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When is treason justified?

Summary:
The answer is obvious—when it boosts aggregate utility.In the past, I’ve discussed the issue of when is terrorism justified. Today I’ll look at treason.Start with a couple easy cases. German officers committing treason against their government during WWII was justified, whereas the Rosenbergs passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets was not justified. But what about the more difficult cases? Here are two examples:Edward Snowden released documents that showed abuses by our intelligence services.Trump endorsed Putin’s claim that our intelligence services were falsely claiming that Russia had interfered in our election.Both actions can been seen as aiding our enemies, making our intelligence services look corrupt. (Trump toyed with the idea of pardoning Snowden.)No surprise,

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The answer is obvious—when it boosts aggregate utility.

In the past, I’ve discussed the issue of when is terrorism justified. Today I’ll look at treason.

Start with a couple easy cases. German officers committing treason against their government during WWII was justified, whereas the Rosenbergs passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets was not justified. But what about the more difficult cases? Here are two examples:

Edward Snowden released documents that showed abuses by our intelligence services.

Trump endorsed Putin’s claim that our intelligence services were falsely claiming that Russia had interfered in our election.

Both actions can been seen as aiding our enemies, making our intelligence services look corrupt. (Trump toyed with the idea of pardoning Snowden.)

No surprise, in the end I concluded that Snowden’s treason was justified, whereas Trump’s was not. Is this just TDS on my part? Maybe. You be the judge.

Snowden actually provided evidence to support his claim that our intelligence services were engaging in unscrupulous activities. In that sense, you can argue that he’s a sort of hero, a whistleblower. Even a martyr.

It’s possible that Trump is right about Putin. The problem here is that Trump provided no evidence to support his claim. Even if some of the evidence were classified, he could have at least sketched out what evidence he relied upon looked like. He could have said ; “I looked at the intelligence reports and noticed that 7 agents agreed with the finding, and 3 disagreed. I was more persuaded by the three who disagreed.

In fact, Trump almost never reads government reports of any type. Thus the more likely assumption is that Trump simply didn’t want to believe the intelligence services because it would somehow make his 2016 victory look tainted. That’s my assumption. And that motivation is not sufficient justification for giving aid and comfort to America’s #1 enemy.

Again, I’m not saying I trust our intelligence services (look at the Snowdon evidence), rather I’m saying that Trump never justified his action. Even if Trump were right, he has a moral obligation to explain to Americans why he reached this conclusion. His failure to do so is unjustifiable.

To summarize:

Snowdon: Justifiable treason.
Trump: Unjustifiable treason.

Don’t let emotionally loaded terms do your thinking for you. Calling something treason or terrorism is the beginning of any cost/benefit analysis, not the end.

PS. Hiroshima: justified or unjustified terrorism?


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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