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It Can't Happen Here?

by Sheldon Richman for the Foundation For Economic Education

The magician’s most potent power is misdirection: by making his audience think that it should look over there, he’s able to get away with some rather simple trickery over here. Using that mundane power, magicians have been able to pull off some amazing feats.

So have people in government. Houdini himself might envy their facility at distracting their victims from the real source of their oppression.

Take the issue of privacy. The current occupant of the White House and his heir apparent have more than once waxed eloquent on the dangers to our privacy in the electronic age from the—private sector. In an address last spring, the President promised legislation to protect us from third-party access to our financial and medical information.

Sounds good, until we understand two points:

  • We can deal with private violations of our privacy without the help of the federal government, and
  • There is no bigger threat to our privacy than the federal government itself!

While the politicians keep us agitated about private companies’ compiling and distributing information about us, it is relentlessly building huge networks of databases of personalized information on every man, woman, and child, and subtly moving America toward something that should sicken every son and daughter of liberty: a national identification card.

In the past six years Congress has passed legislation at the behest of the President to build databases on individuals’ health, education, and employment. Those databases, which are to be linked to records held by the states, can easily be cross-referenced thanks to the Social Security number every American citizen has and which every child must have before his parents can claim him as a dependent. Contrary to government promises, that number has become a de facto national identifier. The impetus for even private requests for the number is the federal government’s voracious appetite for information.

Americans might have been counted on to resist being hogtied and tagged, but the social engineers are clever. Besides misdirection, they are also masters of incrementalism and obfuscation. They know that if they go slow, most people, like the oft-cited frog in the gradually heated water, will never notice the impositions.

Examples of obfuscation abound. If the planners wish to compile a database of our employment histories, they can say it is necessary to prevent illegal immigrants from working, to apprehend “deadbeat dads,” to combat welfare fraud, and to upgrade the workforce. If they want medical dossiers on everyone, they can say they are needed to root out fraud, to avert epidemics, and to advance research. If they aspire to amass educational and psychological profiles of our children, they can proclaim their goals to be improvement of schools and preparation of the future workforce. And if they decide to require banks to report on their customers, of course it is indispensable to stopping money laundering.

There’s always a good reason that will shut most people up—assuming they know what’s going on at all. They usually don’t know because those intrusive little items are buried in innocent-sounding legislation. The mandate to create a “unique health identifier,” the key to keeping tabs on each of us medically, was buried in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The provision creating a Directory of New Hires, an electronic collection of personal employment profiles, was packed into the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. (It dovetails nicely with the tracking and certification called for in the School to Work Opportunities Act of 1994.) The provision inaugurating the requirement that employers check with the government before hiring anyone was included in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. (Thanks to Representative Ron Paul and others, a law essentially forcing the states to adopt a federally designed driver’s license/ID card was repealed.)

You see the pattern.1 Many members of Congress often don’t know those things are buried in legislation. How can busy private individuals know? Charlotte Twight describes the methods of obfuscation as manipulation of “political transaction costs,” that is, making it tougher for people to know what the government is doing and to protest effectively even if they find out. By these methods, government has imposed some rather subversive programs, including Social Security and Medicare. Government’s facility at concealing its activities is yet another reason to shed the romance with democracy.

(Here’s an irony: Government also raises political transaction costs by tying something people don’t like to something they do like; creation of Medicare was tied to an increase in Social Security benefits. When Microsoft tied a browser to Windows it was prosecuted for breaking the law. You decide which kind of tying is more harmful.)

What’s Going On?

Why does government want all this information about us? Some social engineers—the planners who fear that society will perish from centrifugal stress without them—may really believe that if they are going to do things for us, they need to know everything about us. That’s a good reason to spurn the government’s help.

Another motive, in at least some cases, is sheer power lust. Every dictatorship keeps information on its subjects. It’s the key to control. Political leaders who want to constrict our sphere of action know that nothing is so useful as personal information. Paul Schwartz has written that the “mandatory disclosure of personal information can have a destructive effect on human independence . . . . Americans no longer know how their personal information will be applied, who will gain access to it, and what decisions will be made with it. The resulting uncertainty increases pressure for conformity. Individuals whose personal data are shared, processed and stored by a mysterious, incalculable bureaucracy will be more likely to act as the government wishes them to behave.”2

Whatever the reason, these intrusions diminish our freedom and steal our dignity. No worthwhile objective (medical research, prevention of fraud, and so on) requires that the government force us, our employers, doctors, teachers, and bankers to divulge personal information; compile the data in a central computer; and share it with others without our consent. We should have had enough experience with modern despotism to know what evils can come from the very sort of activities the U.S. government now engages in. What makes anyone so confident that those outrages against liberty can’t happen here? []

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman on August 2000. Volume: 50. Issue: 8.

End Notes

1For details see Charlotte Twight, “Watching You: Systematic Federal Surveillance of Ordinary Americans,” The Independent Review, Spring 1999, pp. 165-200; and Claire Wolfe, “A Number, Not a Name,” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, May 1999, pp. 298-303.

2Quoted in Twight, p. 166.

About The Author

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman and In brief. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.