Economists hold dear a few tenets including the following: Those affected the most have the best incentive to make important decisions on their own behalf, markets work well unless they are plagued by one of myriad market failures, well-defined property rights are important and more and better information invariably improves decision-making.
To economists, power ought to be diffused, while, to political scientists, politics is the art of the use of power.
Our recent national debate about freedom of information challenges all these tenets.
The Internet provides us with more information, for free, than we could have ever imagined. Of course, we get what we pay for. While we have access to amazing and bewildering amounts of data and information, the Internet also has access to data about us. Even unsophisticated observers could tell an interesting story if only they could view the surfing habits, the emails, the financial interactions, the purchases and the uploads and downloads over just a week.
Those who are watching us are hardly casual observers, though.
Companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo employ some of the most sophisticated data miners in the world to sift through our data and use it to direct ads, services and products to us. They sell us, and they make tens of billions of dollars by doing so. If I state in an email I am going to Savannah for a vacation, the next thing I find above my emails or alongside web pages are car rental prices in Georgia.
We tolerate this in return for free email, calendars, cloud storage and myriad other perks. This compact between Google and us requires an amount of trust on our part that few contemplate.
I am hardly a conspiracy theorist, but I harken back to the story of HAL, the computer that took over a manned spacecraft in 2001, A Space Odyssey. That movie captured our fear that IBM (just one letter up in the alphabet for each character in HAL) would someday monopolize information and control humans.
What I find interesting is that we are much more fearful our government may get our personal information that corporations already have.
Economists’ faith in markets is not unqualified. Economists abhor monopolies and strive to rebalance power. We are vulnerable when our institutions are all-powerful and we are powerless. We also want to preserve our privacy and our rights to our personal information.
The Eric Snowden affair has demonstrated that we are more comfortable when the upper hand belongs to Big Google rather than Big Government.
Snowden knowingly broke the law and he should suffer the consequences. A husband who speeds to get his pregnant wife to the hospital is more willing than most speeders to accept a fine in proportion to his potential harm to other drivers. He can at once be a noble husband and an ignoble speeder.
Snowden, too, should accept his responsibility, even if he is hailed as a hero to some. He exposed a government that told us it was doing one thing while it did another. Americans tolerate our government’s surveillance of non-citizens who would do us harm, but, since our founding fathers’ time, we’ve been wary of intrusive government. In fact, this mistrust has defined our people’s relationship with our leaders since Independence.
We may not be able to negotiate with institutions that accumulate our data, but we can insist on full and complete information. This is Snowden’s virtue. He revealed little or no information about any one of us but he told us a lot about government opacity.
Americans detest nothing more than condescension. When Jack Nicholson’s character said, “You can’t handle the truth,” we cheered, not because we can handle it, but because we believe in an unalienable democratic right to debate right and wrong among ourselves.
Transparency is necessary not for what we can do with the information but for what it prevents others from doing to us when they keep secrets from us. Clever government can work with us, not on us. If Google breaks the law, we can sue. We have little recourse against officials who bend the law in government’s favor. It does so with an immunity Eric Snowden does not have. Aye, there’s the rub.
Colin Read chairs the finance and economics faculty at SUNY Plattsburgh and has published a dozen books on global finance and economics.