Your Privacy Is Yours

“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 piece of personal information someone or something demands to know is something I don’t want to tell because no one has the right to demand access to my life.

The right to privacy rests largely on a presumption of innocence. It assumes that — in the absence of evidence of wrongdoing — an individual has a right to shut his front door and tell other people (including government) to mind their own business.

Today, this assumption has been twisted inside out so that a desire for privacy means you have something to hide. You are expected to prove your innocence by revealing every financial transaction, by filling in pages of government paperwork, by allowing state agents to frisk your person and property when you board a plane or enter a public building. These invasions rest upon the presumption of guilt.

Privacy is also is the single most effective means of preserving freedom against an encroaching state. The act of closing your front door expresses the key distinction between the private and public spheres.

The private sphere consists of the areas of life over which you, as a peaceful human being, exert absolute authority and into which the government or any other uninvited party cannot properly intrude. Traditionally, the home or family is viewed as the private sphere. But it also includes the food you eat, your sex life, the books you read, your opinions of life.

The public sphere consists of the civic duties you owe to others. In a free society, these duties include paying your bills, respecting the equal rights of all and living up to contracts. In the current society, a set of designed duties require you to pay ruinous taxes, to restrain your own rights and to abide by a mushrooming mass of laws.

The Austrian school economist Murray N. Rothbard expressed what he considered to be the central political issue confronting mankind when he wrote, “My own basic perspective on the history of man… is to place central importance on the great conflict that is eternally waged between liberty and power.”

Historically, privacy has stood on the side of liberty as a bulwark between the individual and government, between freedom and social control.

Imagine a world in which you do not report your income; there are no government forms or census data; registration of everything from birth to marriage is optional; no permission is needed to open a business or travel abroad. Imagine a world in which personal data are private.

How could the tax man collect money without knowing your income or address? How could the military draft your children into war without knowing where to find them at home or at school? How could the censor punish your reading habits when no record exists of which books you buy? The machinery of the state is paralyzed without information about who you are.

Information has always empowered the state. On his infamous 1864 march through Georgia, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman used county maps with information about livestock and crops in order to loot and pillage more efficiently.

After the 1942 bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American military used census data to locate Japanese-Americans and herd them into detention camps. The IRS has routinely compared the names on foreign government lists with those on its own in order to locate “hidden” assets.

The difference today is the higher efficiency of data collection, due to technology. Most people’s employment, financial, medical, military, educational, housing, marital, telephone, travel, Internet, automobile and family records are now stored or easily accessed by government.

It is no coincidence that statist governments are renowned for wiretapping, surveillance, identification papers, informants, secret police and censorship. The control of information throughout society is akin to the control of blood flow through a body; it is vital to functioning.

Today’s governments are intent on completely identifying everyone, as a miser takes inventory of his possessions. This has always been the case. In 1889, in a speech before the International Penitentiary Congress, France’s prison director, Louis Herbette, advocated fingerprinting in order “to fix the human personality, to give to each human being an identity, an individuality that can be depended upon with certainty, lasting, unchangeable, always recognizable and easily adduced…”

The difference today is technology… and the active cooperation of businesses like Facebook and Google, who curry government favor by catering to all requests for information. Technology converts the collection of data into an art form.

At this point, it is useful to take a “time out” to assert that the collection of data and issuance of documents can be a valid function of a free society. Quite apart from facilitating social control, identifying (ID-ing) people can function as a free-market mechanism of authentication. It authenticates those who should have access to bank accounts, property titles or inheritance; it certifies people as being skilled — for example, as a thoracic surgeon. But this authentication does not involve exploring their bank accounts, sexual preferences, reading habits, travel plans and political beliefs.

In asserting its superior claim over any free-market function of identifying people, the state does not outlaw competition; the state merely renders the free-market function irrelevant. The state makes its ID a de facto condition for functioning well in daily life.
The state and its documentation have become the only way for a person to “prove” his or her identity and, thus, to access the basic rights and “niceties” of life. The “unidentified” human being cannot board a plane or train, nor drive a car. He 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 person is a second-class citizen to whom the government closes off much of life and almost all opportunity to advance through labor, education or entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, those who are “identified” by the state are vulnerable to having their bank accounts frozen, their access to health care denied, credit cards canceled, wages garnished, records subpoenaed. To become known to the state is to become vulnerable to a myriad of invasions that come from the government knowing exactly where and how to find you.

Those who resist being inventoried present a problem for the state. The first line of statist 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; 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. It is merely a request for the personal to remain personal. 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 10 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 took it upon himself to read letters in your mailbox or copy down the details of deposits in a bankbook he “encountered” in your desk drawer, you would feel violated and enraged by the invasion. What is wrong for your neighbor to do is also wrong for a government agent to do, because there is only one standard of morality. Theft is theft; invasion is invasion. You have the right to slam the door on the face of anyone who says differently. A peaceful human being owes no debt to any other person.

Hold the state up to the same standard as your neighbors… because there are no double standards of right and wrong. Privacy is a right, not an admission of guilt. Your identity properly belongs to you… not to the state.


Wendy McElroy