TCS Daily

Looking Ahead

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 31, 2002 12:00 AM

As we pass from 2002 into 2003, the new millennium doesn't look especially bright. With smallpox once thought eradicated, we're now talking about mass smallpox vaccinations. Terrorists are clearly anxious to acquire weapons of mass destruction of pretty much any variety that might work, from nerve gas, to nukes, to nasty germs. And most of the world's governments seem to be either into this sort of thing themselves (Iraq, North Korea, Iran) or largely supine before it (Western Europe).

Meanwhile the various Homeland Security efforts seem a bit creepy on their own. Cameras everywhere, talk of biometric identification, implanted microchips, pervasive Internet surveillance, and "sneak-and-peek" searches all contribute to a sense on the part of many that we're lurching toward Big Brother - something not alleviated by the creepy logo of the Information Awareness section at the Pentagon, or the bizarre "Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes" posters employed by the British government. You could be forgiven for thinking that things are going downhill fast.

Blogger Jim Henley has taken this approach in an outlining some unpleasant possible futures and noting their resemblance to some familiar dystopian science fiction scenarios. You'd be a fool not to take Henley's warnings seriously - all of them - and I encourage you to read his essay. But I want to respond on a somewhat more hopeful note to the three main problems he presents:

1. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The technology of weaponry has put greater destructive power into the hands of small numbers of people. Between the inhabitants of my small but (based on statistical probabilities for my area) well-armed neighborhood and a cohort of Roman legionaries, the neighborhood would probably win in a cakewalk. Against Huns, it would be no contest.

That trend has tended to protect, rather than harm, freedom and security by ending the near-monopoly on force once enjoyed by the armed few over the unarmed many. But Henley is right to point out that now even a few can wield more destructive power, in some ways, than the Roman Empire or Attila, if they can get their hands on atomic bombs or smallpox.

This is true - but it may not be for long. As the biotechnology industry matures, we are likely only a decade or two away from being able to mount a rapid response, via either drugs or vaccines, to any new pathogen that is introduced - even entirely novel ones. As for atomic bombs, well, defense against them is a more difficult problem. But making them is also more difficult, and is unlikely to get easy any time soon, and countries that produce them and let them fall into the wrong hands are at serious risk for retaliation. Meanwhile the stockpile of missing Soviet bombs - the main other source for terrorists - gets older and less reliable all the time.

Not good news, but not as bad as it could be.

2. Pervasive surveillance. Scary. But also not as scary as it might seem. (Reading my email, of course, is a crime that carries its own punishment, sort of like carjacking a Ford Pinto. Im amazed that I do it, and can only pity any law enforcement types assigned the task.) More seriously, transparency works both ways, and as Henley notes, Information Awareness guru John Poindexter soon found himself in the crosshairs of people - including the amusingly named John Poindexter Awareness Office - who demonstrated that transparency works both ways.
Though the Bush administration has tried to limit public access to information on the government - and such efforts should, for the most part, be resisted - it is telling that there was no official response to these table-turning efforts. That's because the powers-that-be know that Americans don't believe in creating an elite Mandarin class, and wont tolerate any efforts along those lines. Given that politicians generally have more to hide than the rest of us, a general increase in transparency is a good thing. 3. The revolution in military affairs. Henley makes much of the growth of new technologies that will return the military balance-of-power to something more like that of medieval times, when the knightly class dominated everyone else because no one else could afford similar weapons. This, presumably could enable tyranny. Except that - as the fall of the Soviet Union demonstrated - its awfully hard to maintain an advanced industrial society on the backs of slaves. One commentator has made a similar observation with regard to Hugo Chavezs troubles in Venezuela, where a crippling general strike has brought things to a halt despite his efforts to control things:
Whether he wins or loses in the end, President Hugo Chvez is learning one very important lesson from Venezuela's nationwide work stoppage. That is: it is difficult, if not impossible, to run a modern industry (let alone a country) by force. Chvez has fired oil workers and ordered the military to take over struck facilities owned by state oil company, Petrleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA). So far, nothing's worked.
You can make people plow and harvest at bayonet-point - though even here they are always outperformed by free people. But it's very hard to make people do the kind of creative work it takes to run a modern economy, much less to make them do it well. The Soviet Union couldn't. And though Henley points out the rapidity of our victory in Afghanistan as an example of the superiority of modern armies against armed irregulars, that somewhat misconceives the actual war there, which relied on lots of armed irregulars on our side. What's more, any force of high-tech super-ninja soldiers is likely to be both expensive and ineffective as a means of compelling recalcitrant populations. Such soldiers can defeat armies, but that's a far cry from compelling civilian populations to perform. It's not impossible, but it's hard, especially if the civilians and soldiers are used to better.

As I say, don't disregard Henley's warnings. But don't despair, either. The bad guys have indeed gotten more powerful. But so have the rest of us.

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