Selected Skirmishes: Paper Tiger

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The process of tidying up the East Bloc after their little Communist Party (dude, did that party get totally wasted or what?) has reached the point where we've swept away the surface dust and are finally getting to the hardwood. Down to the good stuff mom & dad tried to hide—just well enough to clue us in on what to look for.

In what appears as East Germany in the pre-1990 Rand McNally's, the cleanup crew has hit the secret-police mother lode: The files of the dreaded Stasi ("KGB" in Deutsche) have been unearthed. They cover 125 miles of shelving space. Some 2.125 billion sheets of paper, weighing in at 6,250 tons. And if they buy their furniture at the same place I do, I'll just bet those shelves bow a bit toward the middle.

These are the personal files kept by your friendly, local police state; they actually compiled data on 6 million East Germans, one of every three. Beaucoup data. According to information sufficiently fit for The New York Times, a typical piece of surveillance went: "Rathenow then crossed the street and ordered a sausage at the sausage stand. The following conversation took place. Rathenow: 'A sausage please.' Sausage seller: 'With or without roll?' Rathenow: 'With, please.' Sausage seller: 'And mustard?' Rathenow: 'Yes, with mustard.' Further exchange of words did not take place." This is espionage only J. Edgar Hoover could love.

I have trouble taking notes on speeches given by world-famous professors; I can readily appreciate the advanced East German steroid technology that must have been injected to pump up these spooks for such arduous undercover stenography. But more to the point: I have a difficult time managing paper flow on my own desk; whole families are said to be living rewarding lives somewhere around my "IN" box.

And that's just my mess (called "work product" on government forms). The great Stasi had 6 million fat manila folders to file, without computers (too busy note taking to master the CompuSerf tutorial). Forget about your vaunted German engineering. The Stasi did it all with an army of socialist clerk-spies—worker bees not. (The comrades left warehouses filled to the brim with unfiled notes. Well, of course the state fell apart. It got a little behind in its filing chores—and vamoose!)

When the folders were located, they wrecked more than a few innocent human lives: Vera Wollenberger has discovered that her very own husband was faithfully reporting on her most intimate doings, and a chicly attired avant-garde artiste type, Sasha Anderson, betrayed just about the entire literary set.

Yet the monstrosity of the operation, the army of petty informants that formed a seamless network stretching to every peephole in the nation, the 40,000-page files kept even on Communist sympathizers, formed a mammoth information overload. The system just ran out of virtual memory and locked.

Imagine being A Great File Clerk of Socialism and getting this order from your boss: "Hans, why don't you run down and pull out Heinrich's file. His last name is something like Gurger or Burger. And on the double, or you'll be shot." This was scientific socialism's version of our Freedom of Information Act.

Millions of megabits, and not a brain in the bunch. The East German Communist Party knew everything theoretically, and nothing in fact. It operated on the assumption that amassing dirt on individual citizens would make the people vulnerable and keep their leaders strong. Cute idea. But poor Erich Honecker is now holed up in the Chilean embassy in Moscow, shivering in a self-imposed jail sentence for fear that the German proletariat might be given half a chance to extradite him and read his file to a court of law.

Such crack surveillance really should have kept that German Democratic Republic from toppling, don't you think? The police could look up what condiments 6 million suspected troublemakers had requested on their wieners, but the head of state was unable to look up and see the tidal wave of history breaking right overhead.

Having lived in Washington, D.C., this past academic year, I can read these tea leaves clearly: Get better computers to manage your paperwork. (See, that's the solution that takes a larger budget authorization, and computer hardware is eminently fundable, so even you suckers—read: citizens—way out past the Beltway get the logic.)

That's all the East German government really needed: Efficient Secret File Management (ESFM). An integrated, online, interconnected data base with user-friendly software interface. Really, Wang's got a super new ESFM system. I'm talking about portability with mobile wireless spy data units downlinked to fiber-optic microcells; I'm talking about digital compression technology and highspeed transmission; I'm talking about instant access to files on all 18 million subjects. Erich—don't give up, pal. I've got the proposal all written up. The National Science Foundation is sure to fund this Information Management Systems project.

If only I could find my copy. It's somewhere on my desk. I think I placed it under that November 11, 1991, issue of Forbes, the one next to the styrofoam cup and the "Down Wit OPP" baseball cap. No? Well, I just hope they extend that damned NSF filing deadline.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.

NEXT: The Road from Serfdom: An Interview with F.A. Hayek

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