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Alexander Grau, zvg.

Asymmetry of information

Knowledge is power: The state increasingly knows everything about its citizens, while citizens know less and less about the state. In a liberal democracy, it should be the other way around.

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In George Orwell’s novel «1984» the matter is clear: The state knows everything about its citizens. How they live, how they work, whom they love, what they think and feel. Conversely, the citizen knows nothing about the state. Who the political leadership of the «Ingsoc» party is, whether big brother exists at all, whether a war is actually being waged or whether everything is staged – all this remains a mystery. Orwell has grasped something fundamental here: In totalitarian systems, the relationship between state and citizen is highly asymmetrical. The state knows everything about its citizens; conversely, the citizen doesn’t know the first thing about the state. Everything is a facade, propaganda, a sham.

In a democracy, it should be the other way around, especially in a liberal one. Here, the ideal state would be the absolutely transparent state, for which its citizens are black boxes into which it cannot see. The transparent state and the opaque citizen – that should be the ideal of every liberal polity.

But the trend is clearly moving in a different direction. The administrations of modern states are becoming increasingly complex and bloated. Ministries are growing, offices are expanding, authorities of all kinds keep extending. In Germany, for example, the number of civil servants has risen from 4.5 to over 5 million since 2008. Added to this is digitization, which allows much more efficient data processing than analog administration.

Cash, an enemy of the state

Above all, the digitization of all areas of life allows the state almost complete access to the lives of individual citizens. Under the pretext of alleged modernity, customer friendliness, proximity to the citizen, or comparable propaganda slogans, the state is eating its way further and further into the private lives of individuals. Taxes, health, education, consumer habits, expressions of opinion in social networks – nothing remains hidden from the state. The transparent citizen is slowly but surely becoming reality.

«Under the pretext of alleged modernity, customer friendliness,

proximity to the citizen, or comparable propaganda slogans,

the state is eating its way further and further

into the private lives of individuals.»

Of course, it should be the other way around. What I do with my money, whether I pay cash or not, when I go to the doctor and why, which preventive checkups I have, whether I get vaccinated and if so against what, where I travel, what I think and say – all this is basically none of the state’s business.

The state’s overreaching greed for information is most striking when it comes to money. And not only in the form of the tax office, from which, from a statist perspective, there can no longer be any secrets, let alone banking secrets. In order to record the economic circumstances of its citizens even more efficiently, the modern control state relies above all on the abolition of cash and the digitization of payment transactions. The pretext for this is either organized crime or undeclared work.

At the beginning of this year, for example, the so-called Sanctions Enforcement Act came into force in Germany. Among other things, it prohibits cash payments when purchasing real estate. For the German Interior Minister Faeser, however, this does not go far enough. She is also calling for cash caps on the purchase of jewelry and watches. This is intended to make «ownership structures more transparent.» Cash payments when buying a car would then also be history.

The goal is clear: a cashless society that is completely controlled by the tax office and the security authorities. Anyone who now thinks: «Cashless payment transactions are practical, and besides, I have nothing to hide» is making a catastrophic mistake. Firstly, it’s a matter of principle: it’s none of the state’s business how I pay for my watches – even if it’s a dozen luxury watches a year. But secondly, the complete digitization of payment transactions opens up unimagined dimensions for the manipulation of citizens.

A state-owned digital currency, for example, which can be linked to good behavior at any time, would make it possible to condition people completely. For example, social security and health insurance benefits could be linked to the purchase of unhealthy foods. The ubiquitous framing and nudging, the language manipulations and paternalistic warnings on food, which many citizens rightly complain about, would be a trifle in comparison.

The de facto co-rulership of NGOs

Anyone who thinks such a development is impossible in Europe is not yet familiar with the draft Global Digital Compact (GDC), which is to be adopted by the United Nations next year. The aim is, for example, to link digital identities with bank and mobile phone data «in order to improve the provision of social protection services» and make it easier to reach entitled persons.

In plain language, this means social benefits in exchange for digitally verifiable behavior. Like all UN pacts and agreements, the function of the GDC is a domestic one. It enables governments to install unpopular measures – after all, it was decided at the UN level. The fact that the creation of the GDC is also presented in the nicest marketing jargon as a «multi-stakeholder process» bodes ill.

In the modern jargon of political technocrats, openness almost always means involving ideologically conformist NGOs in decision-making processes. This exacerbates the asymmetry between citizen and state: The state creates a cornucopia of «civil society organizations» that is supposed to simulate citizen participation and give decision-making processes a democratic veneer. In fact, however, the opposite is happening. Citizens are disempowered, opposition is delegitimized and political processes are removed from the democratic control of elected institutions. The networks of foundations, think tanks and political consultants rule.

In view of these asymmetries, it is not surprising that more and more citizens are turning away from established politics. They are powerless in the face of an inscrutable apparatus that seeks to grasp every millimeter of their lives and presents itself as being close to the people, but in fact acts as a closed system that is effectively beyond democratic control.

«The truth of the matter is that the state is only so powerful

because we are all so lazy.»

It is time to readjust the relationship between citizens and the state. And the good thing is that everyone can support this process. For example, by paying for their everyday purchases with cash and not with cards or smartphones. The truth of the matter is that the state is only so powerful because we are all so lazy.

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