Wendy McElroy: Privacy Is the Virtue That Sparked the American Revolution



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The Satoshi Revolution: A Revolution of Rising Expectations.
Section 2: The Moral Imperative of Privacy
Chapter 6: Privacy is a Prerequisite of Human Rights

Privacy is the Virtue that Sparked the American Revolution, Chapter 6, Segment 2

A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.

— Samuel Adams

Many people are under attack from an internal invader: their government. Fortunately, history reveals a powerful weapon against the invasion.

Privacy is the revolutionary virtue that caused American colonists to slam the door in the face of British officials, both literally and figuratively. The Third Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the then-widespread practice of quartering soldiers in private homes, even during peace time, without the consent of owners. The Amendment sounds antiquated to modern ears. But correction of this travesty’s violation of privacy and property was important enough for revolutionaries to rank third in the list of liberties declared by the Bill of Rights. It follows the First Amendment (freedom of speech and religion) and the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms.)

Why? Because the Third Amendment asserted the right of domestic privacy against government intrusion into the most personal of realms – the home. It is the only language in the Constitution that addresses the relationship of the individual to the military, in both war and peace, and it gives priority to the individual. As outmoded as the Amendment may seem, it takes no great leap to apply its underlying principle to the current wars conducted by militarized law enforcement against terrorism and on “treasonous” crimes, such as money laundering. The individual comes first.

The Fourth Amendment also champions privacy. It opens by defending “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In terms of crypto-privacy, the important word is “papers.” The reference can be easily extrapolated into the 21st century to cover emails and other computer data. Moreover, the disparate history of how the law has treated “papers” and “effects” reiterates the message of the Third Amendment. When it comes to “papers,” individual privacy prevails. That is, it has until recently.

The Fifth Amendment also asserts the right to privacy by delineating the right of an individual not to bear “witness against himself” in criminal cases.

Fifty-six colonists signed the Declaration of Independence. They knew it was an act of treason, which was punishable by death. If the revolution failed, they would lose their lives, their fortunes, and endanger their families. Even when it succeeded, some paid a terrible price. “Five signers were captured by the British and brutally tortured as traitors. Nine fought in the War for Independence and died from wounds or from hardships they suffered. Two lost their sons in the Continental Army. Another two had sons captured. At least a dozen of the fifty-six had their homes pillaged and burned.” That’s how important the signatories–now called Founding Fathers–viewed the principles of the revolution, including the virtue of privacy.

Privacy was a revolutionary virtue worth dying for.

[Note: this discussion focuses on the U.S., but the principles expressed easily cross national borders and cultures. Also, I do not whitewash the many abuses of the American Revolution; I do not dispute that Loyalists were also colonists; I mean merely to highlight the pivotal role of privacy in the Revolution’s dynamic.]

What a Difference a Word Makes

When government confiscates or surveils smart phones and computers, the purpose is to snatch private information from those devices. In 18th-century parlance, the government seizes your “papers.” Compliant citizens obediently surrender the information on those devices; some even defend the intrusion on the grounds of “security.” Such people have every right to do so; it is their personal information to share or not. But they have no right whatsoever to require anyone else to comply with invasive laws and bureaucrats; they are morally wrong to demonize those who choose not to share. Yet those who say “no” to the gang rape of their privacy are literally treated as criminals.

Happily, history exists. Its invaluable lesson: things were not always this way, and it does not have to be this way now.

The world is experiencing what has…

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