Can we keep government accountable in the post-Snowden age?


Former member of the NSA, Edward Snowden joined Ray McGovern and Coleen Rowley during a lecture about government transparency and the fourth amendment. (The Daily Iowan/Sergio Flores)

During his live-streamed lecture Monday night, Edward Snowden highlighted numerous failings in the present implementation of the social contract between the governing forces of the United States and the citizens who have bestowed their power in it.

The issue of accountability, or lack thereof, has been brought to the forefront for those entrusted with the task of protecting us. The disparity in power between elected officials and the larger class of pseudo-nobility is growing exponentially while the common people’s ability to implement any form of recourse against abuse of power is experiencing an inversely proportional acceleration towards nonexistence.

Snowden points out that “if you are relying on policy to protect your rights, you have already lost your rights.” Following that train of thought, how are we expected to live harmoniously in a system lacking a vested interest in preserving the autonomy of the public from whom it derives its authority, status, and power? If the allure of abusing power is too great to be managed and we allow those in power to form numerous allotments for their inability to rule responsibly, what would be the alternative?

At least in this country, the notion that the right to rule is God-given or determined by lineage has been abandoned, and yet the ills associated with those logics remain ever present. Corruption and abuse of power has only changed shaped and evolved to correspond with the system of governance within which it will inevitably manifest.  A form of government is necessary for the functioning of complex, large-scale societies, and yet it would appear impossible to form a system of government that will not infringe upon the rights of its subjects.

Accountability is the feel-good answer to the problem of rampant power abuse. Individual accountability as in a staunch refusal to allow oversteps by the government coupled with systems put in place to mitigate said unavoidable oversteps would ideally solve the problem. However, this idea is based on the assumption that if managed responsibly for long enough, the relationship between the government and its people will return to some natural state of equilibrium. The reality is the government will only take more drastic steps to impose an authoritarian will over the constituency regardless of the supposed ideologies fueling the permission to rule granted in the social contract.

The very nature of a government demands the ability to completely and utterly control the general public, even if that ability is not actualized, much in the same way nuclear weapons are used to subjugate foreign countries. The idea that a government will not abuse its power is ludicrous, not because of the intentions of those wielding it, but because of the imperative need for power to be used. The allowance of power to an entity or institutional monolith will never be a peaceful or comfortable transaction, because underneath the promises of freedom and liberty is the stark reality that dominance over the self has been given away.

Regardless of what is written in the Constitution or the intrinsic rights we supposedly all possess, no person living in a governed state is an entirely sovereign being. The misconception is that at some level the ruling body wants its subjects to retain their rights, but in all actuality, the rights of the people are the biggest inconvenience to any government. Snowden put it best when he said that the government engages in “promoting a class interest, and we are not that class,” because that highlights the real relationship between a government and its people. The benefits granted by a governing body are merely an afterthought and weak reciprocation for the power given to it by the people, and the disproportionate correlation between the benefits we expect and the power government seeks is only increasing.

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