»  National Review

May 31, 1999

  Private Obsessions

The Limits of Privacy
    by Amitai Etzioni
The End of Privacy
    by Reg Whitaker

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Of the very boring diet of the Ancient Greeks, Zimmern observed that the usual Attic meal consisted of two courses: the first a kind of porridge and the second a kind of porridge. Here are two books about the status of, and prospects for, personal privacy … and now you know what I think of them.

To take The Limits of Privacy first: It is organized with some care and offers its suggestions thoughtfully, after presenting all counter-arguments. The section on data encryption is of direct professional interest to me — I am a systems analyst at a Wall Street firm. The chapter on "Megan's Laws" is of direct personal interest — I have two young children. The other topics (ID cards, access to medical records) are ones that every responsible citizen should give some thought to. Yet after twenty pages I was fidgeting; after fifty I was reaching for the No-Doz; and by the time I set this book down I was in the frame of mind expressed by Millar the printer on being handed the last manuscript page of Samuel Johnson's mighty dictionary: "Thank God I have done with him."

Amitai Etzioni is a Professor of Law and writes like one, calling his method a "methodology." He is also a leading voice of the self-styled "communitarian" movement which believes we have been passing through a regrettable period of extreme individualism — egged on by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (do you need to be told that communitarians are lefties?) — in which the very concept of "the common good" has almost been lost. What can be done? We "need to lean on [Big Brother] to protect privacy better from Big Buck." It is all the fault of wicked capitalists, you see, and the solution is — guess what? — more government. You did know that we are under-governed, didn't you?

The problem with all this — aside from the elementary point, invisible from the Left, that Big Buck cannot lawfully kill us, jail us, distrain upon our property, kidnap our children or embroil us in unnecessary wars — is that Professor Etzioni's solutions presuppose integrity and good will where those things do not exist. The earnest Professor seems not to understand that one reason the pendulum has swung so far towards the individual and against the community has been that since outlawing shame and respectability and handing over the machinery of social control to politicians and bureaucrats, we have found out what those people are capable of.

Discussing medical records, for example, Professor Etzioni opens one of his sections like this:

The Clinton administration outlined in 1997 six standards to be included in any comprehensive privacy bill … (1) Medical records should, with few exceptions, be disclosed only for the purpose of health care … (6) Criminal punishments should be imposed on those who use medical information improperly …

Would that be the same Clinton administration that employed a night-club bouncer to riffle through FBI files on private citizens? That sicced the IRS on its personal enemies? That hired detectives to explore and expose the sex lives of those who refused the President's husky advances? And that got away with it all? We have descended here into the wonderland inhabited by the Mandarins of Imperial China at the wrong end of a dynasty, composing grave essays on statecraft in elegant calligraphy while the Son of Heaven frolics with concubines, palace eunuchs loot the treasury, and watching barbarians quietly polish their swords. What use to talk of "community" and the citizenly virtues of our ancestors?

We may build more splendid habitations,
Fill our rooms with paintings and with sculptures,
But we cannot
Buy with gold the old associations!

Reg Whitaker employs a different method (or methodology) to explain how quaint and untenable our notions of privacy have become: breathless technobabble. "Information technology has transformed our lives!" he gasps. "It will transform our world!" Well, perhaps it will and perhaps it won't; but one would have more confidence in his prescriptions (supposing one could summon the patience to figure out what they are — something to do with World Government, I believe) if he showed a more reliable grasp of the current technology.

For example: "In writing this book, I have occasionally required a particular quotation whose source I did not have at hand …" No problem for our fleet-fingered cybernaut: he can search for that quote on the Internet and paste it into his text. "This is empowering technology." Well, a few pages earlier the author did indeed deliver himself of a quote, asserting that: "There is an old jazz song: The Night has a Thousand Eyes …" Neither old nor jazz, I'm afraid, and only incidentally a song — a pop song recorded by Bobby Vee in 1962, but the title was lifted intact from a poem by Francis William Bourdillion. All of which information is on the Internet (many times over, in the case of that dreadful poem — it is a favorite on personal web sites). Empowering technology, indeed; but first you have to know how to use it.

Professor Whitaker at least has this advantage over Professor Etzioni: his moon-booted prose is so inept it offers occasional light relief from the incoherence of his presentation. In a passage on the part played in current political scandals by the recording of conversations and the tapping of telephones, he informs us that: "Washington … has long been a prime market for do-it-yourself buggers." Professor Whitaker lives in Canada.