Election 2016

Dear Tim Cook: Republicans Aren't Your Allies & Neither Are Democrats But Libertarians Are

The real axis in American politics is authoritarianism vs. libertarianism.


Dear Tim Cook of Apple,

A few days ago at an exclusive, secretive conference hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, the Republican-friendly think tank that takes credit for failed U.S. foreign policy of George W. Bush, you got into a heated discussion with the ultra-conservative Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) over whether Apple should write software to help the government unlock the cell phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

You have been adamant and inspiring in your refusal to simply do the government's bidding in this case. Although I've had issues with some of your stances in the past, all I can say in this instance is: Thank you.

You are absolutely right that the federal government should not force Apple or any other company under these particular circumstances and, more broadly, you are correct to resist decades-long attempts by the government to mandate "backdoors" into machines and software that would effectively render strong encryption useless.

Here is what I want to tell you: The Republicans are not your friends (this much you've known for a long time). But neither are the Democrats. The only consistent allies you and every other company have in this fight are small "L" libertarians who are resisting the authoritarianism that has captured both major parties.

Lower-case libertarians exist in both of the major parties, and we exist of course in the official Libertarian Party (I'm not a member, fwiw). But most of us exist out there in the rolling fields of the Republic and are not particularly interested in partisan politics because the whole point of libertarianism is to live in a world beyond tedious and rancorous zero-sum political squabbles in which 50.1 percent of the people get to tell the other 49.9 percent how to live. But according to Gallup, we are now the plurality. About 27 percent of Americans agree that "government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses" and that "the government should not favor any particular set of values." By Gallup's tally, there are more libertarians than conservatives (26 percent), liberals (23 percent), and populists (15 percent).

Connect with libertarians, Tim Cook, and create a stronger and stronger community of people interested in what we at Reason call "Free Minds and Free Markets." We can route around the fading tribal loyalties of partisan politics (Gallup finds that party identification for Republicans and Democrats is at or near historic lows), and we can create a country that is equally comfortable with gay marriage (which the Republicans hate) and sharing-economy innovations such as Uber and Airbnb (which both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have denounced).

Back to that AEI-sponsored confab. As the Huffington Post reported:

At one point, Cotton and Apple's Cook fiercely debated cell phone encryption, a source familiar with the exchange told HuffPost. "Cotton was pretty harsh on Cook," the source said, and "everyone was a little uncomfortable about how hostile Cotton was." (Apple is in the midst of a battle with the Justice Department and the FBI over an encrypted iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooters.) 

Despite rhetorical lip service to individualism and getting the government out of people's lives, the vast majority of Republicans are terrible on issues of privacy. At a recent Republican presidential-candidate debate, all of candidates said without hesitation or reservation that Apple should be forced to write software to help unlock Rizwan Farook's cell phone. In a similar setting, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were noncommital, though Sanders was better than Clinton. He said, "Count me in as someone who is a very strong civil libertarian who believes we can fight terrorism without undermining our constitutional rights and our privacy rights." But he is not going to be the Democratic nominee.

Clinton is going to be the nominee and quite likely the next president of the United States (according to betting markets). Despite her saying "We don't want privacy and encryption destroyed, and we want to catch and make sure there's nobody else out there whose information is on the cell phone of that killer," she has a virtually unblemished record of calling for virtually unrestricted government power when it comes to whatever gets deemed a national security matter. Back in the 1990s, her husband's administration pushed like hell to mandate "Clipper Chips," "key escrow," and other forms of back doors in tech. Bill Clinton also pushed to consider enryption technology as a form of munitions subject to export licenses. Hillary Clinton was on board back then with all that and other banal forms of tech mandates such as the "V-chip," a useless technology ostensibly designed to allow parents to filter out violent cartoons. And as a senator from New York, she inveighed against popular video games, insanely arguing in the midst of plummeting rates of violent crime and sexual assault that "Grand Theft Auto…encourages them [children] to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them.

These days, she is just being coy about encryption. Last fall, as Techdirt put it, "Hillary Clinton Joins The 'Make Silicon Valley Break Encryption' Bandwagon." And as my colleague Matt Welch has exhaustively documented in a must-read cover story for Reason, Hillary Clinton has been an uniquely outspoken foe of free speech—what's the old tech saying, "code is speech"?—for all of her political career, even going so far as, just like Donald Trump, asserting the government should force social-media companies to do the feds' bidding:

"We're going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space," Clinton warned, citing the deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino four days earlier by a U.S.-born Muslim and his Pakistani wife. "Just as we have to destroy their would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space."

But doesn't that go against the American cultural and constitutional tradition of free speech? Clinton anticipated the argument: "You're going to hear all of the usual complaints—you know, 'freedom of speech,' etc.," she said. "But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we've got to shut off their means of communicating."

This was no heat-of-the-moment hyperbole. Earlier that same day, the former secretary of state was even more explicit about what she would demand from American technology companies: "We're going to need help from Facebook and from YouTube and from Twitter," she declared on ABC's This Week, announcing a strategy of fighting terrorists "in the air," "on the ground," and "on the Internet." "They cannot permit the recruitment and the actual direction of attacks or the celebration of violence. They're going to have to help us take down these announcements and these appeals."

Just as the Republicans running for president are joined by the Tom Cottons of their party, so too is Hillary Clinton backed up by the Dianne Feinsteins of hers.

The proper way to understand the reality of politics, then, is not Democratic vs. Republican. A better frame is offered by Edward Snowden, who recently told Reason:

"I do see sort of a clear distinction between people who have a larger faith in liberties and rights than they do in states and institutions," he grants. "And this would be sort of the authoritarian/libertarian axis in the traditional sense. And I do think it's clear that if you believe in the progressive liberal tradition, which is that people should have greater capability to act freely, to make their own choices, to enjoy a better and freer life over the progression of sort of human life, you're going to be pushing away from that authoritarian axis at all times."

Clinton and what we might call "the security Democrats," which is to say most of them, are on the same side of this divide as the Republicans. And you might think about this way, too: Sanders and Clinton are not simply against Uber, Airbnb, and other innovative new companies, they go on and on about corporations such as Apple that shield profits from U.S. corporate taxes. Instead of pushing to change tax policy so that corporations and individuals have less reason to shield income or profits, Sanders and even Clinton are happy to demagogue the issue and blame unholy capitalists for failing to "pay their fair share." The polite term for this sort of argument is bullshit (and don't even get me started on Clinton's continued uncritical support for the drug war and war war).

As I said, each party has its civil libertarians on the encryption issue at least. The Republicans have people such as Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie, and the Democrats has Jared Polis, Zoe Lofgren, and Ron Wyden. But you should realize that none of these characters, at least at the current moment, comprise anything approaching a majority or even a plurality of their respective parties. For that, you need to reach outside of traditional politics and speak to libertarians, civil and economic, wherever you find them.

We are a plurality and we are the people who are especially working to create a new operating system for politics and culture in the 21st century. Not one built on worn-out, old tribalisms of Republican and Democrat, or conservative and liberal. But one that sees the authoritarian/libertarian axis as central to understanding the current reactionary moment in politics.

Here we are, in a world of wonders where new sorts of technological innovation and cultural production are making our lives more interesting than ever and where global trade is lifting millions of people out of poverty. And our presidential candidates are mired in demands that Uber just cut it out and Apple unlock its phones.

Appeal not to elites embedded in organizations that have been around since before the Civil War and are played out. Tell the Tom Cottons and the Dianne Feinsteins of the world to screw off and appeal directly to those of us who understand we want a world freed from politics as much as possible, not one in which politicians get to dictate what businesses and individuals do.