Abuse of Authority, continued

Two years ago, I wrote about the trend toward the abuse of authority by people in various positions.  The examples I mentioned were:  Teachers and professors, using their jobs to conduct political indoctrination, and even marking down the grades of those with differing views. Corporate executives, using company resources to promote their personal political views. And intelligence officers, using their positions to influence US election outcomes.

The case of the intelligence people is worthy of particular attention at the moment.  The Hunter Biden trial and the introduction of the Laptop into evidence should remove any remaining doubt about the genuineness of the contents of that laptop.  Remember that 51 former intelligence officials signed a letter stating that the laptop story bore the earmarks of a classic Russian disinformation operation…even though they surely knew, or could have easily discovered, that the laptop contents were no such thing. The FBI also participated in this disinformation-about-disinformation story.  Social media platforms were persuaded (and persuaded without too much difficulty, I would bet) to suppress discussion of the story and even to suppress person-to-person messages that referenced the laptop…the contents of which were quite relevant to the question of whether or not to vote for Biden.

It is also time to remember a statement made by Senator Charles Schumer in response to then-President Trump’s criticism of the intelligence agencies.  He said that Trump was being “really dumb” by taking on these agencies, and continued “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

This statement would basically imply that the ultimate sovereign in the United States is the set of senior people in the “intelligence community”, and that the elected government remains in power–or not–at the pleasure of those agencies, similar to the way the militaries in some countries are the ultimate approvers or removers of civilian governments.  And Schumer did not make his statements in a way that implied–“This is awful, and we have to do something about it”….he seemed to be totally comfortable with that situation, and I would bet that a majority of other Democratic senators and congressmen feel the same way.

I also see some disturbing things in a recent interview with four-star admiral William McRaven, specifically: every time you undermine one of our institutions, you undermine America.  “Undermine” in his usage seems to mean criticizing the actions of any of these institutions.  I don’t think that position is consistent with the whole American idea.  It’s true that ignorant and overly-broad attacks are destructive–but it’s also true that institutions that are defined to be beyond criticism tend to get worse and worse.  Does admiral McRaven believe that all court decisions are correct? Even if we constrain it to “court decisions which were upheld after appeal” it seems like a pretty remarkable statement.  When was this level of judicial perfection established?…at some time, presumably, after the Dred Scott decision.

And McRaven’s statement, although focused on the judicial system and specifically the recent Trump conviction, was broader; it applied to “institutions” in general.  Are the Department of Education and the CDC to be viewed as sacred entities beyond criticism? How about those intelligence agencies and the FBI? Indeed, how about the US Navy and its problems with warship construction and ship handling?

Admiral McRaven’s statements may not be precisely abuse of authority in the way that my previous three examples are, but they’re still pretty disturbing when made by an admiral who held such an important command over American forces.

I’m reminded of something that occurred in the UK in 1940, at a time when Churchill was not yet Prime Minister but was First Lord of the Admiralty. He received a letter from a father disappointed that his son had been turned down for a commission, despite his qualifications and his record. Churchill suspected class prejudice and wrote to the Second Sea Lord, saying that “Unless some better reasons are given to me, I shall have to ask my Naval Secretary to interview the boy on my behalf.”

The Second Sea Lord, unhappy with the meddling from above, responded to the effect that it was inappropriate to question the decisions of “a board duly constituted.” To which Churchill replied:

I do not at all mind “going behind the opinion of a board duly constituted” or even changing the board or its chairman if I think injustice has been done. How long is it since this board was re-modeled?… Who are the naval representatives on the board of selection? Naval officers should be well-represented. Action accordingly. Let me have a list of the whole board with the full record of each member and his date of appointment.

Worthwhile Reading

Self-censorship among scientists, for ‘prosocial’ reasons…and the harm it does.

How sculpture and ornament-making has been semi-industrialized for centuries, using a device known as a pointing machine.

Selecting government officials in China –historically and at present.

Support for using violence to suppress campus speech, broken down by college major.

The growth of anti-Israel radicalism in the Democratic Party: how much of this has been due to Obama’s attitudes and associations?

The District of Columbia has established minimum education requirements (a high school diploma is not enough) for child care workers. Is there a study that validates a significant positive correlation between such training and the quality of care provided?  (What would you guess)

Katherine Boyle argues that some people are great at judging people but not great at judging systems. Others are great at evaluating systems but not people and says that it’s very rare to meet someone who is exceptional at both.

Inspirational:  A cancellation attempt that backfired.

Worthwhile Reading

Hayek, Fascism, and the Administrative State

Privilege in Bourbon France

An interesting piece on the tradition of limited government in Spain

A Danish manager working in Russia finds that his workers are looking for a more authoritarian style of leadership

Related: Culture and combined arms warfare

Civilization versus the Pathocratic State

The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

Why are semiconductor companies not more enthusiastic about taking the lavish subsidies available under the CHIPS act?


About ‘Disinformation’

Those critical of Communism often highlight how it’s underpinned by Envy; But I think supporting Communism is first and foremost a result of the Sin of Pride: there’s immense hubris in believing one can design a centralised economic system that beats evolutionary forces. In “The Road to Serfdom” F.A. Hayek contends that government control of economic decision-making, even with good intentions, inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Hayek was a visionary: a lot of intellectuals persisted in their love for Communism even after the horrors of the Soviet Regime became apparent.

While at the moment outright advocacy for Communism may not be widespread among intellectuals, there remains a latent affinity for top-down control – a kind of ember of ideology that, though subdued, is still smouldering, waiting for the right conditions to reignite. Often, the catalyst for such a resurgence is the perception of a looming threat (that might very well be a justified worry in itself), such as the recent concern over misinformation. The same pride that made intellectuals believe in centralised control over the economy now leads them to often support a form of epistemic control to fight off misinformation.  (emphasis added)

The above is from Ruxandra Teslo’s substack post The Road to (Mental) Serfdom.  It is very well done–read the whole thing.

There is no human or set of humans qualified to act as ultimate judges of what is true.  Sometimes, even the most well-meaning and brilliant individuals get it wrong: see for example the case of Vannevar Bush and ballistic missiles.  Bush, who was FDR’s science advisor during WWII, was an unquestionably brilliant and creative man who, along with his many other contributions,  invented the mechanical analog computer and envisaged the concept of hypertext, long before the Internet and the World Wide Web.  Yet, regarding the prospect of intercontinental ballistic missiles, he wrote in 1945:

The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000-mile, high-angle rocket, shot from one continent to another, carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon, which would land exactly on a certain target, such as a city. I say, technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long period of time to come. I wish the American public would leave that out of their thinking.

If Dr Bush had had complete control over American defense and aerospace research, it is likely that the US would have been much later in ICBM deployment than it in fact was.  We cannot know what the consequences of such lateness would have been, but it’s safe to say that they would not have been good.

The people and entities who demand to be the gatekeepers of truth are not generally anywhere as intelligent and accomplished as was Dr Bush.  And their track record does not inspire confidence.  Yesterday marked the 120th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Only 9 weeks previous to that flight, the New York Times mocked the idea of heavier-than-air flight.  In 1920, Robert Goddard’s rocket experiments were dismissed by that newspaper in an almost unbelievably arrogant manner.   And just recently, the NYT published a highly misleading headline about what had happened to a hospital in Gaza.  Any information-management regime is likely to be run by the kind of people who run the NYT…or worse.  Consequences of forcing information conformity can be very severe, as I discussed in my post Starvation and Centralization.

From Ruxandra’s post: “Just like a free market allows disparate individuals and companies to try and fail and then maybe succeed at creating a product, freedom of thought leads to institutions and opinion makers trying to get at the truth. It’s from this constant hum-drum of people trying their best, that something resembling Truth emerges, and never from top-down control or blind application of some rule.”

This point was once better-understood in the United States than it is today, I believe: even people who were not big fans of the economic free market were often fans of the intellectual free market.  But the whole idea of discussion and debate…even of the adversary system in the courtroom…is  now rejected by a disturbing numbers of people.

In a rather meta way, the idea that there are no safe judges of ‘disinformation’ is apparently itself considered misinformation by some people  If you click the link to Ruxandra’s post on her X/Twitter feed, you get a message Warning: This Link May Be Unsafe.  The likelihood is high, I think, that the message is there because somebody or some set of somebodies filed false reports about the link being harmful.