The ‘Communitarian’ Defense of Strip-Search Machines

What’s most interesting about Amitai Etzioni’s defense of airport strip-search machines is how rootless his approach to privacy problems is.

[O]ur public-policy decisions must balance two core values: Our commitment to individual rights and our commitment to the common good. Neither is a priori privileged. Thus, when threatened by the lethal SARS virus, we demanded that contagious people stay home—even though this limited their freedom to assemble and travel—because the contribution to the common good was high and the intrusion limited. Yet we banned the trading of medical records because these trades constituted a severe intrusion, but had no socially redeeming merit.

I disagree with this formulation, and I don’t know that he has accurately depicted the law on ”trade” in medical records or the merits on that question. But more important here: these value-balancing precedents don’t guide his analysis of strip-search machines. Rather, he just concludes in favor of them using his own assessment of “the common good.”

At least Etzioni is consistent. I wrote in my 2005 Privacilla.org review of his book, The Limits of Privacy: “[T]he book amounts to little more than bare assertion—one man’s argument—that privacy is not as important as other things. The argument appears unrooted in anything more than Etzioni’s opinions. “

We have a long tradition of protecting individual rights. And we have processes for discovering the common good, such as markets, in which individual preferences agglomerate to sort it out for us. On the rare occassions when markets fail, political legislation and regulation may be a necessary substitute for natural processes. Somewhere quite a bit further down the list falls the technique “ask Amitai Etzioni.”