As a rule, I’m suspicious of economic explanations, because I regard economics as a fraudulent pseudoscience, although in my more charitable moments, I allow that it might just be a kind of Becherian proto-science, a vast expanse of arithmetical phlogiston that our descendant generations will regard as very nearly quaint. The civic discourse of the present era is completely dominated by economics; young pundits with degrees in philosophy begin to be taken seriously only when they start dropping its jargony solecisms into their op-eds. Economics actually claims to be both a behavioral science and a physical one, even though it appears to believe that its natural laws derive from the word problems at the back of the book than vice versa, and anyway it has a record of near total failure at figuring out why things actually happened or predicting if and when they will happen again. All that said, I’m going to propose a sort of economic explanation for the fact that the government just can’t stop spying on us.
I think we need to see programs like the NSA’s immense and unanswerable but also totally wasteful and unproductive spying program as a form of rent-seeking. That isn’t to say that it isn’t also weird, evil, sinister, and creepily totalitarian, and it isn’t necessarily to claim that it’s a sign of gross incompetence either. For instance: rent-seeking investment banks are very good at what they do, which is balling up other people’s money, auctioning it off, and charging everyone for the privilege of having someone else direct their losses. They are useless, unproductive, and destructive, and they can seem incompetent if you take as their task the purported reason for such institutions to exist, which is to generate wealth for their clients while directing their clients’ wealth toward investment in productive enterprise, but if you understand them for what they actually are, understand that the purpose of Goldman Sachs is to rob people to grow Goldman Sachs, then their incompetence begins to seem a little more like a form of genius.
Well, the surveillance state is at its root—and this isn’t to discount all of its other more nefarious acts and ends, but simply to regard them as symptomatic rather than causal—an ongoing argument for its own existence, a self-replicating machine whose only real purpose is itself. What on earth will the government do with all this data? Well, it will hire more people and discover that this particular dataset is broad but shallow which will necessitate gathering billions more bytes which will continue to have precisely the same effect of necessitating more, more, and more until, hopefully, one day the machines become actually intelligent and decide to devote their considerable processing power to something more necessary, like playing chess or writing metrical poetry.
Some of us nerds recognize it: information is still sufficiently scarce and finite to function as a kind of currency, and the spies are just taking a commission at every point of exchange, but at least when VISA does it with the old money some satisfied customer may walk away from some satisfied merchant. You might consider the NSA program, and others like it, as a kind of information tax without benefits—it’s an absolute requirement, universal and un-appealable, but it doesn’t even cold patch a pothole on the information superhighway. When Google maps your brain into a computer you might get a coupon out of it, some provision of service in exchange. In the meantime, while I believe that we should fight and protest these intrusions on our privacy and personhood, I also come down on the vaguely optimistic side; just as JP Morgan has no idea what to do with its billions other than make more billions, I don’t think the government can do much with this titanic volume of information but add to it. It is morally but not practically outrageous; it’s an exercise of mere accumulation, which isn’t a sign of malevolence so much as of a chronic and probably terminal decadence.