A Nudge Into Tyranny

Technology and the perfect police state.

From China, CBS reports:

When Liu Hu recently tried to book a flight, he was told he was banned from flying because he was on the list of untrustworthy people. Liu is a journalist who was ordered by a court to apologize for a series of tweets he wrote and was then told his apology was insincere.

“I can’t buy property. My child can’t go to a private school,” he said. “You feel you’re being controlled by the list all the time.”

And the list is now getting longer as every Chinese citizen is being assigned a social credit score — a fluctuating rating based on a range of behaviors. It’s believed that community service and buying Chinese-made products can raise your score. Fraud, tax evasion and smoking in non-smoking areas can drop it.

Here in America, our privacy scare of the day tends to revolve around giant corporations like Amazon and Facebook which know more about our lives every day.  The Chinese "social credit score" is administered by the government, and our government could never do such a thing because of our Constitutional protections - right?

Don't be so sure.  Some of the items in Hu's score are crimes and misdemeanors that would be known to and determined by the government - things like tax evasion or fraud, for example.  Prohibited smoking might make the list if tickets are issued.

What about scores based on his purchases, though?  It's not talking about illegal items like heroin, just ordinary items which are not crimes to purchase or own.

Yet, in China, your liberties can now be affected by whether you choose to purchase a locally-owned and made Cherry car; a locally made but foreign owned Buick; or an imported Mercedes, all of which are perfectly legal in and of themselves.

Over here in the United States, we are seeing great pressure placed on perfectly legal but politically incorrect activities. It is legal for many types of firearms and ammunition to be purchased to 18-year-olds, but major retailers like Wal-Mart and Dick's have decided "on their own" to restrict such sales to people over 21.  They have every right to do this, but the intended effect will be to restrict the Constitutional rights of a certain class of American citizens.

In Florida, a student was intensively interrogated by police and school officials after he posted a photo of himself using a firearm at a certified firing range with his father.  These are perfectly legal activities, indeed Constitutional rights, yet local law enforcement found them unacceptable and pressured him in a way which some are reporting is itself illegal, as the minor was not permitted to consult with his parents or a lawyer.

The cops will no doubt say they were just investigating a possible threat; the kid was never locked up or charged with anything, so no harm was done.  If this becomes standard practice, though, how many kids will continue to have interest in exercising their Second Amendment rights, learning from their parents about firearms safety and use?

In other words, even without changes in the law, our police agencies have the ability to affect behavior, just as the Chinese do.

This thesis is explained in a decade-old book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Nobelist Richard Thaler and Mr. Obama's regulatory administrator Cass Sunstein.  These highly intelligent and crafty authors point out that you don't have to throw your enemies into concentration camps or even ban activities you don't like.  You can gently make it not worth people's while to do them, and so most will gradually conform with your wishes.  Once there are only a few outliers, you can strip off the velvet glove and just go after them.

Is it illegal to go to a shooting range?  Certainly not, but your kid might experience a stressful interrogation, or you might enjoy a humiliating visit from the police at your place of business.

Can you be thrown in jail for supporting a politically incorrect position?  No - but your employer can be embarassed into firing you.

Facebook already ranks posts to your page by their scores.  What happens when legal but politically incorrect activities start affecting those scores?  This is exactly what we're seeing with Ted Cruz: a "shadow ban", in which a conservative senator with 3.2 million followers gets one-tenth the attention of a liberal senator with half as many.

Is Facebook preventing Sen. Cruz's freedom of speech?  No, he can post whatever he liekes, but Facebook makes sure that very few will hear what he has to say.

The world of the Nudge is certainly nothing like as ghastly as, say, Stalin's Russia or Mao's China, where anyone could get disappeared, tortured, or imprisoned for any or no reason with no recourse.  By its description, the Chinese system will be much more transparent and fair in that you know your score and can know how your activities affect it.  Keep it high and your life will be fine, and you can keep it high by only ever doing what the Communist Party wants you to do.  This goes well beyond what has been possible without Big Data.  Wired reports:

Posting dissenting political opinions or links mentioning Tiananmen Square has never been wise in China, but now it could directly hurt a citizen's rating. But here's the real kicker: a person's own score will also be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score will also be dragged down.

This is precisely what Facebook is doing to Sen. Cruz - they've given him a bad score, so they suppress his messages.  It's exactly what Hitler's Germany would have been if Hitler hadn't hated Jews.  Berlin of the 1930s was an economically vibrant place where people went to jobs, earned money, bought and sold houses, founded companies, and made fortunes.  Nazi Germans (Jews and undesirables aside) had economic freedom and a large degree of personal freedom too.  This built the economy, giving the government enough tax revenue to afford an aggressive military and foreign policy.

Ordinary Germans had no political freedom or freedom of speech.  As long as they marched along to the Nazi drummer and paid their taxes, their lives were mostly fine and dandy.

Human nature being what it is, what was the inevitable result?  That's right - nearly all Germans simply went along with the Nazis, because doing so kept them safe, or so they thought.  The handful of recalcitrants soon vanished quietly enough to avoid a fuss but noisily enough that people could heed the warning.

Liu Hu has not vanished into a concentration camp, so far as we know.  But what sort of journalist can he be when he cannot buy tickets to travel, his writings are not visible across social media, and anyone who associates with him risks being down-ranked?  What sort of parent would tolerate losing the ability to decide what school their children will attend because of their political beliefs, a tyrannical process which is already well accepted in many Western countries generally thought to be free?

We all know what will almost certainly happen: Mr. Liu's writings will toe the party line, and his comforts will be restored as his "social score" recovers from his errant behavior.  He won't buy Western goods regardless of Donald Trump's trade pressures.  The Chinese government won't have to put any tariffs on American goods at all because sensible Chinese will "freely" choose not to buy them.

Not being stupid, his fellow Chinese will quickly learn what they should and should not do, and 99.99% of them will do it because the penalties will be swift, sure, and visible - all those things a conventional criminal justice system is not.

Alas, also not being totally stupid, our local leftists will realize just how grand and glorious it is to have this kind of power, and will make common cause with Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the far-left giant tech companies to figure out a way to do the same thing over here.

If they haven't already.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Senator Cruz is in Good Company.

Across the internet, conservatives are Shadow and/or otherwise Banned and/or Blocked, while, around the clock, the fascist Left's mentally-ill, deranged and delusional haters and ragers -- and aren't they all -- and including almost the entire 'journalistic "profession"' -- projectile Project their defamations, libels and lies.

May be a lesson in there, somewhere.

Brian Richard Allen

April 29, 2018 9:26 PM

If you watch the TV series "Black Mirror", you will remember the episode "Nosedive" which is exactly what this article references.


April 30, 2018 8:11 AM

I'm in total agreement. Unless things change drastically (and I am not optimistic) we will see a subtle blending of Huxley's Brave New World, backed up in the end by Orwell's 1984. May God help us.

May 4, 2018 9:35 AM
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