Topic: Cato Publications

FTC Issues Groundhog Report on Privacy

The Federal Trade Commission issued a report today calling on companies “to adopt best privacy practices.” In related news, most people support airline safety… The report also “recommends that Congress consider enacting general privacy legislation, data security and breach notification legislation, and data broker legislation.”

This is regulatory cheerleading of the same kind our government’s all-purpose trade regulator put out a dozen years ago. In May of 2000, the FTC issued a report finding “that legislation is necessary to ensure further implementation of fair information practices online” and recommending a framework for such legislation. Congress did not act on that, and things are humming along today without top-down regulation of information practices on the Internet.

By “humming along,” I don’t mean that all privacy problems have been solved. (And they certainly wouldn’t have been solved if Congress had passed a law saying they should be.) “Humming along” means that ongoing push-and-pull among companies and consumers is defining the information practices that best serve consumers in all their needs, including privacy.

Congress won’t be enacting legislation this year, and there doesn’t seem to be any groundswell for new regulation in the next Congress, though President Obama’s reelection would leave him unencumbered by future elections and so inclined to indulge the pro-regulatory fantasies of his supporters.

The folks who want regulation of the Internet in the name of privacy should explain how they will do better than Congress did with credit reporting. In forty years of regulating credit bureaus, Congress has not come up with a system that satisfies consumer advocates’ demands. I detail that government failure in my recent Cato Policy Analysis, “Reputation under Regulation: The Fair Credit Reporting Act at 40 and Lessons for the Internet Privacy Debate.”

This Week at Libertarianism.org

This week at Libertarianism.org, we posted new videos on self-esteem and libertarianism, the morality of drug use, and separating school and state. The week also saw an essay from George H. Smith and blog posts on Charles Murray and Michael Sandel.

Nathaniel Branden on Self-Esteem and Libertarianism

Nathaniel Branden is a psychotherapist and writer known for being both the founder of the self-esteem movement in psychology and a former associate of Ayn Rand. In this lecture given at a Libertarian Party of California event in 2000, Branden talks about the connection between the workings of free-market capitalism, the self-esteem movement, and the Information Age. In his words, “entitlement robs people of the sense of self-reliance” and the self-esteem that comes with that sense of independence.

Jacob Sullum: In Defense of Drug Use

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and Reason.com and is a nationally syndicated columnist. In this lecture from a Libertarian Party of California event in 2000, Sullum goes beyond utilitarian arguments for repealing drug prohibition, saying that the nature of the act itself—using chemicals to alter one’s mental state—does not justify prohibition.

Sheldon Richman on Separating School and State

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman (a magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education), a senior fellow at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a research fellow at the Independent Institute. In this lecture from one of the Future of Freedom Foundation’s conferences in 1995, Richman describes the state of public education in modern America. He makes note of state education’s Spartan origins, and refers to Israel Kirzner’s work on entrepreneurship. Opening up public schools to competition, Richman says, would put the power to decide what and how their children learn back into parents’ hands.

Critics of State Education Part 2: The British Voluntaryists

With his new essay in his Excursions series, George H. Smith turns to the philosophy of Voluntaryism, discussing how its proponents fought against state control of education in the nineteenth century.

One important Voluntaryist was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a leading libertarian philosopher of his day. Although Spencer became an agnostic, he was home-schooled in Dissenting causes by his father and uncle. “Our family was essentially a dissenting family,” Spencer wrote in his Autobiography, “and dissent is an expression of antagonism to arbitrary control.” Much of Spencer’s first political article, written in his early twenties and published in The Nonconformist in 1842, was devoted to a critique of state education, and it possibly influenced the birth of the Voluntaryist movement in the following year.

Gary Gutting on Charles Murray’s Coming Apart

Jason Kuznicki, who reviewed Murray’s new book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 for Libertarianism.org back in February, looks at a critique of the book by Gary Gutting at the New York Times. Kuznicki writes,

It is, in short, a misreading to say that the message of the book is that poor people need to shape up.  Instead it’s a lot more nuanced: rich and poor people alike might do better, but right now the government works very hard to make sure that they can’t.

But he does think Gutting raises an interesting question about how much support the rich get from government.

Michael Sandel Thinks Markets Make Us Worse—But He Can Make Us Better

I take aim at an article the philosopher Michael Sandel wrote in The Atlantic on the moral limits of markets.

And here’s his first—of many—missteps. Because of course we did arrive at this condition through deliberate choice. Every item bought and every item sold in his preamble was bought and sold through deliberate choice on the part of those doing the buying and the selling. Sandel’s argument thus is not that there wasn’t any deliberate choice involved but that the deliberative chooser wasn’t who Sandel thinks it should’ve been—and the choices made weren’t what Sandel himself would’ve chosen.

National Surveillance Programs and Their State Impediments

Having originally come to Washington to defend federalism, I am always delighted to see the division of powers among the states and the federal government have its proper effect: to protect liberty and limited government.

As with REAL ID, the E-Verify federal background check system is meeting up with state resistance. The Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire reported yesterday:

This afternoon, the House passed HB 1549, which would prohibit the state’s participation in the E-Verify system, with a nearly unanimous voice vote. The House also killed HB 1492, which would require employers to verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the United States using the E-Verify System, with a 226-59 vote.

E-Verify is essentially a national identification system that requires employers to verify all job applicants’ citizenship in a national database system before they can employ them. If the state agreed to participate, all citizens would have to be listed in this national database as a U.S. citizen in order to get a job.

You want to fix immigration, feds? You do it without putting American citizens into a national ID system. Good message.

Here’s the clear language of HB 1549, which the New Hampshire House has approved to govern release of motor vehicle records. It embraces legitimate law enforcement while rejecting national identification schemes.

III. Motor vehicle records may be made available pursuant to a court order or in response to a request from a state, a political subdivision of a state, the federal government, or a law enforcement agency for use in official business. The request shall be on a case-by-case basis. Any records received pursuant to this paragraph shall not be further transferred or otherwise made available to any other person or listed entity not authorized under this paragraph. No records made available under this section shall be used, directly or indirectly, for any federal identification database. (New language in bold.)

To learn more about E-Verify and its role as a nascent national identification scheme, read my Cato Policy Analysis: “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

Ex-Im Shenanigans, cont’d

Kudos to Tim Carney, who has a great piece in the Washington Examiner today highlighting some of the politics and policy substance behind the fight over reauthorisation of the Ex-Im Bank.  It’s gratifying to see a journalist take a stand against outrageous corporate welfare. If only it were more common (I’m looking at you, New York “the bank is self-financing” Times).

My new paper on Ex-Im, in which I expand on this blog post from a few weeks ago, was released yesterday. You’ll find even more evidence –as if it were needed – of why the Ex-Im Bank, rubber stamped through Congress by both parties on behalf of their rent-seeking friends for almost 80 years, has got to go.

Hating the Rich, and Other Curiosities

Readers of Cato-at-Liberty should also check out our latest blog, Free Thoughts on Libertarianism.org. Lots of interesting stuff there.  Like Aaron Powell on “Why We Get Mad at (some kinds of) Rich People.” And Jonathan Blanks on “Black History and Liberty.” And Jason Kuznicki on NPR and Ayn Rand. And Aaron’s profound disappointment with Sam Harris’s latest book.

Not to mention, of course, an ever-increasing amount of other great material on Libertarianism.org, including

  • George Smith’s essays on libertarian ideas
  • “Exploring Liberty,” a series of original videos introducing libertarianism
  • the complete text of the classic journal Literature of Liberty
  • vintage, never-before-seen videos from people like Hayek, Friedman, Rothbard, and most recently David Kelley from 1991 on the faultlines in the Objectivist movement
  • essays on major libertarian figures from Lord Acton to Mary Wollstonecraft
  • and more!

The Government’s Surveillance-Security Fantasies

If two data points are enough to draw a trend line, the trend I’ve spotted is government seeking to use data mining where it doesn’t work.

A comment in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently argued that universities should start mining data about student behavior in order to thwart incipient on-campus violence.

Existing technology … offers universities an opportunity to gaze into their own crystal balls in an effort to prevent large-scale acts of violence on campus. To that end, universities must be prepared to use data mining to identify and mitigate the potential for tragedy.

No, it doesn’t. And no, they shouldn’t.

Jeff Jonas and I wrote in our 2006 Cato Policy Analysis, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” that data mining doesn’t have the capacity to predict rare events like terrorism or school shootings. The precursors of such events are not consistent the way, say, credit card fraud is.

Data mining for campus violence would produce many false leads while missing real events. The costs in dollars and privacy would not be rewarded by gains in security and safety.

The same is true of foreign uprisings. They have gross commonality—people rising up against their governments—but there will be no pattern in data from past events in, say, Egypt, that would predict how events will unfold in, say, China.

But an AP story on Military.com reports that various U.S. security and law enforcement agencies want to mine publicly available social media for evidence of forthcoming terror attacks and uprisings. The story is called “US Seeks to Mine Social Media to Predict Future.”

Gathering together social media content has privacy costs, even if each bit of data was released publicly online. And it certainly has dollar costs that could be quite substantial. But the benefits would be slim indeed.

I’m with the critics who worry about overreliance on technology rather than trained and experienced human analysts. Is it too much to think that the U.S. might have to respond to events carefully and thoughtfully as they unfold? People with cultural, historical, and linguistic knowledge seem far better suited to predicting and responding to events in their regions of focus than any algorithm.

There’s a dream, I suppose, that data mining can eliminate risk or make the future knowable. It can’t, and—the future is knowable in one sense—it won’t.

This Week at Libertarianism.org

Libertarianism.org keeps adding new stuff, so if you’re not a regular reader, now’s a great time to become one. This week we added the following: