.

    Heute wissen wir, dass dies ein Fehler war und dass ein solches Handeln nicht dem öffentlichen Interesse dient. Die Debatte, die sie verhindern wollten, findet nun in Ländern auf der ganzen Welt statt. Und anstatt Schaden anzurichten, wird jetzt der Nutzen dieses neuen öffentlichen Wissens für die Gesellschaft klar, weil nun Reformen in der Politik, bei der Aufsicht und bei Gesetzen vorgeschlagen werden.

    Die Bürger müssen dagegen kämpfen, dass Informationen über Angelegenheiten von entscheidender öffentlicher Bedeutung unterdrückt werden. Wer die Wahrheit ausspricht, begeht kein Verbrechen.

    Diesen Text schrieb Edward Snowden am 1. November 2013 in Moskau. Er erreichte die SPIEGEL-Redaktion über einen verschlüsselten Kanal.

    Why evaluate heredity vs environment?

    Celia Green writes about heredity, intelligence and education. She makes an interesting point about the beliefs people hold in regards to heredity vs environment and their relation to government intervention:

    One may wonder why it is of any interest to attempt to evaluate the relative importance of heredity and environmental factors on functionality. It only becomes of interest, surely, when opportunity of various kinds is not paid for directly by the individual, or his parents or guardian, but supplied by the state.

    At present, many people, or at least many among the most influential, seem to wish to believe that there is no such thing as innate ability, and that there should be equality of opportunity (and hence equality of outcome). But what are we to understand by equality of opportunity? In practice, this is taken to mean that resources should be applied lavishly to those whose performance is below the average. Thus children with ‘special needs’, for example, are to be sent in taxis, accompanied by social workers, to special schools. And, although this is less explicitly advocated, those who are far ahead should be held back.

    I miss you, America

    The founding of the United States was one of the most impressive and admirable events in world history. For a long time this new country was the world's foremost beacon of freedom. At this point however, the US has become one of the leaders in oppressive government tactics, and disturbing reports are published every day about increasing tyranny.

    Oh, America, how far you have fallen!

    NSA infiltrates Yahoo, Google data centers

    DHS Spends $500,000 on Fully Automatic Pepper Spray Launchers

    Adam Kokesh, a modern day political prisoner

    Free Speech T-shirt Maker Threatened By NSA

    White House Forces Companies To Keep Quiet About Obamacare Problems

    Body scanning at the candy store

    Interesting experiment on the willingness of ordinary people to subject themselves to invasive forms of surveillance. A body scanner is used on customers entering a candy store. Many had the appropriate reactions - disbelief, disgust, anger, walking away - but according to the producers:

    The goal was to see how far we could take this scanning and if people would let us! To our surprise, most people didn't put up much of a fight and went along with the person ahead of them in line... which was our plant that we actual scanned again and again.

    Machineries of freedom

    Last night I was talking with some fellow anarchists about what kind of practical projects we should be exploring and promoting, to move beyond the usual grind of politics and ideology. There were lots of interesting suggestions of course and over time I would like to explore many of them on this blog. Here are some types of projects that I am currently involved with or seriously exploring:

    • Autonomous wireless mesh networks to complement/compete with/replace the government controlled Internet. I have been talking to people, going to conferences etc to explore this topic, with the goal of building a mesh network in Stockholm. The motivation is primarily to counter government restrictions on information exchange, by creating a parallel network which the state can not control or censor.
    • New technology for small scale production of food. One of the small startups in this space that I am watching closely is AutoMicroFarm. Some friends of mine are building similar setups of their own. Don't know much about energy production, but would love to hear from some solar power enthusiasts or something.
    • The interplay between government services and free software might offer some opportunities. I have personal experience of projects where the implementation of open data standards has made a substantial difference to the allocation of money and other resources. Wider implementation of free software might shift the balance of power in a favorable direction.
    • Setting up secure mail hosting services, systems for encrypted mailing lists etc. I run a full-stack mail server to help friends and acquaintances improve their security, use encryption etc (let me know if you are interested). I provide these services for free, but it could easily be turned into a small business if I wanted it to. Lots of people should be doing this, i.e. making money helping others to become more free and secure.
    • A while ago I collaborated with a friend to create a prediction market, something like a more up-to-date version of Intrade. The project was put on hold, but feels more relevant than ever now that Intrade has been forced by the US government to shut down. Prediction markets are powerful tools for crowd sourcing intel and we should use them.
    • I have created a piece of software called Digital Demokrati, which is a decision making system based on a fluid combination of direct and representative democracy. The general idea is to challenge the conventional idea of politicians representing the people by providing a superior mechanism of representation.

    If you are interested in this kind of stuff, feel free to get in touch. I am especially interested in talking to people who have practical experience of building and maintaining wireless mesh networks.

    The title of this post is a reference to The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman, one of the classic works on anarcho-economy. If you have not read it, you should check it out.

    How Sweden became rich

    One of the central pieces of government propaganda in Sweden is the belief - embraced by almost everyone in Sweden - that conditions in this country were horrible until the Social Democrats came along and built the so-called welfare state. And of course, a lot of people around the world idolize this system and think of it as great success.

    This is in fact an absurd inversion of what actually happened.

    This recent essay by Johan Norberg digs deep into this interesting topic and describes when and how Sweden actually went from being a poor country to one of the richest. Highly recommended reading if you have some time on your hands and want to learn more about this particular corner of the world:

    From the essay:

    It was not socialist policies that turned Sweden into one of the world’s richest countries. When Sweden got rich, it had one of the most open and deregulated economies in the world, and taxes were lower than in the United States and most other western countries. The Social Democrats kept most of those policies intact until the 1970s, when they thought that those excellent foundations—unprecedented wealth, a strong work ethic, an educated work force, world-class exports industries, and a relatively honest bureaucracy—were so stable that the government could tax and spend and build a generous cradle-to-grave welfare state on them.

    They couldn’t. At least not without costs. Because that welfare state began to erode the conditions that had made the model viable in the first place. And the fourth richest country became the 14th richest within three decades.

    The New Libertarians

    In this excellent article my favorite kind of libertarianism gets some serious love. This is exactly the kind of stuff I wish that more libertarian minded people would get involved in!

    The article describes a conference organized by the Students for Liberty. I was recently at another of their conferences and it was a blast. Even though most of the people attending were conventional political types, there were a substantial number of people there thinking outside the political box, talking about anarchy, entrepreneurship etc.

    From the article:

    When I was in college, I can’t remember anyone doing this. We trusted that the system would take care of us, and our job was to fit in. These young people do not have this view. The existing system is something they will use, but only on the path to bypassing it with new innovations and businesses to change the future. 

    To be sure, this is a group that is very commercially astute. They see business as the way to change the world. The tools they use every day to navigate the world—buying everything from coffee to concert tickets, getting around cities, planning trips, talking to friends and family—came to them via the private sector. Government contributes nothing to their lives apart from annoyance. 

    What’s more, among these libertarians, there is very little hope that political change is a viable option. What would be the mechanism of change? The two-party system? The trends in politics are inexorably worse, regardless of the promise. The trends in commercial life are toward progress every day. Which seems like the better path?