Instead of 'Pay No attention to That Man Behind the Curtain!' A Better Question Seems to Be, 'What Happened to the Curtain?'

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"I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused."
~ Elvis Costello

Almost everyone is familiar with the genesis of the phrase, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" The Wizard of Oz, who uttered this famous phrase, had a scheme. That scheme was based directly upon an impression of omnipotence without any legitimate power. Surely that impression would be lost should anyone see him pulling levers and talking into a microphone. I can't help but imagine that if an agent of today's state were to switch places with the Wizard, he'd utter no such words. In fact, I suspect he'd just sit there, a nearly-naked pseudo-emperor, with no concern that we could see him. Instead of trying to be coy, he'd leave us with no choice but to exclaim, "Hey, what happened to the curtain?"

I admit that there was a time when I often found myself aghast with the navet of the "common man," whoever that might have seemed to be. That was also the time when I figured that the primary reason, or maybe the only reason, that the state could so successfully infringe upon the rights of the very people it claimed to protect was due to a combination heavy smoke and mirrors, blind trust, and inexplicable deference. Voltaire is credited with saying, "It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere."

In a similar vein, Dresden James said, "The ideal tyranny is that which is ignorantly self-administered by its victims. The most perfect slaves are, therefore, those which blissfully and unawaredly enslave themselves." Certainly both of these sentiments are true, but I've recently begun to think it's not quite that simple. Maybe it never was.

Who could blame a person for continuing to believe in his government when so much of its duplicity is obscured from everyone except crazy conspiracy theorists with too much time on their hands or ostensible whistleblowers with apparent axes to grind? Well, so much for that. Right about now, a random viewing of almost any news channel will provide a veritable cornucopia of examples that illustrate, in great and gory detail, that hiding is the last thing on the minds of today's bureaucratic rights infringers. Basically, they do whatever they want, and do so with brazen splendor.

Need proof? Let's take a casual stroll though a few recent and maybe even not-so-recent examples selected at random. I'll ignore stuff like Iraq or the election, since frankly, those are just too easy. Along the way, let's ask a few (hopefully) relevant questions.

Question 1: To Whom Does the War On Drugs Appeal?

I've written a good bit decrying the war against (some) drugs. This is not a rare point-of-view among libertarians. In fact, of the issues that seem to define libertarianism for the mainstream, being pro-drug-legalization is one of them. Still, there remains a relatively vocal group of people who disagree with this view, though I cannot figure out why.

Although it is a relatively rare occurrence, it still galls me when I hear someone lament the (apparently certain) fall of society should recreational drugs be made legal. I would assert that any such suggestion must be based upon equal measures of naïveté and lunacy. First of all, it's not like drug use is down in the U.S. since the war on drugs began. This is true of both recreational drugs and, more importantly, pharmaceuticals. As I mentioned a while back:

The U.S. market [for OTC pharmaceuticals] in 1998 accounted for 40% of the worldwide market, which was $302 billion. (Certainly the use of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. has not gone down since then.) Americans love drugs! There just happens to be a war against some of the people who use some of the drugs.

Secondly, almost any objective analysis of the drug war shows that fighting it, while debatable in terms of effectiveness, results in a substantial number of casualties even among those who are not involved on either side. Manuel Lora and I noted these effects:

Economically, the drug war causes one commodity, the illegal and supposedly illicit drugs, to be inordinately expensive. This generates disproportionate spending from those who consume this commodity. These people are not “islands” and their spending habits affect those with whom they interact.

In a family where one or the other parent is a drug user, the lifestyle is negatively affected, simply because a vice, a free choice, costs much more than it should. While one could argue that this person could simply change his lifestyle, we are talking here not about the user, but those who do not use whose lives are worse off for no other reason than that the war on (some) drugs skews the market.

Under what logic does it make sense for the state to drive the cost of a high-demand commodity up, while simultaneously increasing the violence surrounding the consumption of that commodity? When the use of that commodity represents what is at worst a victimless crime — wherein one takes part in a personal vice — there is no scenario whereby the moral imperative by which the state supposedly operates can be used to justify violent sanctions against the behavior. Simply put, what you do only to yourself is your business, and can only be so. (Hat tip: Lysander Spooner.) Any attempt to circumvent this moral law can have few outcomes that are not negative. The war on drugs, like alcohol prohibition before it, has had few if any, positive outcomes.

All that said, my contributions to the anti-drug war debate have been minor. Whole books have been dedicated to the fallacies. Paul Armentano profiled one such volume just recently. He pointedly observed, citing Lies, Damned Lies and Drug War Statistics:

Since the [Office of National Drug Control Policy's] founding in 1989, "trends in drug use, drug treatment, deaths attributed to drug use, emergency-room mentions of drug use, drug availability, drug purity, and drug prices are inconsistent with the goals of [the federal government]," the authors assert. "Yet, during this same time period, funding for the drug war grew tremendously and costs of the drug war expanded as well."

Money spent on the anti-drug bureaucracy went up while the behavior that bureaucracy supposedly fought — and all that went with it — got worse. Usage: unaffected. Violence: increased. Well, duh. At least 15 years ago, I heard Whoopi Goldberg say it best, "I can go outside right now and yell, u2018I want some drugs!' and get service in 15 minutes" or words to that effect. The war on drugs ain't working. It never did. (One might argue that it was never supposed to work, at least not as advertised, but that's another essay.)

In a bit of irony only possible in a bureaucracy gone tragically off-the-rails, not only is the DEA likely to break into a home and shoot somebody, they are likely to arm a few people (and equip them with PCs) along the way. According to a report, the Drug Enforcement Administration is losing more guns, but fewer laptops, than it did about five years ago. Wait. Does that really say more guns? Apparently DEA agents have always had a tendency to misplace their weapons and "donate" them, but now, it's worse than it used to be. From the article we find:

The majority of stolen guns had been left in an official’s car, despite a policy prohibiting leaving a weapon unattended in a vehicle. The report cited examples of guns stolen from cars parked outside restaurants, hotels, schools and gyms. Some agents had their guns taken from their cars while they were shopping or getting coffee. One firearm was stolen while the car was at the body shop.

Come on. At the body shop? These front-line drug warriors can't even safeguard the weapons they are given. Yet they are supposed to stem the flow of drugs? In what alternate universe? The more I read, the more convinced I am of one barely-debatable conclusion: Everyone knows the drug war is a bust. How could they not?

Yet, a SWAT team will probably be breaking down somebody's door in the inner city this very night, ostensibly protecting the citizenry from the flow of cocaine. (One can only hope they pick the right door, but even that's a toss up.) After all is said and done, pushers in the very city where these well-armed thugs work won't even notice a blip in the flow.

Again I ask, "What happened to the curtain?"

Question 2: What did the Roger Clemens hearing prove?

Let me begin by saying I'm no fan of Roger Clemens. I'm already on record regarding my thoughts on Barry Bonds and that whole situation. (For the record, I tend to regard Bonds as bit of an insufferable a**hole.) I am no more enamored of Clemens than I was of Bonds. (While we're on the subject of sports figures, in what parallel reality should Marion Jones be facing jail time for lying to a couple of federal agents about using steroids? Come on people. Give me a hint.)

Sure, Clemens' over-confidence is partially to blame for his predicament. It was largely his own hubris that led him to this point. I guess he figured he could just rear back and throw high heat at Congress like he had done for most of his baseball career. (Evidently he has lost a few MPH on that fastball, because no one seemed to flinch.)

As far as steroids usage goes, let us be clear on that as well. Major League Baseball spent years not caring about players using steroids. They didn't care when Jose Canseco and the Bash Brothers were lighting up the scoreboard in Oakland. They didn't care when McGuire and Sosa were in a homerun race. They didn't care when Barry Bonds got close to overtaking history. Stevie Wonder could see that and if he missed it, Ray Charles (RIP) could point it out, even now.

All that said, and even as bad as Clemens looked while foaming at the mouth with bluster and hoax at members of Congress, the scenario teaches each of us more about the state than about Roger Clemens.

For instance, this Kabuki Theatre was called a "hearing" but I can't figure out why. Apparently one can be compelled, via a subpoena, to "testify" before Congress. Before one testifies, he is sworn in, ostensibly to be under oath thereafter. Yet, almost everyone will admit, if asked, that the proceeding is not a court of law. Very few, if any, of the people overseeing the proceedings are practicing lawyers. No jury is empanelled. No judge is present. In the case of the Clemens hearing, no decision was reached, nor was any semblance of one even offered. What was it all for? Please, I need a clue here.

We're supposed to take the whole scene seriously, yet in the days leading up to the hearing, one of the key witnesses — Clemens himself — actually met with the people tasked with asking the questions, posing for pictures and signing autographs. (No, you can't make this stuff up.)

So what did the hearings prove? Nothing.

The legislature of the United States took up a lot of time, got on TV, and we all might as well have been watching Survivor. Maybe it's supposed to be consolation that if the Hall of Fame is "the island" Clemens may have been voted off. When did protecting the honor of a private industry like baseball become a key component of government legislation? Never, that's when. Protecting honor?

What happened to the curtain?

Question 3: What terrorist activities are precluded by the actions of the TSA?

I did a cover story for The New American magazine some time back, where I looked at the surveillance society and what it might mean going forward. I opened that piece with a quote from a report by a group that calls itself The Surveillance Studies Network. In its 2006 report one finds this bold statement:

We live in a surveillance society. It is pointless to talk about surveillance society in the future tense. In all the rich countries of the world everyday life is suffused with surveillance encounters, not merely from dawn to dusk but 24/7. Some encounters obtrude into the routine, like when we get a ticket for running a red light when no one was around but the camera. But the majority are now just part of the fabric of daily life. Unremarkable.

Little more need be said, and frankly this statement is correct. Going to the airport is just one such scenario where surveillance of the type that would normally chafe one's shorts will be, well, "unremarkable" in both scope and frequency. Here's the thing though. I might not be so disgusted with the TSA if it wasn't so mediocre. (Well, I would probably still be disgusted, but I'm just thinking out loud here.)

Further in that cover story I mentioned this tidbit.

The Seattle Times published a report of all the airport security breaches they had found between 2002 and 2004. The list was far from inconsequential, although the Times evidently stopped collecting reports after the number reached 100. According to the Times, "Screeners say that's [only] a fraction of the incidents, and most are never disclosed." The reported incidents included one instance when five DHS investigators posing as passengers managed to get knives, a gun and a bomb in their carry-on baggage through security checkpoints without being detected.

Wait. That can't be right. Five DHS investigators posing as passengers managed to get knives, a gun and a bomb past security in their carry-on baggage? Surely you jest. Most likely, it was their crack skills at circumventing the surveillance measures that allowed these insiders to accomplish their feat. Nope. Not even close.

More recently, some random guy on his way to some random location managed to get his pistol beyond security as well, and he did it by accident. When he returned to the checkpoint to inform the screeners of their mistake, what happened? Airport police were alerted. (They say no good deed goes unpunished, but I didn't know they were talking about the TSA.) Last I heard, he was scheduled to appear in court on a charge of possessing or transporting a firearm into an air carrier terminal where prohibited, which is a misdemeanor. He is, in effect, being punished for his honesty. I bet you're wondering what happened to the TSA guys who missed the gun initially. Me too.

I'm also wondering what happened to the curtain.

The Emperor Is Wearing Nothing but a Thong, and It Doesn't Fit

There is much more I could highlight, but time is short, and frankly, there is some NCAA basketball I need to watch. (Yes, my Duke Blue Devils took it on the chin, but hey, it's only a game, right? Great effort, Davidson!) Before I go, let's hit a few more examples.

Many readers are probably aware of the move toward red-light cameras in some municipalities. (This was one of the unremarkable surveillance technologies mentioned previously.) The supposed reason for these cameras is to force the number of people running red lights down, in other words, to protect us. Well, wonder of wonders, the data seems to show that red light cameras: a) don't drive red-light-running accidents down, and; b) increase rear-end collisions. (More accurately, red-light accidents of the type supposedly addressed are already so low as to not show meaningful changes. I'll have more on that in just a bit.) Regardless of what they do or do not accomplish safety-wise, they usually generate a nice chunk of revenue for the municipality that installs them.

Call me cynical, but I figure the cameras are only being installed for the money anyway. How do I know? For this rather obvious reason: now that people have figured out where the cameras are, municipalities are seriously considering taking them down. Apparently they cost more to have than can be covered by the revenue they generate after people know where they are. Now, if these cameras really make one safer, isn't taking them down exactly the wrong action, that is, if one really gives a crap about safety? Not for the state, evidently.

Returning to the non-problem supposedly addressed by red light cameras, a recent report mentioned that New Orleans is instituting red light cameras. (The report came out on March 31st, 2008. Somehow waiting one more day strikes me as more appropriate, but I digress.) In the article we find this startling tidbit:

"By giving drivers a strong reason not to run red lights, the cameras are designed to reduce the number of right-angle or side-impact crashes, which studies show kill more than 800 people and injure 200,000 in the United States each year."

That paragraph says it all. At the risk of sounding insensitive, if 800 people are killed in the U.S. per year, given the gargantuan number of traffic lights in the U.S., that’s not a problem fixable via the installation of cameras. In contrast, 44,000 people died in all categories of motor vehicle accidents (2002 data).

In other words, the number of people that can be saved via the application of these red light cameras, assuming they actually accomplished their stated goals, accounts for 1.8 percent of all people (generally) killed in motor vehicle accidents. There just isn't much opportunity, and as such, there is not much likelihood of success. On the other hand, given the way the citations are handled — "just mail in the money and we're good" — these red light cameras can generate a bunch of cash. Bingo.


So what happened to the curtain? I think the TSA is using it.

Returning to these cretins briefly, we find yet another incident, just one of many. Apparently unsatisfied with simply being mediocre — as has been repeatedly and thoroughly highlighted by people like Becky Akers — these anti-champions in the war on terror recently sunk to an even lower low and have become abusive as well. Representatives of this crack unit actually forced an airline traveler to remove her nipple rings with pliers. (Make no mistake, freedom is on the march!)

According to the Associated Press, the victim said she could hear the agents snickering as she struggled to remove the rings. At least they let her use a curtain; at least I think they did. Adding insult to injury, the TSA’s customer service manager at the Lubbock airport concluded the screening was handled properly. Really? I don't know what's more puzzling, the answer or the fact that the TSA has a "customer service" manager! Query: who is the "customer" of a government agency? The people who pay do so at gunpoint. To whom does one legitimately complain?!

Ironically, I recently received an interesting article from a college buddy of mine. The article, which was in the (then) current issue of appeared under the title, "Critical Thinking: It's Not Just Important, It's Essential" and contained this paragraph:

Critical thinkers insist upon not only gaining information but also seriously examining and analyzing it. Too often, people are uncritical receivers and accepters of information that, upon closer examination, is not only superficial and inaccurate but also utterly lacking in common sense. Critical thinking and analysis is what I refer to as the politics of unfettered thought. It is feared by the power elite but is absolutely an essential part of the struggle for economic, social, and political equality for people in America and around the world.

Maybe I'm just a pessimist, but I don't figure the power elite — whoever they are — fears any such thing. I reckon I enjoy the politics of unfettered thought as much as the next guy, but while I'm at it, can a brother have the curtain back? At least then maybe I could pretend this was all a mystery or something.

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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