Joe Barton, Meet Alessandro Acquisti

We were all very excited about the Facebook IPO last week (I guess), and Washington, D.C. wants to have its part in the action. This Politico article, “Facebook IPO Pits Privacy vs. Profits,” is a good illustration. It is the organs of government saying we are relevant, you know.

I was particularly intrigued by the comment of Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). He’s playing against type—if we’re still to believe that Republicans stand for limited government—where he’s quoted saying: “I believe in free market principles, but there are some things the market can’t put a price on because they lack a monetary value. Privacy is one of those things.”

Aha! Washington does have a role the market can’t provide.

Except that the observation isn’t valid. There are lots of things in markets that “lack a monetary value.” You don’t think that every dimension of every good and service has a price tag on it, do you? Markets still deliver these things through the decision-making of their participants.

Alessandro Acquisti at Carnegie Mellon University has been studying how consumers value privacy for years. Crucially, he’s been studying how they value privacy when confronted with real and simulated trade-offs. (What consumers and politicians say isn’t very informative.) He sometimes puts a price tag on privacy in his studies.

It’s often a low price. Consumers don’t value privacy as much as many of us would like. But markets do implicitly price privacy. You make a little bit more—not a lot—if you deliver privacy. You stand to lose—sometimes a lot—if you don’t protect privacy.

Stand down, Mr. Barton. Stand down, Washington, D.C. You are not relevant to the Facebook IPO. Free market principles suggest leaving markets free to serve consumers’ actual preferences as determined by market processes. This is the case whether you think of privacy as having a “monetary value” or not.