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Paranoia Is Good for You

May 20, 2011

Tags Interventionism

"Invoking privacy has gone from being the exercise of a right to an indication of guilt."

"I Lived. I Died. Now Mind Your Own Business." — that's how I want my tombstone to read.

What do I have to hide? Everything! Which is to say, every thing you demand to know from me is something I don't want to tell you.

Privacy is the single most effective means of preserving freedom against an encroaching state. Privacy rests on the assumption that — in the absence of specific evidence of wrongdoing — an individual has a right to shut his front door and tell other people (including the government) to mind their own damned business. This is a presumption of innocence. It is also the bedrock of civil society.

The act of slamming your front door expresses the key distinction between the private and public spheres. The private sphere consists of the areas of life in which an individual exercises authority and into which the government or other uninvited parties cannot properly intrude; traditionally, the home or family is offered as a prime example of the private sphere. Thus, historically, privacy has stood as a bulwark between the individual and government, between freedom and social control.

No wonder privacy is under vicious and sustained attack.

Totalitarianism requires total information, and today's government is intent on achieving the complete identification of everyone, like taking an inventory of belongings to be taxed and controlled: national ID, biometrics, "your papers please!"

At every juncture, it seems, we are being asked to fill out a form, to answer invasive questions, to submit our bags for a search, to shut up or speak out on command, and to raise our arms to be wanded while we're at it.

In his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott commented on the role played by one form of inventory — census data — in the rise of the modern state:

If we imagine a state that has no reliable means of enumerating and locating its population, gauging its wealth, and mapping its land, resources, and settlements, we are imagining a state whose interventions in that society are necessarily crude.

Acquiring data not only facilitated "a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription" but also allowed the state to intervene effectively throughout society. The more data, the more effective the intervention.

To facilitate its effectiveness, however, the state needs to eliminate competition and then command a monopoly on the production of acceptable ID. After all, ID not only serves as a tool of social engineering; it also has valid functions that a free market would address in a flash (and it would do so more efficiently). ID provides authentication for inheritances and property titles; it certifies people as being skilled, in thoracic surgery for example; and it documents authorization such as a rights of access to buildings or bank accounts.

The state does not necessarily outlaw such competition, but it flexes its ID-monopoly muscle in several ways. For example, it enforces "forgery" laws: the current penalty for passport or visa fraud is ten years for a first offense if not tied to terrorism or drug trafficking. But the most powerful weapon for enforcing this monopoly is that the government has made state-issued ID into a de facto condition for functioning well in daily life. In essence, the state and its documentation have become the only way for a person to "prove" his or her identity and, thus, to access vital (even nongovernmental) services.

The "unidentified" cannot board a plane or train, nor drive a car. They cannot open a bank account, cash a check, take a job, attend school, get married, rent a video (let alone an apartment), or buy a house. The unidentified are second-class citizens to whom the government closes off much of life and almost all opportunity to advance. Meanwhile, the "identified" are vulnerable to having their bank accounts frozen, access to healthcare denied, credit cards canceled, wages garnished, records subpoenaed; and they are subject to a myriad of other invasions that come from the government knowing exactly where and how to find them.

Those who resist being inventoried present a problem for the state. The first line of attack is to accuse them of being "suspicious" — that is, of having criminal or shameful reasons for refusing to answer questions.

"If you have nothing to hide …" the remark begins; and it always ends with a demand for compliance. Invoking privacy has gone from being the exercise of a right to an indication of guilt.

This is a sleight of hand by which privacy is redefined as "concealment" or "secrecy"; of course, it is neither. As well as enabling freedom, privacy is part of a healthy, self-reflecting life.

Consider one example: Since childhood I've kept a diary into which I pour my hopes, my doubts, my disappointments and desires. When I read them, I can still viscerally feel who I was at ten years old, and this makes me understand who I am today. I don't share these diaries, not because I am ashamed of them, but because they are personal. They are for me alone, for my eyes, my reflection — and not for anyone else.

Everyone has areas of utter privacy to protect. Some people wear lockets containing photos of deceased relatives; others daydream about a forbidden love; still other people lock the door while luxuriating in a hot bubble bath; or, perhaps, they write a love letter that is meant for one other set of eyes only. These acts are a line drawn between the private and public sphere; they constitute a boundary over which no other human being can rightfully cross without invitation.

If a neighbor reads letters in your mailbox or takes a minute to copy down deposits in your bankbook, you would feel violated and enraged. What is wrong for your neighbor to do is also wrong for the government to do, because there is only one standard of morality. Slam the door on the face of anyone who says differently.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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