Viewpoint: Privacy, or the "Right to Know"?


We are being deluged with confusing and competing claims of alleged "rights", and as usual if we don't have clear-cut standards to decide between the claims, we are hopelessly at sea without a rudder. In particular, there is a host of competing claims about "the right to privacy" vs. the "right to know." For example, there is government wiretapping of private individuals; do they have the right of privacy or does the government, presumably as surrogate for the public, have the right to know? And if, as civil libertarians, we decide for privacy, then, counter the conservatives, what about Presidential documents or the Pentagon papers? Don't the President and his aides have the "right of confidentiality" overriding the public's right to know? And what of newsmen? Should they have the right to protect their sources, or may they be forced to spill the beans to appropriate arms of government? In the brief but intense flurry on behalf of the secretly plea bargaining Mr. Agnew, another newsman question was raised: the alleged sanctity of grand jury proceedings and the search for "leaks" vs. the right of a free press. And come to think of it, weren't the infamous "plumbers" simply "plugging leaks"? Privacy; freedom of the press; the right to know; where in the world do rights lie?

Libertarians are particularly well equipped to resolve questions of "rights"; for what we say is keep your eye on the rights of private property. The rights of private property must be kept sancrosanct. Given this, we can say quite flatly that no one has "the right to know" anyone else's private business; I might like to know what goes on behind my neighbor's closed doors, but neither I nor anyone else has the right to invade his domain by coercion to try to find out, whether it is myself as an individual, the press, the public, or the government. Ergo: all bugging, burglary, wiretapping, and opening of the mail are criminal invasions of private property and should be outlawed. So much for the governmental buggers. What about newsmen? The crucial point about newsmen and the press is that they are private citizens, and therefore their activities (if themselves not invasive) must not be interfered with, by any person or by any arm of government. The newsman should have the right to remain silent about his sources, and so also should a lawyer, a physician, an accountant, a psychiatrist, or anybody else. Even if I am merely an economist or just a private citizen, I should be able to keep silent about private communications from my friends or acquaintances. In short: extend the "privilege" and "shield" laws to everyone!

Private citizens, therefore, should have the right to be inviolate in their persons, their homes, and their properties. But doesn't the public have any "right to know?" Yes, they do, in one area only: the area of government and government officials. For government officials are not private citizens. They live off coerced tax money, and they have enormous powers of coercion over people at home and abroad. Government is inherently a massive agency for invasion of private property, and therefore government officials have not rights but duties, particularly duties to the long-suffering taxpayers to tell them what is going on.

In short, the public has a right to know everything about the affairs of government; for government officials, from the President and the Pentagon on down, there should be no right to privacy or confidentiality whatever. And so: no bugging and no compulsory testimony for private citizens; but strip our rulers bare. Subpoena or leak their papers, their tapes, their private conspiracy sessions, and so on. Subpoena and impeach! Let it be known henceforth that while private persons are inviolable, our governmental rulers are fair game.

But, you might be saying, this will terribly discourage anyone from assuming government office? Precisely!

Dr. Rothbard's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Tibor Machan and David Brudnoy.