Shifting mindsets

By Lisa S. Dean
web posted March 6, 2000

The February 21st issue of Time magazine ran a story by David Gelertner entitled "Will We Have Any Privacy Left?" In the article the author paints a rather accurate, yet bleak, picture of satellites tracking our every move, computers responding to our demands (provided we proved our identity via biometric identifier and password beforehand) and all of our personal information being available in one location to be accessed by anyone if those in charge don't take care to protect it.

The picture Gelertner painted was rather accurate, not only of the future but of the present. However, the conclusion that he drew is vastly different from the one which I have drawn. The author claimed that while technology makes real the ability for friends and neighbors to seek out and reveal your dirty laundry or spy on your every move, it just won't happen in the future because morality will prevail. We as a people will understand that eavesdropping on one another is wrong and preserving one another's dignity is right and that morality will govern our behavior. And that alone will have a much greater effect on privacy than any law, regulation or judicial ruling could.

In theory he's correct. Laws protecting our privacy have had little effect thus far. The few judicial rulings that favored privacy have often been overturned on appeal and certainly the regulations made over the last decade or so have benefited us very little with respect to privacy. And largely Americans are honorable people with high standards with regard to decency toward their fellow man. So far Gelernter is correct.

But unfortunately that is beginning to change. Our Founding Fathers constructed our Constitution in such a way that emphasized trust in one another and distrust in the government - a rather radical concept today. The desired outcome of such a construct would be that the citizens would protect themselves and one another by not allowing government to gain more power than it was due. The citizens would keep watch over their government and elected leaders to ensure that government remained limited and that would ensure the protection of their rights and liberties.

Slowly but surely over the past few decades, we have seen the mind set of the American people change. The traditional American view of hard work and self-sufficiency has been replaced by the so-called "welfare mentality" where it becomes the job and responsibility of government to correct the problems of citizens rather than citizens taking that responsibility themselves. That mentality, in effect, gave the government license to expand its power and authority to do what it wished. The people "needed" it to solve their problems.

Even the traditional morality based on Judeo-Christian belief has changed in America. Under the "old morality", the author would be correct in his outcome, but sadly, that morality is largely becoming unfamiliar to the average American. If government is responsible for taking care and solving people's problems, then people begin to see government and not their neighbor, as their friend, the one they trust, even their earthly savior, essentially the reverse mind set that the Founding Fathers had intended. This has led to the current situation that is increasingly prevalent throughout the country - turning in one's neighbor when they break the laws established by the government. During last summer's drought, the state of Maryland declared a drought emergency and restricted the citizens' use of water. Washing cars and watering lawns were forbidden. The state provided an 800 number for citizens who needed to report problems they were having. Shortly after the 800 number was established, the state of Maryland reported that it was mostly being used by citizens to report their neighbors for violating the laws and using the water for forbidden purposes.

Currently in the state of Massachusetts citizens are calling their state and local law enforcement agencies to report their neighbors for hollering or losing their tempers and so forth and their reason for concern? Those same neighbors happen to own guns - legal guns, mind you. Law enforcement agencies are responding by going to the scenes where the alleged temper tantrums are taking place and confiscating those citizens' guns. What is happening here? I'll tell you what's happening. The "new morality" states that its morally right and justifiable for you to turn in your neighbors and friends and perhaps even relatives to the government when you see them violating a law or aren't wearing smiles on their faces 24 hours a day. After all, if they aren't smiling, they must be mentally unbalanced. Under the "old morality" that Gelernter referred to, neighbors would mind their own business or approach the violator and personally ask him to obey the law but they would never turn him in to the government! On top of all that, the same "new morality" is not only changing people's attitudes toward their fellow citizens, but toward their God-given rights as well. The attitude that "we need to give up more of our privacy to ensure our security" is becoming quite a popular saying these days. The Clinton Administration has long been saying it. The media picked it up and now it is rolling off the tongues of more and more Americans. We need to give up our rights in order for the government to give us more protection.

So the bottom line is if David Gelernter is referring in his article to the "new morality", his conclusion is right on, but if he's referring to the "old morality" that this country was founded upon, then with all due respect to him, he's way off.

Lisa Dean is vice president of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Technology Policy.

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