Database Nation

Declan McCullagh's "Database Nation" (June) reminded me of a slogan from Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil: "Information — Key to Prosperity." Both the film and his article observe how ideals such as personal liberty, dignity, and privacy interfere with the good life that society's institutions work hard to arrange for us. For McCullagh, viewing personal data as private property over which individuals should have control "chokes" the "engine" of the economy, which desperately needs data about our idiosyncratic behaviors in its fuel mixture. Gigantic cross-tabulations of personalized information become the latest high-performance additive to keep our economy tuned up and humming smoothly.

The general public, according to McCullagh, simply does not realize the degree to which its interests coincide with those of giant corporations. Why should citizens bother to protect their trivial personal data when they are among fellow legal entities? No need to obsess over the confidentiality of one's habits, hopes, and heartbreaks since, in the new economy, we are all family!

Talented MBAs from our principled corporations could rework this portion of McCullagh's message to have greater mass appeal, as a public service. Otherwise, silly neo-Luddites like Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman, and Theodore Roszak will go unchallenged. Technophobic ideas like theirs can only stand between us and the custom-packaged happiness each and every one of us deserves. The databases will find us deserving…won't they?

Raymond Lyons
Cleveland, OH

While the article "Database Nation" will predictably raise worries about Big Brother and George Orwell's 1984, perhaps a better point of reference is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. As Neil Postman made clear in his seminal Amusing Ourselves to Death, Orwell and Huxley had very different dystopian visions of the future.

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books," Postman wrote. "What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one….Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'"

For a libertarian to write a paean to the virtues of giving up the citizen's basic right to privacy in favor of the consumer's basic desire for convenience — to, in effect, embrace the excess, irrelevance, and triviality that Huxley warned about and which is inherent to any culture of consumption such as ours — makes me think that Huxley was right.

John Book
Newport Beach, CA

I got the June reason today, and that was indeed an impressive cover. I showed it to everyone at my local post office, and they were very impressed. One clerk said, "What's the name of that movie about the spy satellites?" "Enemy of the State?" The clerks wanted to snag the issue because they were excited about having their post office on the cover of a national magazine, but I insisted on keeping it.

Martin Morse Wooster
Silver Spring, MD

Your personalized cover shows several problems with the "Database Nation" that Declan McCullagh trumpets — what can go wrong when incorrect databases are merged or when supposedly correlating information is used to connect two records. The aerial shot supposedly showing my neighborhood instead shows a rural farming area about 40 miles north of me. The street names are similar, and I suppose a naive programmer could think that I and some other Lewis are one and the same. But good guesses are not enough when use of the databases spread throughout our lives can result in the denial of financing, medical coverage, or housing.

Many people are having trouble boarding airplanes because the CAPPS system identifies them as threats. And when information is wrong, it is often impossible to correct or to trace back to the source. Talk to someone who has tried to get a credit report fixed. In the meantime I'll be in my backyard, hoping the crop dusters have a better mapping system than you use.

David B. Lewis
Bearsville, NY

Objections to These Unions

Jonathan Rauch ("Objections to These Unions," June) eloquently addresses the conflict between the natural evolution of institutions and their fairness. Although he notes the importance of the separation of church and state as an argument for not relying on a religious definition of marriage, he does not follow its logic to a different sort of resolution: no state involvement in marriage at all.

Before the recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, one might reasonably have predicted that over time states would adopt Vermont-type civil union options for same-sex couples seeking marriage. Such unions would provide for common property, inheritance, next-of-kin status in medical care decisions, and the other legal benefits conferred by a state-recognized marriage. Advocates of same-sex marriage generally see the differential labeling as discriminatory — a "separate but equal" solution that speaks inequality. The court's rejection of this evolutionary solution, however, is forcing a constitutional battle over the marriage label. A resolution consistent with liberal principles is for states to forgo bestowing the label altogether: Let states provide civil union and others in civil society bless, recognize, or proclaim civil unions as marriages in accordance with their own values.

A liberal resolution sees the legal rights of marriage as being in the state sphere and the proper interpretation of the institution of marriage as being in the private sphere. Its implementation requires that state constitutions abolish the term marriage altogether, replacing it with civil union. Religions, gay rights groups, and other organizations would then be free to recognize all or some civil unions as they see fit. The state would provide equality under the law and people would be free to express their belief about the morality of same-sex marriage through free association.

David L. Weimer
Department of Political Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI

There are places where Hayek is even less conservative, and more liberal, than those passages cited by Jonathan Rauch. For instance, in "The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization," Hayek states, "We must recognize that even what we regard as good or beautiful is changeable, if not in any recognizable manner that could entitle us to take any kind of relativist position, yet in the sense that in many ways we do not know what will appear as good or beautiful to another generation."

Throughout this essay, Hayek makes the case for a wide-open social freedom based on the evolution of group mores. In this Hayekian universe, if there is a group that supports gay marriage, and if that group survives, then it is good. There is nothing in Hayek against subgroups advocating even radical social change. He is simply against government's forcing such changes.

In an ideal Hayekian world, there could be voluntaristic political entities that experimented with gay marriage and more controversial social changes. Perhaps state-level, as opposed to federal, decision making on such issues is the closest we can get at present.

Michael Strong
Angel Fire, NM