Big Nanny is Watching You

When Joe Wurzelbacher had the misfortune of having Obama walk onto his front yard and solicit questions he discovered what the rest of us will all soon discover. 

The all-caring nanny state destroys privacy. That’s the thing about nannies: they always know what the children are up to.

Within 48 hours of Obama’s intrusion, information that the State held about Wurzelbacher hit the Net, all of it released by employees of the State. Multiple State agents, acting independently, each released a piece of information, that taken in isolation, meant little but in combination could be used to damn someone. It’s easy to see that this could happen to anyone.

This problem is inherent in the nature of government. When we set the State a task, no matter how well intentioned or widely supported, we grant it the power to collect and store the information needed to carry out that task. The more tasks we set for the State, the more information it must collect. Neither can we let the State keep such information secret. The public needs access to that information to determine if the State performed the task set for it or to determine if it abused its power. 

The amount of information that the State collects about ordinary people is staggering, especially if you integrate all the information held by different levels of government. If you took datamining tools to State databases, you could easily find out every place someone has lived, where they worked, how much money they made, what kind of vehicles they own, what kind of business they owned, etc., plus any information related to any court or tax matter. For people in business, tax information alone can be used to reconstruct a detailed map of their movements because business people have to document every expense. (How long before IRS employees start leaking information about people they do not like?)

People forget that the primary modality for control in a modern tyranny is not the secret police but rather fine-tuned control over people’s economic lives. In communist states especially, people are threatened by a loss of jobs, housing, education. If the individual proves resistant, the State threatens their relatives and friends. 

Something of the same system arose in the major cities of the Northeast during the early half of the 20th Century. A complex of machine politics, corrupt unions and the mob created an environment in which political patronage determined whether an individual could hold a job, have a house or get basic services from the government. It took a lot of illegal wiretaps to bring that complex down and many areas still suffer from the echos of it. 

The driest desert in the world lies in a snow covered plain nestled between two mountain ranges in the Antarctic. It receives only a centimeter or less of snow every year, yet the snow lies several hundred meters deep because the tiny amounts of snow that fall, never melt. 

The accretion of State power and the information the State holds, occurs in the same way. Each year we come up with some innocuous little program that we believe will do some good, and we tack it on top of the many, many layers of programs from previous years. At the same time, we rarely terminate any programs. After a few decades, all these little programs become a vast, encompassing, all-seeing web of surveillance, even though individually they seem like trivial intrusions. 

People who wet their pants because the NSA reads their international emails are worrying about the wrong part of government. The NSA can only know who you talked to overseas; the rest of government can peer into the totality of your life. 

As the case of Joe the Plumber shows, the databases don’t even have to be connected to be dangerous. Multiple corrupt State actors acting without coordination could dump your life story onto the internet in a matter of hours. 

So every time your support some new tax or power of the State, for example, using government records to enforce child support agreements, you surrender a little piece of your privacy. Eventually, like the snow in the Antarctic that never melts, these little pieces consume your privacy. 

Welcome to the fish bowl. Nanny loves you. 

8 thoughts on “Big Nanny is Watching You”

  1. Financial bailouts, New Deal, Great Society, the “Greening” of the American economy with no growth prosperity, etc. What can an American do without having the activity taxed, regulated or subsidized? We have lived in a “Nanny State” for at least seven decades. Unfortunately, no matter who wins the Presidential election on November 4th the social welfare state will grow bigger, more powerful and intrusive, and alot more expensive. The contest for what is leftover of democratic capitalism is between twittle-dee and twittle-dumb, and it looks like the latter has it.

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

  2. MsCassandra,

    Is there any place where things are better? What is to be done?

    I think the only thing we can do is try to fight the expansion of government power. We all need to break of the habit of thinking the government should enforce what we personally believe is right whether that involves economics, the environment or marriage.

    More long term, I think that history shows that government will expand continuously until it encounters competitive pressures or it loses the mechanism of power. Globalization will limit the ability of government to parasitize economic growth. The spread of the internet and international banking combined with the evolution of untaxable “black money” might reduce the power of government to tax and regulate.

  3. The phrase “nanny state” may be a somewhat misleading and dangerously comforting one. A human nanny always knew the kids personally, and usually had at least some feeling of affection for them. Neither of these conditions is true for government agencies.

  4. David Foster,

    The phrase “nanny state” may be a somewhat misleading and dangerously comforting one.

    That’s true but it also captures the danger in even well intended programs.

  5. You’d better be careful what you write, you never know who’s reading…..homegrown subversives don’t represent a nation and could be illegal combatants…….

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