Discussion of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker currently self-exiled to Hong Kong, has tried to make something out of his apparent libertarian leanings. He reportedly made a campaign donation to Ron Paul last year, and Paul himself has called fresh attention to the potential linkage by worrying publicly that the U.S. government might try to kill Snowden with a drone strike. For some observers, identifying Snowden with libertarianism means he can be dismissed as a crank or a paranoid. David Brooks, the moderate conservative who writes for the New York Times, may have a different agenda. In his opinion, Snowden's presumed libertarianism is a symptom of his sociological condition rather than an ideological cause of his action.
Brooks sees Snowden as "the ultimate unmediated man," bright enough to rise to a position of sensitive responsibility with no better credentials than a GED degree yet so incompetent on some other level that he had to resort to a GED program after dropping out of high school. Techies like Snowden seem to "live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society." Hearsay reports portray Snowden as aloof from family and neighbors. Perhaps not a loner -- he had a girlfriend -- he nevertheless "appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the
age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the
apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living
technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood
institutions and adult family commitments"
Just as there are loner leftists with little actual commitment to collective life -- I offer myself as an example -- so there seem to be loner libertarians with little actual commitment, as far as Brooks can tell, to the libertarian ideal of civil society. While the loner leftist looks to the state as his protector against the rough play of civil society, the loner libertarian distrusts all institutions, be they private or public. For them, Brooks suggests, "Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative
structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and
world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic
and menacing state." Such people, who either missed out or explicitly rejected all of the above "mediating" institutions, are presumed especially susceptible to the more anarchic or paranoid strands of libertarianism that Brooks claims are distinct to our time. Brooks also believes that these traits should have predicted bridge-burning act of protest against NSA practices.
It's tempting to read Brooks's column as a subtle dig at the libertarianism he may blame for dragging his Republican party toward uncompromising extremism. As far as he's concerned, fear of the state or fear of complex institutions can go too far. " Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country," he writes, "Another is the
rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying
of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic
in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit
others together and look after the common good." In the hero-or-traitor debate, Brooks unreservedly calls Snowden a traitor. In doing so, however, Brooks may go too far in defense of institutions and institutional obligations. He accuses Snowden of betraying not just his country but also his employer (the contractor Booz Allen) and his own cause. Brooks attempts paradoxes, arguing that government may become more secretive and less law-abiding after Snowden's revelations and blaming Snowden if it does so. Most of all, Brooks objects to the idea of an individual exercising a kind of veto over government policy. While he can't bring himself to say that leaks are always wrong, he does argue that "the founders did not create the United States so that some solitary
29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed." He suspects that, as an "unmediated" man, Snowden lacked the "various barriers of resistance" more socialized or "mediated" people would have against "unilaterally" or "self-indulgently ... putting his own preference over everything else."
Brooks believes that "honesty and integrity [are] the foundation of all cooperative activity." That's indisputable, but Brooks seems to put the burden of honesty and integrity entirely on individuals rather than on institutions. Trust is a two-way street. Trust should be extended readily in an environment of citizenship and solidarity, but it must be earned as well. We may not be able to start anything without an initial extension of trust, but the renewal of trust must be conditional or else trust degenerates into mere faith. If libertarians go too far, the loner sort especially, in their distrust of government, that doesn't mean a government is entitled to blind faith. Brooks may not be saying it is entitled, but his appeal to some kind of personalized institutional loyalty that results from being "mediated" is hard to distinguish, in its assumed practical effect, from blind faith. For Brooks to blame Edward Snowden for any decline in trust in government this summer, meanwhile, is another kind of blindness.