Novus Ordo Mundi

One of the few areas where I differ with fellow libertarians is privacy concerns. As far as I can tell, knowledge itself is not a threat to liberty; rather, it is what is done - specifically by the government - with that knowledge.

The obvious response to this point is that by giving the government access to this knowledge, we are proceeding down the slippery slope and making it much more likely that the government will act on this knowledge and thus violate individual liberty in the future, as the "barriers-to-entry" for these violations have now been reduced. Eugene Volokh makes this point in his exploration of The Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope.

While there is something to be said for this argument, I find it particularly unpersuasive when there are significant, recognizable benefits that would result from this knowledge - benefits that are much more concrete than the merely potential risks associated with the slippery slope.

Allseeingeye.jpgAnd this brings me to Wendy McElroy's recent post at Liberty and Power, where she discusses the "threat to privacy posed by RFID (radio frequency identification device) technology." The fear is that by embedding these tracking devices into various consumer goods, bullets and other firearm-related products, currency, and even human bodies, Big Brother will be able to keep its all-seeing eye trained directly upon us.

That is certainly a possibility, but wouldn't it make more sense to attack the privacy invasions directly rather than opposing the technology altogether? If we throw out the baby with the bathwater, we give up all of the benefits that such technology will bring, such as cheaper consumer goods (because of reduced theft and loss, and better inventory management), increased consumer safety in cases of product recalls, and reduced crime in cases of kidnappings and car thefts, among other uses. None of these require government tracking of any kind.

When conducting a cost-benefit analysis of a given technology, it doesn't seem reasonable to reject the introduction of the technology simply because it may indirectly lead to other undesirable occurrences, especially considering that the technology isn't undesirable in and of itself and that there are clear and concrete direct benefits.

Which reminds me of another contentious and topical debate - one in which libertarians typically recognize the value of new technologies while neo-luddites look only at the potential risks. I am speaking, of course, about genetically modified foods.

Take, for example, the following statement made by Mary Lou Seymour, referenced in Ms. McElroy's post. Replace the acronym RFID with GMO and see if it reads any differently:

    "I propose we do everything we can do to slow the progress of spy chip technology, to make the sponsors step back and regroup ... from writing the companies that plan to use the RFID technology and expressing our distaste, to boycotting their products, to supporting legislation such as the 'RFID Right to Know Act of 2003,' which would mandate labeling of RFID-enabled products so at least you'd know which products had the darn spy chips in them."
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Excellent post Micha. I

Excellent post Micha. I also see technology, in and of itself, as politically neutral. The user of the technology can, as in all other facets of life, act ethically or unethically. Only when users of technology systematically act unethically does tyranny result. But technology by itself is simply a tool.

If we imagine a time prior to the mainstream internet revolution, say around 1990, were libertarians worried about the coming world wide web as inherently tyrannous? Did they try to stop the ?every computer connected to every other computer through a vast network of fiber optics? world wide web and ?cable television wires being used to pry Big Brother?s fingers through your computer into you house??

Since we have been on the topic of IP recently, let me point out that one of the arguments used by libertarians who oppose IP is that the marginal cost of information is essentially approaching zero, and that this trend extrapolated into the future makes enforcement of IP require a pantopticon state. Information cannot be limited because technology makes it free.

Yet, many libertarians (perhaps even the same ones) want to somehow stop the technologies that make information free?

I think technology is something to be embraced, especially by libertarians. Just as the internet has been basically a huge blessing for spreading libertarian ideas, technology can be used to find ways around the overbearing state. Cryptography, private space travel, email, etc have serious potential to enhance liberty.

It is only when through the unethical use of technology by the state that technology becomes tyrannous. By itself, it is ethically neutral, and in the right hands, can be a freedom-fighting tool.

I'm with you, Micha. When I

I'm with you, Micha. When I first heard about RFID tags, the first thing I thought was "I can go to the store, pick up what I want, and just walk out, and get charged the right amount." Does anyone remember that commercial on TV a while ago, that showed a trench-coated ruffian, apparently shoplifting in a grocery store, and striding through a gate that scanned his person with multiple lasers on his way out of the store. Then a security guard says "Hey!" and our ruffian turns. He's caught! But no, the guard just wishes him a good evening, because the gate we saw was actually scanning and tabulating his purchases. I WANT THAT!

It seems to me that a large amount of the perceived need for privacy involves protecting ourselves from the State. I for one could care less who looked at my financial records if I didn't have to worry about the FedGov trying to arrest me for alleged "suspicious" financial activities, or for buying things I'm not "allowed" to have. In fact, I wouldn't care much who saw my medical records, either, but maybe I'm weird. Have you read David Brin's _The_Transparent_Society_?