Sunday, January 28, 2007

Why reasonable libertarianism results in more liberty than simplistic libertarianism

Yes, I am spinning it by using "reasonable" and "simplistic" terms for libertarians, something the simplistic libertarians might object to. Still, I think the terms apply well to a discussion I heard on NPR's Talk of the Nation called "The Privacy Train Has Left the Station." The radio segment features simplistic libertarian Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason Magazine. She says that because there's no reasonable expectation of privacy in public places, there's little reason to worry about the growing proliferation of cameras monitoring every person's every step, recording it forever, and being instantly available to government snoopers. Her main concern is that nobody ever tell private property owners what to do or not do with cameras.

This mirrors what a Volokh Conspiracy post called "the longstanding division between those who endorse an absolutist interpretation of libertarian principle versus those who take a maximizing approach." Mangu-Ward can't see a gray area in the loss of privacy due knowledge of one's activities becoming so much more widespread, so it's no problem. Reasonable libertarians like myself do see a problem, and while the solution is less clear, acknowledging a problem is the first step.

I'm not going to deny the advantages of cameras. I think a camera trained on a bicycle rack increases liberty by allowing people to ride bikes that don't get stolen, more than it decreases liberty by monitoring people for the brief time they're locking their bikes (I've had many bikes stolen over the years). Carefully targeted cameras might be the solution.

More broadly, I think the loss of privacy might possibly be inevitable, and it might not be all bad - maybe we'll learn to be who we are and not care who knows about it. But pretending there's no problem with this future, and therefore doing nothing to nudge the future in the right direction, is simplistic.

P.S. Some discussion of reasonable libertarianism over at Kevin Vrane's renovated digs, No Se Nada.

P.P.S. In Mangu-Ward's defense, she evolves partially beyond simplistic libertarianism in the Op-Ed she wrote on the camera issue:
The New York police recently announced plans to create "a citywide system of closed-circuit televisions" operated from a central control center, funded primarily by federal antiterrorism money.

Admittedly, this is where the surveillance nation gets dicey. Concerns about misuse of public cameras by authorities are reasonable, and violations should be punished. Several cases now wending their way through the courts are expected to set standards regarding proper uses of, and punishment for abuse of, surveillance.

She needs to keep moving in this direction.

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