I just finished reading Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. I really enjoyed (and was infuriated by) it. I was interested in the intrigue of the story of how Edward Snowden contacted Greenwald (and Laura Poitras) and delivered the material about the secret NSA programs of mass surveillance. But, even more than this, I appreciated Greenwald’s comments about privacy and the proper role of the press.

I wasn’t sure I would comment on it, until I saw this article about Judge Richard Posner’s comments about privacy and NSA data collection at a conference about privacy and cybercrime. From the article:

“I think privacy is actually overvalued,” Judge Richard Posner, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, said during a  conference about privacy and cybercrime in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

“Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct,” Posner added.  Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.”

Congress should limit the NSA’s use of the data it collects—for example, not giving information about minor crimes to law enforcement agencies—but it shouldn’t limit what information the NSA sweeps up and searches, Posner said. “If the NSA wants to vacuum all the trillions of bits of information that are crawling through the electronic worldwide networks, I think that’s fine,” he said.

In the name of national security, U.S. lawmakers should give the NSA “carte blanche,” Posner added. “Privacy interests should really have very little weight when you’re talking about national security,” he said. “The world is in an extremely turbulent state—very dangerous.”

Posner criticized mobile OS companies for enabling end-to-end encryption in their newest software. “I’m shocked at the thought that a company would be permitted to manufacture an electronic product that the government would not be able to search,” he said

This is awful stuff. I have a lot of respect for Posner’s contributions to Law and Economics, and I enjoyed many of his contributions to the Becker-Posner blog (until Gary Becker’s recent death). But, Posner’s complete deference to the state (at least, when they do things in the name of national security) and dismissal of the importance of privacy is very disappointing. Especially right after reading the Greenwald book. Greenwald has a great chapter called “The Harm of Surveillance” that everybody should read (especially Posner, it seems). There’s too much to quote (Read the book!), but one pair of sentences that really hit home for me was this:

“We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person.”

This is very true, both individually and in groups. We really do need to feel like we can have privacy in order to explore ideas and activities, alone or with others, without being observed by those we don’t want to share the experiences with.

Not because we’re trying to get away with bad things, but because we’re figuring things out; and that process is often inhibited by observation.

Perhaps this isn’t true for everybody. But it’s true for me. And, I suspect it’s true for the vast majority of people.

If you don’t like to talk about “rights” to privacy, then at least consider the possibility that a world where people can have privacy and private conversations (even if this occasionally facilitates crimes) is a better one than an alternative world where they can’t.

Adam Smith Is Still Relevant

Many people are familiar with Adam Smith from his “The Wealth of Nations” book (actually it’s: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) published in 1776 that basically gave birth to the field of economics (and contains the famous “Invisible Hand” quotation).

But, many fewer are familiar with his other classic work: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). I have it on my Kindle, and started to read it a few times, but I never got very far as it was more work than I was willing to do (the language is a bit dated and the sentences are long…).

Fortunately for all of us, Russ Roberts (host of the marvelous EconTalk podcast) has written a modern look at The Theory of Moral Sentiments with his latest: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. Roberts has done the heavy lifting for us and brought the work up to date with modern examples, reorganization, and elaborating on some of the key passages and ideas.

I can’t give a satisfactory summary in a short blog post, so I really encourage you to check out the book yourself if it has any interest to you. Just to give you an idea of the areas covered, here are some of the chapter titles:

  • How to Know Yourself
  • How to Be Happy
  • How Not to Fool Yourself
  • How to be Loved
  • How to be Lovely
  • How to be Good
  • How to Make the World a Better Place
  • How Not to Make the World a Better Place
  • How to Live in the Modern World

What struck me was just how similar human nature was in Smith’s day to what it is in ours and how easy it was to recognize the relevance of the insights that Smith made over 250 years ago (I’m sure some of the credit for this should go to Roberts).

I’ve got a lot of other things on my reading list, but this book may have given me the push I needed to go back and read The Theory of Moral Sentiments itself. Even if I don’t, I’m more familiar with its ideas than I would have been. I also might look at reading more of David Hume (a friend of Smith’s and another key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment)

Many of the ideas in the book were common (today, anyway), but some were new to me. I didn’t agree with everything Smith had to say, but I found the overall set of insights to be interesting and valuable and I now have a hightened and renewed respect for Adam Smith, the man. Perhaps you will too.