More than twenty years ago, I attended a speech that famed legal scholar Arthur Miller gave, in which he decried the fact that the zone of privacy surrounding ordinary citizens was shrinking rapidly with the dawn of the computer age. What he pointed out then is even more true today: unless you step entirely off the matrix, every time you engage in any type of commercial transaction, whether it’s using your ATM or credit card to buy a latte, using your cell phone to call your mother, or buying an airplane ticket, your transaction creates a record that a corporation owns and that the government can find. Theoretically (and in actual fact if the authorities are after you with the right warrants), someone can put those transactions together and create a comprehensive picture of every detail of your life.
I walked out of Miller’s talk knowing that he was correct and yet curiously unimpressed. I could not then and cannot now work myself into a lather knowing that some clerk in Dubuque or Bombay can have access to information about my grocery shopping habits or the number of times I called my mother. Of more concern to me has always been what people who know me might think of me if they could pry into the small details of my life. While I may be unmoved by the Dubuque or Bombay clerk knowing about my grocery list, I’d find it very unpleasant if my next door neighbor, colleague or classmate were to learn too many of the details of my life. In other words, for me, privacy is local.
In the years since I first heard Miller’s speech, I’ve often had reason to think about his thesis and about my response and I’ve come to the conclusion that I haven’t changed my viewpoint since then. Indeed, my blog is a perfect example of that fact. I’m more forthcoming with you, my readers, than I am with my immediate neighbors because I won’t run into you on the street. If I’m grumpy, I grouse on my blog, whereas I make an effort to present a cheerful face to my neighbors. If my kids are driving me up a wall, I wail in cyberspace, but make light hearted jokes to the parents I see during the day. And of course, I talk politics on my blog in a way that I never would to the flesh-and-blood people around me who believe that conservatives aren’t just misguided, but are evil. Privacy is therefore often on my mind insofar as it relates to me.
The privacy issues I’ve discussed above can, of course, be reframed as the flip side of freedom: freedom from oversight and intrusion. And in our world, there are three basic categories of people or institutions that infringe on that freedom: individuals, corporations, and the government.
Traditionally, individuals infringing on your freedom from oversight and intrusion have been the nosy next door neighbors who physically peer into your world. (For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to ignore the Peeping Toms or stalkers, who are committing out-and-out criminal acts — that is, acts that can be characterized as visual assaults.) Corporations, as I noted above, have become an increasing infringer on that same freedom. As Miller argued so long ago, the computer records they keep mean that, with a push of a button, corporations (especially banks and credit card companies) can create a comprehensive record about you.
Whether it’s a nosy neighbor or a data collecting computer, we are usually willing to put up with the infringement on our freedom because of the benefits that come with those intrusions or, at most, we place small, almost symbolic barriers in the way. As to our neighbors, we may determine that their help with the children is the price we pay for their knowing how messy our house is. Alternatively, we may close the windows when we argue or draw the curtains when we let our hair down. And as for the corporations, most of us have long ago sold our soul to that Devil, recognizing that the convenience of credit card purchases or the discounts from our grocery store’s “Club Card” are more than worth the information those Dubuque or Bombay drones (and their computers) are collecting about us. Any barriers we attempt are likely to be minimal, such as refusing to give our phone numbers to the blank eyed clerk at the local store (after having first paid with our credit card, of course). Certainly that is my world view, and one I’ve consistently held to for decades, as I believe most other Americans have.
But when it comes to the government, our relaxed attitude to these assaults on privacy suddenly vanishes, and we see ever escalating levels of paranoia about our right to freedom from oversight and intrusion. The government, after all, is huge; it has the ability to engage in spying and data gathering at an unparalleled level; and, worst of all, it has punitive powers that even the most gossipy, vindictive neighbor or the most aggressive corporation lack. And as we’ve seen, most notably in East Germany, but also in other Communist and totalitarian countries, when the government gets into the business of invading our privacy — removing all those safeguards to freedom from oversight and intrusion — individual freedom is effectively at an end.
Most of us, of course, recognize that there is practical, personal information that we keep private from others, but that the government does get to see. For example, because the government needs to be funded (a concept separate from whether we believe it’s doing the right things with those funds), we all regularly provide it with all of our financial information, something we’d be loath to let our friends and neighbors peruse. Because the government is charged with the business of running our criminal justice system, we long ago agreed as a society that it could keep data about people’s criminal habits, as well as their fingerprints. (DNA, of course, has been a more touchy subject.) Because we all pay into Social Security (whether or not we think it’s an appropriate program in the 21st Century, as opposed to the 1930s) and we all want to get at least some of that money back, we allow the government to maintain our Social Security number, which ties into just about everything, for better or for worse.
So far, I think everyone from both sides of the political spectrum would agree with my general conclusions, above, about the dangers of government infringement into its citizens’ privacy, as well as about the basic intrusions we concede are the government’s right. What’s interesting, however, is the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals when it comes to just about any other aspects of government involvement in our day to day lives.
Liberals trust the government to manage the day to day details of their lives. The most striking example of this, of course, is the current debate about health care. And the most extreme statement of this belief that government should be trusted to take care of our bodies came from John Edwards when he announced that, “Damn it! When I’m President, I’ll force everyone to go to the doctor, whether they want to or not.” Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. What he really said was:
“It [his mandatory health care plan] requires that everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care,” he told a crowd sitting in lawn chairs in front of the Cedar County Courthouse. “If you are going to be in the system, you can’t choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years. You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK.”
Wow, that’s some serious government oversight. You wonder if the lovely Edwards has thought through the kind of enforcement this policy will require. Will Stasi-style health police knock on citizens’ doors and demand evidence that they saw their doctor recently? Doubtful. What will really happen is that Stasi-style health police will carefully study the records of every American citizen, diligently checking to make sure every good American visited his or her doctor and, oh, just incidentally, getting access to every detail of each citizen’s medical records to make sure they were real visits and not just feints to mislead the health police. But that’s okay in the world of John Edwards because it’s for our own good.
Hillary Clinton, of course, isn’t that far behind, although she’s smart enough to have framed her ideas to sound more moderate. Although she claims the plan is “not government run,” she nevertheless intends to have the government oversee a program that insures 47 million people, with a cool $110,000,000,000 annual price tag. If a program that costly doesn’t have oversight it should; and once it does, you’ve got government deeply involved in the health care business. (And we won’t even touch the fact that at least some of these millions of uninsured are people who could afford insurance but for their own private reasons have opted not to get it or who are merely temporarily between insurance.)
(By the way, please understand that I would like to see more people insured. However, I most certainly do not want Hillary and her friends managing that program. And as I always say, if you want to see what it looks like when government gets in the health care business, just look at Walter Reed, our “gift” to those who have sacrificed the most for us.)
Liberals also would like government to have increasing oversight in other areas of day-to-day life, such as their desire for more and more oversight for American business; their preference that government tell us what to do with our savings (hence the deep commitment to Social Security); their craving for government control over schools (hence the strong opposition to vouchers); and their abiding belief, the 1960s through the 1990s notwithstanding, that intense government interference can control poverty.
The common thread binding the liberals’ willingness to relinquish control of their health care decisions, economy, education and business to the government is a manifest belief that the government’s collective wisdom trumps the intelligence of the ordinary person. The government, made up of experts and policy wonks, must be better at taking care of people than people can be trusted to take care of themselves. (People, of course, being defined here as the Wal-Mart shopping, NASCAR loving, country-music listening masses.) And the surprising thing is that liberals cling to this belief, not only despite government’s repeated management failures over the decades, such as the failed War on Poverty or the failed care at Walter Reed, but also despite the fact that they are convinced that the administration now in charge of the government is the most evil thing since . . . well, since Satan!
Conservatives, of course, have the complete opposite view when it comes to government micromanage of just about anything. Conservatives want to be free from government micromanagement, something Fred Thompson neatly summed up here:
In 1994 when I first ran [for Senate], I advocated the same common sense conservative positions that I hold today. They are based upon what I believe to be sound conservative First Principles – reflecting the nature of man and the wisdom of the ages. They are based upon the conviction that our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are not outdated documents that have outlived their usefulness. It is a recognition that our basic rights come from God and not from government. That government should have its power divided, not only at the federal level but between the federal government and the states. Federalism is the belief that not every problem should have a federal solution. Essentially it’s about freedom. A government that is big enough to do everything for us is powerful enough to do anything to us.
“These principles lead me to believe in lower taxes, which foster growth and leave more power in the hands of the people. They also respect free markets, private property, and fair competition. They honor the sanctity of life – the great truth every life matters, and no person is beneath the protection of the law. These principles made our country great and we should rededicate ourselves to them, not abandon them.
In other words, conservatives do not want the government telling them how to run their businesses, how to educate their children, how to invest their money, how to allocate resources for their needs (such as insurance), what kind of property they can buy, what medical care they can seek, etc. To conservatives, those are private decisions that ought to be free from government diktats. Conservatives believe individuals are better equipped to make these decisions for themselves, with an eye to their own particular circumstances, and accept as a price of freedom the inevitable fact that some individuals may make bad decisions.
(An aside here about the beneficial flexibility that comes with allowing people on the ground to make decisions. Some crosswalks are being installed near my house. It is a huge job, because it doesn’t simply involve drawing lines on the street to mark where people will cross and cars should stop. Instead, because of ADA requirements, all new crosswalks must have curb ramps installed, which involves destroying the four existing corner curbs and pouring new concrete ramps at each corner. Ramps are a great thing, not only for the handicapped, but also for women with strollers. But you see, in our neighborhood, there are existing ramps within 10 feet of each of the corners being destroyed and rebuilt. Admittedly, these ramps are driveways, but they’re still ramps, and they provide easy access to the new crosswalks, especially since the streets are wide and the traffic flow very low.
If the ADA rule had simply said that people in wheelchairs need to have easy or reasonable access to the crosswalks, and then allowed the people on the ground to review the situation, these driveways would have been more than adequate, and saved a heck of a lot of tax payer money. Since people who love government don’t trust individuals, though, and put their faith instead in government rules, we now have two ramps per corner, for a total eight ramps near the new crosswalks. And now back to our regularly scheduled ranting….)
There is one area, however, in which conservatives do want the government around, and this area falls within the traditional purview of government, so much so that the Founders would easily have recognized it: security. Because conservatives believe that it is the government’s job to protect them against external enemies and, even more so, against external enemies who are trying to infiltrate our internal structures, we tend to be more sanguine about government programs aimed at catching those who wish to harm us. We also seem to take a longer view, recognizing that the country has always recovered from the limitations on freedom our government has imposed during times of war, whether we’re talking Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the drastic wartime powers Wilson assumed during WWI, or the ill considered decision to imprison anyone who was Japanese or of Japanese ancestry during WWII. In each case, when the threat ended, America’s Constitution and her basic commitment to freedom was sufficiently resilient to come back from these assaults on liberty.
Liberals, on the other hand, who are willing to hand over to the government so many aspects of their private lives, are loath to surrender their security to the government. Instead, when it comes to security, they look at the same government they trust to examine their bodies, make their health care decisions, educate their children, rescue their poor, and control their businesses, and suddenly start ranting that it is out to get them, whether to destroy their buildings and their citizens, listen to their phone calls, or read the same library books they do. They demonstrate a bizarre love-hate relationship with the government, that sees them on the one hand practically handing it their first born, while on the other hand having paranoid nightmares about wiretapping.
Frankly, I’m at a loss to explain this inconsistency. Whether you agree with their viewpoint regarding freedom and privacy, when it comes to government, conservatives at least are consistent — they want the government out of their lives as much as possible, except for the one thing the government does best, which is securing the nation as a whole.
(I’ve developed a rather inexplicable fascination with Patrick Ruffini’s 2008 Presidential Wire. Getting a high score there doesn’t increase my traffic, but I still find it very gratifying. So, if you think this post is worthy of a high score at the Wire, please click **here**.)
UPDATE: Hillary continues to make my point about liberals’ willingness to bring the government into your day-to-day life, this time envisioning a situation in which you’re required to show a prospective employer that you have GovInsur as one of the conditions of employment. And just who is going to enforce that and what kind of weird employment black market is going to develop?