The secret state and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Ladar Levison, who closed down his Lavabit e-mail service rather than comply with a secret government order, is in the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma situation.

h-LAVABITHe and other business owners would be better off if they stuck together and resisted the government’s secret demands in the courts.  But because of the government’s gag orders, none of them has any way of knowing whether others are fighting the same battle or they are all alone.

Levison is forbidden to say just what the government ordered him to do and what his objection was.  His secret appeal against a secret order will be tried in secret.  This is crazy.   This is bizarre.  It is like some unpublished short story by Franz Kafka.

We have a huge national security apparatus which operates in secret.  The President of the United States issues secret orders for assassinations of people deemed national enemies, based on a secret legal ruling.  These operations are subject to review by a secret court.  We the people are supposed to be reassured by congressional committees which receive secret testimony they are not allowed to tell us about.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing about the Nazi and Soviet regimes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, said that the aim of totalitarian governments was to destroy all institutions that stood between the individual and absolute power, so that any person who dared dissent felt helpless and alone.

We’re not in that situation in the United States—not yet.   But we do have a growing totalitarian mentality.  Washington is full of politicians and commentators who labels as a “narcissist”  anyone who defies authority in the name of conscience.

If the United States exists 30 years from now with liberty under law, it will be because of brave individuals such as Ladar Levison, who was willing to sacrifice a business he spent 10 years building up rather than sacrifice the liberties of his fellow citizens.


The Hero Tech Entrepreneur Giving Up Everything to Protect User Privacy by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. owner: ‘I could be arrested’ for resisting secret surveillance order by Michael Isiskoff of NBC News.   Levison said the government has hinted that his closing of his business could be considered a violation of the secret order.  I like to think his fears are exaggerated, but I can’t be sure.

After Lavabit shutdown, another encrypted e-mail service closes by Joe Mullin of Ars Technica.

You Won’t BELIEVE What’s Going On With Government Spying on Americans by Washington’s Blog. Read this if you think that what the NSA and Homeland Security are doing are nothing new.

Prisoner’s Dilemma article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Tags: , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “The secret state and the Prisoner’s Dilemma”

  1. Adam F. Hutton Says:

    Reblogged this on Politics Starts Here.


  2. Chico Says:

    Reblogged this on The Deliberate Observer.


  3. writtenbyafloridian Says:

    War is Peace.
    Freedom is Slavery.
    Ignorance is Strength.

    How far are we from this? Well, we aren’t close but we aren’t far either.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: