Menu Close

Why constant surveillance is necessary in a society built on self-interest

Every angle covered. Josh Koonce, CC BY-SA

If you want to know why we in the UK see more security cameras on street corners than other nations, and why politicians are fending off accusations of spying on their own citizens, then turn your eyes to an obscure conference of intellectuals in pre-war Paris.

In 1938, at the Colloque Walter Lippmann, neoliberalism was launched. The societal structure developed from this form of political economy implicitly – albeit inadvertently – laid the conditions for a form of “surveillance state”; the kind that encouraged Edward Snowden to turn whistle-blower and give us all a startling glimpse of its implications.

In his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, one of the participants at the conference, Friedrich von Hayek, built on the ideals of neoliberalism to contend that freedom for the individual could be maintained only where the means of production were divided among many people, rather than concentrated in the hands of “planners” who ran the state.

The concerns raised in a Europe ravaged by war found their echo in America. It was proposed Hayek write a follow-up aimed at the US audience, The American Road to Serfdom. Hayek declined but Milton Friedman rose to the challenge in 1962 with Capitalism and Freedom.

The sufficiency of self-interest

Friedman argued the highest ideal for which society might strive is freedom. Other virtues are the responsibility of each individual to own or to reject as they see fit. He recognised this did not overcome the basic problem of how to coordinate individuals into a society from which all would benefit. Therefore, Friedman suggested cooperation could be based on self-interested individuals trading in markets. This is based on Adam Smith’s observation that:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest

Friedman reckoned individuals’ self interest would be checked by the supposed objective power of the market’s “invisible hand”, and constrained by the “rest of us” so as to promote social progress. Therefore, in a neoliberal world, coercive power operates through manipulation of market incentives and regulations backed up by the threat of sanctions.

Expanding the coercive state

The need for self-interested but free individuals to be constantly regulating each other to promote social good explains the seeming paradox that, as the state withdraws from the economy in line with neoliberal theory, its role in criminal justice expands. Where the actions of some have adverse social consequences, the state must attempt to disincentivise them through regulation and punishment. And this, of course, requires rigorous detection and monitoring.

Shedding some light. DaveOnFlickr, CC BY

In England and Wales, for example, the attempt to regulate behaviour has led to 1,472 new imprisonable offences being created by parliament between 1997 and 2007 alone. To encourage compliance, the UK has between 4.9m and 5.9m security cameras – the vast majority of them privately owned. This surveillance of public spaces is complemented by online surveillance.

Yet, despite all this, the UK is a relatively high crime nation and has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe.

The UK is not alone in facing this conundrum; there is international evidence that neoliberal states are relatively more punitive than nations which adopt other ideologies. This might be because neoliberalism is associated with higher social inequality and relatively poor welfare support, both, arguably, drivers of crime.

It’s a tragedy

On the jacket notes of first edition of The Road to Serfdom, written to promote liberty, Hayek asked (rhetorically):

Is there a greater tragedy imaginable than that in our endeavour consciously to shape our future in accordance with high ideals we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for?

It is similar concerns for liberty which encouraged Snowden to turn whistleblower; and the underlying tension between individual and social good highlights the crucial question of whether freedom is possible without self-restraint acting as a check of self-interest.

All states rely, to one extent or another, on ethics to check self-interest, complemented by criminal justice sanctions and intelligence. However, by emphasising self-interest pursued in free markets, neoliberalism discourages the former and encourages the latter. It all means that in an effort to promote overall social good – often interpreted as maximising economic growth – many of our freedoms and liberties may be compromised; our every step in the High Street can be watched, and every email scanned.

Irrespective of whether we should be concerned by the UK’s possible claim to be the most spied upon democratic society in history, this state of affairs certainly is not within the spirit of individual freedom envisaged by Friedman.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 129,200 academics and researchers from 4,071 institutions.

Register now