This morning I received a long and impassioned email from a man who feels that I have a misconception about privacy; he assumes that I condone voyeurism so long as I am being protected by the voyeur. In this case I am the private citizen and the government is the voyeur. The man had read my essay on Privacy Invasion.
What this individual assumes is incorrect, as I do not believe that we need video cameras recording anyone’s private life at home—at least not for most of us! However, I am not as friendly to the Right to Privacy as many civil liberties groups are. And here I am going to dissect it in a manner that I believe exposes the good from bad, the truth from myth.
Like all rights, the Right to Privacy is a social construct, not a divine edict. In a way, it is either a misnomer or, more likely, the word "right” has come to mean something it originally did not. The word "right” means "ethical or just”; in democratic philosophy, it has been turned into a status or idea that we "naturally” have and that nobody can take away. The flaw in calling anything a right in this sense is obvious—there are no guarantees and any so-called right can be taken away.
The problem with rights is that they can only be upheld in an environment where all the players are following the same rules—which is a virtual impossibility in a complex and competing world that grows more populous and more complex by the day. It takes one rogue to ruin an ordered system; upholding rights in the absolute sense requires that the whole community be saints. Otherwise, those that play fair will always succumb to the tyranny of those who play dirty. No one wants to hear it, but everything has a limit, including the practice and protection of rights.
In times when the majority of the people in a society are abiding the laws, then the working of rights in everyday life is a good thing. However, law-abiding people are lambs for the wolves—especially when the wolves have the happy shield of rights to protect them.
Consider a community of law abiding citizens that keep their neighborhoods clean, raise their children well and pay their taxes. So long as the peace stays, the government has a duty to protect the socially designated Rights. However, what happens when this community suddenly becomes the epicenter of a drug network? Weapons dealing? Federal espionage?
Many people shrug these off as insignificant next to the individuals’ right to privacy. The government should not be spying on the citizens, no matter what!
So say the protectors of our civil liberties. The flaw here is obvious—since protecting one right may mean that another is lost. Say the new neighbors are running a drug ring. Their business could harm more rights than the government can by finding them and shutting them down; the drug ring will decrease the level of happiness in a community (with the rise in crime), as well as threaten lives in turf wars. The new neighbors may get your children hooked onto dangerous drugs and lifestyles; your children may be killed with the dilapidated lifestyle. In this type of scenario, the protection of privacy that protects criminals undermines our so-called rights to Happiness and Life.
Let’s draw an analogy. Your kid comes home very late—much later than she is supposed to. You knock on her door but she says, "Leave me alone.” She won’t talk to you. She won’t tell you what she has been up to. Are you going to walk away and let it go? No, as a responsible guardian, you are going to find out what is going on. You are going to put your ear to the door and hear what the mumblings are. You are going to pick up a phone and listen into the conversation. If you hear that she has been out with her girlfriends being a normal teenager… you’ll probably let it go. If you learn that she is running with the wrong crowd, you will probably think about steering her another way. But if you find she is selling drugs or her body—you’re going to bust into her room and make some serious changes right here and now!
There is another flaw in the claims of those who uphold the right to privacy as an ultimate right—consistency. How often do you hear phrases like this: "The government has no right to spy on me—I’m an American citizen.” Read between the lines and can hear another phrase—"Go ahead and spy on everyone else.” If the right to privacy really were an untouchable right, it would exist for everyone in the world. But this cannot happen because the right is merely a social construct of the society it originates—again, one that can only be upheld in a system where everyone plays by the same rules. Obviously, different societies play by different rules.
Furthermore, my neighbor is not necessarily my friend in the same manner that a stranger is not necessarily my foe. He could very well be my foe. Political patriotism and social pride can booster morale at times, but it can also blind us to the threats that are amongst us. While our vision as a society should always be one of peaceful brotherhood—we should not be blinded by our visions so that we forget the real world in which we live.
I do not believe that the government has any business installing video cameras in your house to check up on you. But I do believe that it is our government’s responsibility to protect us from enemies we cannot protect ourselves from individually. And the only way that our government can protect us is to be knowledgeable about the threats knocking on the door; unfortunately, many threats are already in the house. In which case, there is going to be a right lost no matter what… and personally I go with protecting Life above others, as we can always go back and restore any other right when the dust of battle goes away—but we can never restore Life itself.
Spying is an intelligent, effective and natural way of gathering information from your enemies—who are not going to offer up their sinister plans any other way.