A Sense of Privacy

Last week, the House voted, largely along party lines, to abolish the American Community Survey, the new version of the US Census Bureau’s long-form questionnaire, a survey that was supposed to be conducted annually, The Wall Street Journal reports.  Republicans claim the long form—asking about everything from demographics to income to commuting times—is prying into private life and is unconstitutional.  Oddly, the WSJ disputes this characterization.

That paper says,

[T]he ACS provides some of the most accurate, objective and granular data about the economy and the American people, in something approaching real time.  Ideally, Congress would use the information to make good decisions.  Or economists and social scientists draw on the resource to offer better suggestions.  Businesses also depend on the ACS’s county-by-county statistics to inform investment and hiring decisions.

But the WSJ is living in a fantasy world, as demonstrated by that adverb “Ideally.”  In the real world, we’ve seen the likelihood of “good decisions” (question for the WSJ: whose definition of “good?”) involving personal information emanating from Congress.  We’ve seen the quality of suggestions from the HSWIC* over in the government’s Energy Department.  As for the businesses, see below.

Leaving that aside, though, in the real world, stipulating the argument, the ACS still is an intrusion into my privacy.

The WSJ even shamelessly trades on its “authority” status:

National statistics are in some sense public goods, which is why the government has other data-gathering shops like the Bureaus of Economic Analysis and Labor Statistics.

In the first place, they’re not goods of any sort, much less this baldly asserted public version, until they’ve been collected and thereby gained existence.  Even then, no, they’re not “public goods,” solely because they’ve been collected from a broad public.  They’re still made up of personal—private—data; having been collected up into a common database in no way places them into the commons.  In the second place, the WSJ has just made an excellent argument for abolishing the Bureaus of Economic Analysis and Labor Statistics, also.

In the end, if these data have value for businesses, or any other entity, a market will develop for them (they’re not that hard to collect, and the barrier to entry into this market is, as my town puts it, speed cushions), and people can give up their personal data—or not—in accordance with their own decisions.  There’s no need to have these data confiscated by government fiat.

But the most amazing part of the WSJ‘s demurral is their rationale:

As for privacy, anyone not living in a Unabomber shack won’t be much inconvenienced by making this civic contribution.

Leaving aside the cynically Alinsky-esque claim that a confiscation is a “contribution,” when did individual privacy become something to be invaded at will, so long as it doesn’t “inconvenience” the victim?  Our privacy needs no justification from us to protect; we need no better reason to protect it—especially from a grasping government that’s supposed to be working for us—than that we don’t feel like being exposed.  The WSJ‘s logic is in line with the government’s logic of two centuries ago: the Indians aren’t using the land they’re on, anyway.  And we have a more important use for it than they do.

The inconvenience is the invasion of our privacy.  Full stop.


*HSWIC: Head…Scientist…What’s in Charge

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