Re: Brin on Privacy

Robin Hanson (
Fri, 13 Dec 1996 10:42:17 -0800 (PST)

David Brin writes:
>I'll make it simple, Hal. Name a free society, any time, anywhere, in
>humanity's history. Rank them in order. I'll show you that the
>correlative factor was nearly always how well people could hold their
>leaders accountable, while personal secrecy varied according to culture and
>technology, almost at right angles to freedom.

If personal secrecy can vary independently of both freedom and the
accountability of leaders, then you shouldn't object to improved
personal secrecy on the grounds that it will threaten our freedom.
You could so object if you thought that leader accountability is
negatively correlated with personal secrecy, but then these two
just couldn't have correlations of near 1 and 0 with freedom. The
math just doesn't work.

>Scandinavians, for
>instance, have high freedom, high courtesy, low nosiness... and rather low
>degrees of personal secrecy. Any citizen can look up a lot of info about
>his/her neighbors. Nudity is common, etc. things were much the same in
>the oldest democracy, Iceland.
>In fact, there were renaissances in which personal secrecy was almost
>nonexistent. The golden age of Athens featured a democracy without even
>the secret ballot. Everyone knew everyone else's dirty laundry. It was
>very imperfect, yet they were free compared to all that came before them.
>... the American Revolution is the ultimate paramount example of MY
>correlation! It was a revolution about accountability. About setting
>up the world's first system in which the mighty were effectively
>exposed to light and prevented from conspiring against the masses.
>Of the five dangerous power centers in the world today, government,
>aristo-oligarchies, criminals, religions and the techno elite, you ONLY
>talk about government! The tools of secrecy you tout will help the other
>four to conspire... and by human nature, they certainly will.

This discussion has suffered from excessive abstraction, so lets focus
on concrete examples such as these, and use the most concrete terms

"Accountability" encompases many things. In a democracy, it includes
how often leaders are elected, who is eligible to be a leader, how
severe the punishments for public disapproval are, ease of idenfitying
who was responsible for any given policy, etc. What David focuses on
is one factor which can improve accountability: what I'll call
"fish-bowl leaders", the ability to watch many aspects of such
leader's lives. And David is concerned about all people with power,
not just government officials.

Since I think most people are willing to put their political leaders
in a fish-bowl, the main issue here regards non-political leaders. So
we need to ask: in familiar historical examples, how well does citizen
well-being (hopefully related to "freedom") correlate with fish-bowl
non-political leaders? Did Athenian or American Revolutionary
religious, aristocratic, and business leaders live in fish-bowls, for

A central issue here is how carefully could we draw certain lines. If
we could draw a line so that leaders of all sorts had to live in
fish-bowls, but the rest of us didn't, that might satisfy most sides.
But if we can't draw this line, how can we be so sure we can draw
lines so as to allow military leaders just enough privacy to keep
military secrets, trade negoatiation leaders just enough privacy to
keep negotiation strategies secret, etc? Again the question comes
down to: what are our real choices regarding privacy?

Robin D. Hanson