Our national identity is built upon the premise that our personal and financial affairs are nobody else’s business. Incidents like the Boston massacre and 9/11 challenge that faith.
Most of us had peaceful upbringings. We felt no danger in our neighborhoods. But modern media and a more complicated world seems to bring danger to our doorsteps. Are we willing to pay the personal and financial price to make our communities safer?
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Gun control inadvertently leaped into this debate. Recommendations varied, from arming teachers to banning guns or violence from our videos and movies. Clearly, the ultimate solution is one of balance.
We balance our First Amendment right to free speech and our Second Amendment right to bear arms in the interest of an effective militia. We add to the mix the Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search or seizure and the imputed right to privacy from the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold decision over contraception. This right to privacy has been invoked a number of times since then.
As our democracy balances these rights, we are left with a tension that affects our quality of life and commerce. To what degree will a free-market-oriented economy and citizenry accustomed to freedom tolerate a government that monitors more of our day-to-day movements and decisions?
The balance between freedom and safety has some financial costs. Increased surveillance is expensive. I once lived under the bombed-out tower of the British Telecom building in London, which was left as a charred relic to remind citizens of the reason why almost every public place is under a surveillance camera in London. Decades ago, the British accepted the high financial and personal price to deter Irish Republican Army bombs. Now, that system attempts to deter Al Qaeda attacks.
The system is not so extensive here. Often, crimes are recorded through private security systems. But, there is no federal- or state-sponsored network of citizen monitoring.
Other countries monitor the Internet activity and discussions of their citizens. Here, we have come to expect that the state cannot intrude in our private transactions without a warrant. Even this protection is not as extensive as we believed. Increased police powers following 9/11 allow surreptitious searches of homes and computers. We have recently discovered that the IRS believes they have the power to inspect email stored in “the cloud” that is more than six months old.
When we become aware of these intrusions, we are often surprised and repulsed.
One response is that if I have done nothing wrong, I have nothing to fear. If greater surveillance will allow us to better discover how someone planted a bomb, then let police have such powers.
An alternative response dates back to the tensions that fomented revolt and the formation of a nation almost two-and-a-half centuries ago. These are the resentments of an overbearing, controlling government thousands of miles away across an ocean.
These United States were born of a mistrust of government. This sentiment is perpetuated on New Hampshire license plates, “Live Free or Die.” Meanwhile, our friends in Canada maintain the motto “Peace, Order and Good Government.” Their relationship with King George III differed from ours, and our experience has defined a nation’s skepticism or fear of government ever since.
Our democracy would more likely accept intrusions of electronic monitoring if there was a faith that surveillance will only be used to protect our well-being and freedoms. However, it is not in the American DNA. There are too many levels of government and too much secrecy in official deliberations for most of us to have confidence that every government official works zealously to protect our personal and financial well-being and freedoms.
We feel we’re innocent unless the government can prove we aren’t, and we won’t make it too easy for it to prove its case. They have no right to our DNA, unless we have been previously convicted, and they have no right to some of our private conversations. Government has no right to know the strategies of our corporations, and we do not have the obligation to self-incriminate.
Yet, when we witness the massacre in Boston, or endure a different type of massacre in Newtown, or view the corruption of public officials and private hedge-fund managers, we are forced to address the balance between personal and financial freedom and government surveillance.
Colin Read contributes to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.