Enlightened Capitalism

Essays about how to harness people's natural desire to create wealth and improve their quality of life to solve global problems such as war and poverty.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Privacy & Trust

On my recent flight from JFK to Long Beach, in the middle of reading Viktor Frankl's account of life in Auschwitz (Man's Search for Meaning), I used the restroom on the plane, and noticed that in the bathroom mirror I could watch myself urinate (yet another advantage of flying JetBlue). This took on a strange significance in the context of that book.

There is nothing inherently shameful about urination. It is a natural, healthy act that everyone performs several times a day, and yet we rarely ever see anyone else do it -- or even ourselves, unless there happens to be a low mirror in the bathroom. What struck me was how we connect our dignity with our ability to hide certain things from others -- something concentration camp prisoners were deprived of.

It is interesting to me how certain people in nudist colonies, or in public showers, strut about as if fully clothed, where others are ashamed and never fully comfortable being seen naked. This bashfulness doesn't seem to correlate with beauty or lack thereof, but rather is determined by one's expectations of how other people will use the information. It is all about trust.

Privacy is desired to the extent trust is lacking.

Imagine this scenario. The mayor of Compton announces, "We are tired of drugs and gun violence in Compton. Starting tomorrow, we are going to search every house, building, and vehicle, and confiscate any contraband or unregistered firearms. That will keep our streets safe."

Of course, everyone would freak out. But why? Because the people don't trust the government. After all, we have Hitler and Stalin and Mao to worry about. It's too easy for the government to oppress the people and get away with it.

So, how about making the government more accountable? Here's my proposal. Make the government a reality television show. Cameras and microphones in every room, every car, following every elected official around 24/7. Then we could keep track of them and make sure they weren't doing anything illegal or unethical.

Of course, the elected officials would object. Why? Because they don't trust the people with that information. OK, it could get a bit disruptive. How about publish it 2 years later, edited of anything irrelevant to the official's public duty. (Have the decision about relevance made by a panel comprised equally of all political parties and some independent judges.)

This publication delay would allow politicians to continue about their business without constant immediate debate on Oprah, but would still cut their careers short if the reality of what they were doing strayed too much from the appearance (sorry, Nixon, and Clinton, and Reagan...). Campaign promises would take on greater significance, because we could all watch the moment when they changed their minds.

Subjecting the government to this level of transparency would dramatically increase the people's trust. Hitler and Stalin and Mao, and all their cronies, would have been exposed for what they were, and their evil plans would have been nipped in the bud.


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