Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the most dangerous sentence in the English language was, "We're from the government and we're here to help." Authoritarian rulers who believe they know what is in your best interests (better than you do) and who have pompously convinced themselves that they are kindly, considerate, and thoughtful--that is, they have noble motives--are the most dangerous of all. After all Judas believed he was doing his people a great service, having their best interests at heart, when he betrayed our Lord for thirty pieces of silver. In reality, he had fallen under the control of the Devil (Luke 22:3).
Consequently, since the price of liberty is perpetual vigilance, we have to scrutinise very closely "well-meaning" governments. The more well-meaning they are, the more dangerous they become. At the very least it evidences a mode of thinking which considers citizens to be infantile children. Such arrogance is both demeaning and minatory.
New Zealand's privacy laws are an example. Conceived by civil righters and faceless bureaucrats and NGO-bureaucrats, privacy has become a classic example of the genre of authorities knowing what is best for you even if you don't.
(Children, after all, cannot be expected to understand what is in their long term best interests.) So, after a due amount of huffing and puffing about dire threats to human existence and evil Rodents of Unusual Size which inhabited the badlands, threatening outlying villages we passed Privacy Laws and even appointed a Privacy Commissioner. The citizen-children at last could sleep in peace with untroubled dreams of privacy gobbling monsters.
But the world is a dynamic place and the privacy threatening rodents merely changed their tactics. They developed new technologies. They thought up new ways to invade the children's cots. Vigilance was required. And new laws and regulations. Always new restrictions, more controls, more Dictats. Until, one day, the children began having new nightmares. Not about intrusive rodents from the badlands, but huge hulking slugs, like Jabba the Hut slobbering over the cots, licking the citizen-babes to sleep. Welcome to the loving embrace of the Privacy Commissioner: the biggest slug of them all. It stinks with a malefactory odour.
An editorial in the NZ Herald, reacting to the slug's latest moves to protect us from advertisers, puts the matter in proper perspective:
The Privacy Commissioner wants to go much further, attacking direct mail at its source in the information that can be gathered about individuals' spending habits and preferences. The commissioner wants the powers of the office widened so that it no longer acts only on complaints from the public but can take action against organisations that might be gathering and using information without the subject of the information being aware of it.
Is this so bad? It sounds sneaky, even creepy, but it is simply trying to sell people things they might like. All advertising attempts to reach the most likely buyers of the product it is selling. Advertising is not regarded as a public service because it is done for a profit, but public service and profits are not mutually exclusive. All trade is an exchange of benefit.
Is privacy so important that we do not want direct advertising to know what we might like? Privacy is a relatively new concern of legislators and regulators. It is a concern that originated in rarefied circles of policy-making, not from popular demand.
Principles of privacy are now written into public service rules, sometimes to the detriment of sensible advice that health professionals, for example, might give to family members of a distressed person.
It is hard to write a privacy code for everybody. Information that some people would keep to themselves, others put on Facebook. Individuals differ widely on what they want to share and what they regard as private. The best way to regulate such a variable and subjective human right is to adjudicate on complaints. Complaints involve real people with real concerns. We might be much less concerned than the commissioner thinks we should be, or would be if we knew what consumer information was being exchanged about us. But do we really care?
If it means we get alerted to travel deals or gift possibilities or it is just another addition to the waste paper collection, it is harmless. Strict privacy is for hermits, the rest of us interact with the world and can judge when marketers exceed our tolerance.
Strict privacy is for hermits and babes in hermetically sealed nurseries. It is not for adults and free people. We will judge for ourselves, thank you. When we make mistakes we will learn from them. We will follow our own preferences, including this: intrusive Rodents of Unusual Size are much less a threat than Jabba the Privacy Commissioner Hut. Spare us from nannying, do-gooding government. It is positively dangerous, and eventually, nightmarish.