Government Snooping is Not the Same as Targeting Ads. And It is Much Worse.


Ayn Rand long understood something that more economistic, utilitarian, just-the-facts libertarian thinkers missed, to their detriment: that there is something weirder and darker underlying anti-liberty, anti-market sentiment than just a belief that the state makes life better. There is something in many people deeply and atavistically contemptuous and hateful about aspects of markets and commerce, and you can't evidence or reason people out of it.

A couple of cases in point in the public fooferaw over the recent return of NSA data harvesting to the news. (I wrote about it over three years ago in American Conservative.)

One, on the more serious end, is from Timothy Noah at MSNBC, making the (accurate) point that when government gets its hands on private information, it is often getting it from private businesses. (I made the same point in that American Conservative article.)

But the lesson is not that it is inherently bad that the private businesses gather it, or even use it to more intelligently target ad messages. Declan McCullagh wrote a fabulous Reason cover story of the pains and more interestingly of the pleasures of a world where that much information is easily gatherable about all of us in the more innocent age of 2004.

The real problem is indeed the problem we started with, that Noah fails to be successfully contrarian about: when government gets its hands on it and begins using it for purposes less benign toward we the people than better targeting ads (or selling it to others who want to use it for what tends to be ultimately that purpose: knowing you better to sell to you better.)

Noah, because government claims it is trying to protect us, seems far less worried about them having that information; government after all can only track us for the purpose of fining or arresting us, motives far purer than advertising and sales.

We know this attitude is bred deep in our culture because the same point–"why do we care if the NSA knows all these things about us, when Google already does?"–is the basis of this depressing Onion gag, "Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers."

It's depressing because with their generally infallible sense of where their audience is coming from and what they will think is funny and why, this particular cynical take of the Onion's will be all too readily picked up as a "what's all the fuss about?" fallback on the part of all the Obama fans and fellow travelers of the world who for whatever reason are angrier about someone trying to make a buck off of us (in a freely chosen transaction) than someone looking for reasons to arrest us (as long as they think there is a good reason and like the guy they think is in charge).

We indeed have less reason to be angry or worried about a company to whom we have given our information freely that might use it to target ads toward us (or sell it for that purpose) than we have to be angry or worried about a government, supposedly vowing to honor the Fourth Amendment in all its dealings, with the ability and desire to track us all all the time for the explicit purpose of restricting our abilities to communicate and act and with the power to arrest, fine, or kill us. (I was making this point back in 1999.) The worst part of living in a fishbowl is those actively trying to get hooks in us–and that isn't private business. Our relationship with them–unless government steps in–is one of choice, and freely chosen trade. Our relations with government are inherently coercive, and in recognition of its terrible powers it allegedly agreed with we the people in the Constitution to restrict its power to search us or or papers or effects unreasonably.

Yes, it is awful of those companies to give that information to this entity, the government, with that desire and power to surveill us in order to control us. But the government has ways of making them talk. And the government and its choices are still the cause of the bad part of that transaction.

I wrote of the weird obsession against commerce and its byproducts in our culture in 2007 in "Generation Dobler."

Ayn Rand's "money speech" from Atlas Shrugged, still a great analysis of contempt for commerce. (Contempt for ads is just a subset.)