[this page is a mirror of this original].

Doing Freedom masthead

Unsubscribe USA.gov

This is HARD! Is it worth it?

Don Lobo Tiggre

Part Two

In some ways, unsubscribing from USA.gov is like a decentralized version of the creators going on strike in Ayn Rand's famous novel, Atlas Shrugged. It's much safer, since you don't have to rely on a secret society or a whole valley full of people keeping a secret, and easier, since you can do it on your own. But that's not to say that it's easy, if you do it in any kind of thorough way.

Now, it's certainly possible to strike a blow against leviathan and deprive the monster of support in easy ways, such as getting friends to use PGP encryption or bartering for goods and services. Even the tiniest bit of defiance, especially if it involves paying less in taxes, is meaningful, important, and another grain of weight on the camel's back that must eventually break. However, focusing on these easier and potentially less confrontational ways of Doing Freedom sidesteps the issue of the difficulty of fully unsubscribing.

Many people, when they finally understand what I mean by unsubscribing, stagger back mentally and shudder at the thought of all the challenges. There are lots of aspects to unsubscribing, with varying degrees of risk associated, but let's just take a look at the privacy/security component. Maintaining any kind of privacy is damned hard!

People who know you will blabber about you to anyone who asks. Your friends--even the ones who understand your need for privacy--will let things slip without even noticing, and your family will betray you even as they try to "help". Unless you have children like Huck Finn, there is no way in the world to keep their mouths shut--especially since other kids they meet will ask the most invasive questions without the slightest hesitation or embarrassment. You yourself will slip, unless you happen to have KGB training or somesuch. You'll find yourself talking about your kids, where you're from, your last vacation, and a dozen other topics that can give people leads on your affairs, all just because the hair stylist, grocery store bagger, bartender, or new neighbor asked an innocent question.

Most people don't notice it until they are already in a situation where they need privacy, but it's a common, everyday occurrence for people to ask you all kinds of questions, the answers to which could be used by "authorities" to track you down. Just about anyone you meet will start right off the bat with: "Hi! What's your name? Where are you from?" After they’ve told you their own answers, they’ll move right on to: "Where do you live?" and "Where do you work?"

Trying to deflect such questions or avoid awkward pauses when you do get asked something you don't want to answer can be tricky, hard work, and emotionally exhausting. It's hard! The answer, of course, is to prepare a cover story. Doing this right will take some work. You can't just introduce yourself at a cocktail party as "John Smith" and not have answers ready for all the other questions. If you stay put in any place for a while, you'll need a complete cover story that meshes with your visible activities. Your cover should answer all the polite questions in a mundane and satisfying way that discourages deeper probing, or is close enough to the truth to withstand deeper probing without giving away the full truth. You need a way to work with your children, if you have any, so they don't accidentally rip huge gaping holes in your cover (perhaps making everyone who knows you suspect that you're secretly a drug dealer or something more sinister). In most cases, you won't get your family to cooperate--and even if they do, they'll never take your security as seriously as you do--so you may have to resign yourself to always going to visit them, and never the other way around. This is very hard if you live near your extended family, no matter how you manage it.

You may even need a special version of your cover story to minimize the conflict between it and what your siblings, parents, uncles, grandmothers, etc. all think you're doing. You could always tell them the truth about what you're up to, but then any one of them could accidentally spill the beans on you, or testify against you in court. Accidental leaks aside, would you want to put your family members through such trials? Would you want them to have to choose between keeping their promises to you and whatever pressure the ferals bring to bear against them? If you never tell anyone who loves you that you are refusing to cooperate with immoral and destructive laws, they will never have to choose between being a Judas or a criminal themselves.

So, supposing you're a tax rebel, what do you do? Lie to your mother?

There are three basic choices:

1] You can tell the truth and make peace with whatever the increased chances are that you'll get into some kind of trouble. The downfall of many an outlaw, even moral ones, is due to their inability to keep their mouths shut about what they've done.

2] You can say that, for the sake of everyone's best interests, you will not answer certain questions nor talk about certain subjects. This approach has a lot of appeal for people who believe it is wrong to deliberately deceive others, or are just not very good at it. However, it's not low-profile; it gets everyone to wondering about what you're really up to and if you haven't gotten "mixed up with the wrong sorts of people." It's also hard for open and honest people to deal with the shock, anger, and hurt that their loved ones can feel when they are told that they will not be told certain things.

3] You can develop an appropriate and effective cover story (or set of consistent cover stories) and stick to it (them). This is definitely the best choice, strategically. But is it right?

It may seem like much ado over nothing to worry about the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of a cover story, but for people like me, who have developed a decades-long habit of telling only the truth or nothing at all, it's a very serious challenge. At the very least, it's hard to deceive--let's be honest, that's what it is--if you're feeling guilty about it.

Some people argue that the other side is willing to lie, steal, and even murder in order to achieve its ends, and that we can't afford to be squeamish. But if we adopt their tactics, we become like them and lose any moral sanction we might have to fight them. If you believe in the bible, and that it prohibits all lying, a cover story that deceives others with false information is out. Some people believe the biblical prohibition is only against lying about others to damage them (bearing false witness against a neighbor), and hence don't have a problem with a "white" lie that is only used in self defense. Others make the secular argument that, like the use of force, lying can be justified by self defense. This is true--I wouldn’t have any problem with lying to a mugger about how much money I had on me--but is it really self defense to lie to an innocent person who has no intention of harming you in any way?

My own view is rather Randian; I've always believed that lying is wrong because you put false information between a person and reality, and, no matter how minor or "white" the lie, that puts the person with the incorrect information at risk. But risk is not harm, and there must be harm for you to have done someone wrong. My view is also rather Smithian (L. Neil), in that I don't believe it can ever be right to violate someone's rights; at best, if they have violated your rights more than you theirs, they'll owe you more restitution and you won't have to pay for your crime. So... Since I must have a cover (I have no desire to become a martyr or a Mandela), and that requires me to deceive people with false information sometimes, I will compensate anyone who can show me that my falsehood harmed them in some way.*

Again, this may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but I'm trying to adhere to the highest standards of morality, not evade them. Once one starts down the path of moral compromise and allows the ends to justify the means, there's no telling how low you'll eventually stoop. This is important, and ties into another side of this whole question about whether or not unsubscribing is worth all the hard work; for many, it's a moral issue. It's great that a relatively simple device like a cover story can make the whole thorny problem of privacy much more tractable, but it's no good if it's not right and trying to do the right thing was your whole reason for unsubscribing in the first place.

For myself, I can say that my primary motive for unsubscribing was moral, not practical. I was outraged at the way certain villains and coercive institutions were taking the fruits of my labor and using them to build instruments of death and destruction, to be run over people's churches or dropped on people's homes... I don't get into criticizing other people's choices or imagining that people who choose differently than I do are less moral. I just want to do what I think it right by my own standards. I readily concede that there can be very good and moral reasons for some people to remain in the system, or to try to fight it in different ways than I do.

Most people try to consider the practical realities they foresee as well as the right and wrong of their choices. I am trying to show such people that unsubscribing from coercive systems can bring great moral peace without as high practical costs as they might think, if they plan carefully and organize their lives appropriately.

I am not saying that if you "follow me and do exactly as I say" you'll never had any troubles and live happily ever after. I think that anyone who makes such claims deserves a great deal of skepticism. Doing what I'm doing and staying in the public eye may well land me in jail. But hell, you can go to jail for looking Mexican at the wrong place and time. Since trying to be a "law-abiding citizen" is no longer any protection from so-called law enforcers, it's hard to see too much value in obeying immoral and destructive laws. Better to live in accordance to what you know is right, and take steps to minimize the chances of getting into trouble. If you do, you're living life on your own terms--you're free--and that is definitely worth it!

* I still believe with all my heart that honesty is almost always the best policy and am very uncomfortable even thinking about lying--I hope my friends and readers won't think that I'm not trustworthy because of what I've said here! By determining to compensate people for my "crime" (real damages, not "hurt feelings"), I hope to keep the issue in proper perspective and not ever, ever get comfortable lying. Most people who know me have little doubt that I would use lethal force to protect my family from harm, so I hope this revelation will not come as too great a shock to them. Trustworthiness is really a separate issue; my word is still non-negotiable to me. [back to text]

(c) 2000

Send a Letter to the Editor


Table of Contents