For example, consider cash. Can you believe that the government to this day still allows people to conduct economic transactions using this untraceable and unreportable medium? And the next thing you know, people use it buy and sell illegal substances like drugs, to gamble, to pay employees "off the books," to avoid taxes, and God knows what! Get rid of it, and immediately everything will be neat, orderly, and in accordance with government-prescribed perfection. Or at least that is the universal view of the government functionary. Serious proposals are circulating right now to get rid of high denomination bills (like the $100 in the US) as a step toward perfecting society. And after the $100, why not just get rid of cash entirely? Megan McArdle covers this subject in a column at Bloomberg View (that also ran in the New York Post):
"The Bank of Korea is planning for a cashless society by 2020. Swedes are making the shift. I am intrigued but also troubled. There's a lot to like about the idea of a cashless society, starting with its effect on crime. The payoff to mugging people or snatching their bags has already declined dramatically, simply because fewer and fewer people are carrying cash around. I myself almost never have any of the stuff on hand...A cashless society would also see a decline in the next level of robberies: stickups of retail outlets...One step beyond that, there's the effect on criminal enterprises, for whom cash is key. Making it impossible to transact business while keeping large amounts of money away from the watchful eye of the government will make it much harder to run an illegal operation."
What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, could the perfect all-knowing government ever make a "mistake"? McArdle:
"When I was just starting out as a journalist, the State of New York swooped down and seized all the money out of one of my bank accounts. It turned out - much later, after a series of telephone calls - that they had lost my tax return for the year that I had resided in both Illinois and New York, discovered income on my federal tax return that had not appeared on my New York State tax return, sent some letters to that effect to an old address I hadn't lived at for some time, and neatly lifted all the money out of my bank...Unmonitored resources like cash create opportunities for criminals. But they also create a sort of cushion between ordinary people and a government with extraordinary powers. Removing that cushion leaves people who aren't criminals vulnerable to intrusion into every remote corner of their lives."
I would say that that kind of "mistake" is the least of our worries about the government. What if the government itself is a pervasive criminal enterprise?
Anyway, don't get the idea that monetary transactions are the only thing that the government is planning to monitor. On Tuesday (the Ides of March) the New York Times reported on a new New York State program, taking effect March 27, under which all prescriptions for pharmaceuticals are now required to go through a state-monitored computer system. No more paper allowed!
"Starting on March 27, the way prescriptions are written in New York State will change. Gone will be doctors' prescription pads and famously bad handwriting. In their place: pointing and clicking, as prescriptions are created electronically and zapped straight to pharmacies in all but the most exceptional circumstances. New York is the first state to require that all prescriptions be created electronically and to back up that mandate with penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for physicians who fail to comply."
The stated reason for this is to try to crack down on abuse of prescription opioid painkillers, which have caused increasing numbers of deaths in recent years. But if that's the reason, why don't they just monitor those prescriptions, and stay away from the millions of prescriptions for medications against things ranging from diabetes to high blood pressure to cholesterol? And the answer is, they take the opportunity to monitor everybody for everything because they can. Who's going to stop them? And anyway, the only people with access to the information are going to be the perfect, all-knowing, apolitical, expert state functionaries. So what's to worry about? (For now, there appears to be an exception to New York's new law for prescriptions that are to be filled out of state. I guess I'll take advantage of that one.)
In other news, this time from Denver, Colorado, it seems that after several complaints were received, an independent monitor conducted a review of use of the supposedly confidential National Crime Information Center and Colorado Crime Information Center databases by the Denver Police Department, and promptly uncovered several dozens of instances of improper use. David Kravets at Ars Technica has the story here. Example: a policeman, on behalf of a friend who suspected his wife of having an affair, provided information to enable the friend to find and stalk the wife's suspected lover. Or how about this:
"[A] female hospital employee spoke with a DPD officer who was at the hospital to investigate a reported sexual assault. The female employee was not involved in the investigation, but the officer made ‘‘small talk'' with her after his interview of the sexual assault victim. At the end of her shift, the female employee returned home and found a voicemail message from the officer on her personal phone. She had not given the officer her phone number, and was upset that he had obtained it...During an investigation into the incident, records revealed that the officer had, in fact, used the NCIC/CCIC database (and other DPD databases) to obtain her phone number..."
If you're wondering why you don't read about this kind of thing very often, Kravets points out that this review was only conducted in response to a series of specific complaints, and that there is no ongoing routine monitoring of police use of the databases. Oh, and no police officer who committed misconduct was fired or received any cut in pay or any other meaningful punishment; the worst was a "reprimand." Hey, the cops are the good guys! Why should we worry about them doing anything wrong? I mean, it's not like some government bureaucracy (like say, the IRS) might ever use this accumulating government information to disadvantage political opponents of those in power. Right?