Friday, December 14, 2012

BATTLE: Block-Gordon vs. Rozeff

There's a blog battle over at LRC between Michael Rozeff on one side and  Walter Block and David Gordon on the other.

The battle started with a post from Rozeff on privacy. He writes:
An item about surveillance of conversations in buses has again raised my concern about the vanishing of privacy in America. I view this disappearance and transformation of life into a Kafka-esque world as an extremely serious problem. Privacy is absolutely essential to a person, to normal functioning, to personal interactions with others, to social cooperation with others, and to a proper relation between each American and the governments ruling them. Government officials and bureaucrats, in the name of security or policing, are routinely undermining privacy. The tendency of State officials and bureaucrats to extend and expand the powers of State is fully evident in the case of destroying privacy.
One effect of undermining privacy is to suppress free speech. It makes the person afraid or reluctant to speak for fear that at some undetermined future time , his actions or statements will be used against him. They can be misconstrued. They can be taken out of context. He can be forced to defend himself, and that's costly. He may be subject to a police inquiry or invasion whereby his belongings are seized and his whole life disrupted. The State's powers turned against a person in this way are enormous.
It appears that Rozeff is discussing only government intrusions into people's live, but this is implied rather than stated outright. To the degree he argues that government encroachments on privacy interfere with "normal functioning" of individuals, he is correct. With ever present monitoring of individuals by the state, a degree of self-monitoring by individuals kicks in, so that they do not say or do things in front of the cameras and other monitoring equipment that might result in problems for themselves down the road. It is a type of mental prison. The more pervasive such monitoring is, the greater the mental pressure to self-censor words and actions. It is a terrible way to live.

From this start, Rozeff then goes on a peculiar attack of Murray Rothbard's views on privacy. He quotes from Rothbard's book, The Ethics of Liberty.

Now, what is curious about pulling a quote from TEL is that in TEL Rothbard is arguing for the end of the state. In the book, he finds no use for the state. He calls the state, "the most  extensive in society." Thus, it is difficult to understand Rozeff's attack on Rothbard from this perspective. If Rothbard hates the state and everything it stands for, he is surely not going to be in favor of surveillance of the people by the state.

Rozeff seems to even understand this defense against government invasions of privacy:
Those who are anti-state anarchists can say that the existence of the State itself is at the root of the government's privacy intrusions. Get rid of the State and the privacy problem diminishes drastically.    
This is true, but the State is with us now and it is attacking us on the privacy front.
But, again, Rothbard's book is anti-state and about what a libertarian society might look like, not about any specific time period where a non-libertarian society existed.  Thus, Rozeff's qualifier, "the State is with us now," does not apply to Rothbard's book.

A second peculiarity is the Rothbard quote chosen by Rozeff:
"...there is no such thing as a right to privacy except the right to protect one’s property from invasion."
Rothbard in TEL at this point is not even discussing privacy in the sense of a surveillance state, but rather whether a person should be allowed to publish a secret about another person. Rothbard argues "yes," and in this context makes the statement that "there is no such thing as a right to privacy."

This is how Rothbard leads into the above quote that Rozeff prints:
OUR THEORY OF PROPERTY rights can be used to unravel a tangled skein of complex problems revolving around questions of knowledge, true and false, and the dissemination of that knowledge. Does Smith, for example, have the right (again, we are concerned about his right, not the morality or esthetics of his exercising that right) to print and disseminate the statement that “Jones is a liar” or that “Jones is a convicted thief” or that “Jones is a homosexual”? 
Later, Rothbard discusses his view of the full spectrum of the problems with a "right to privacy" perspective in a libertarian non-state society.
The only right “to privacy” is the right to protect one’s property from being invaded by someone else. In brief, no one has the right to burgle someone else’s home, or to wiretap someone’s phone lines. Wiretapping is properly a crime not because of some vague and woolly “invasion of a ‘right to privacy’,” but because it is an invasion of the property right of the person being wiretapped.
Block, in his post, attempts to bring the Rothbard view into the post-Rothbard era of cell phones, emails, etc. and discusses what privacy might mean in a libertarian society, with private police: invasive act is surely one of trespass. So, it all depends upon how the private police monitor conversations, read e-mails, tap cellphone conversations, or eavesdrop. If they do so while or by trespassing on private property, it would be illegitimate; but if they do so without such nefarious activities, then they are entirely justified. In the free or libertarian society, presumably, private firms would compete with each other so as to provide for their customers defenses against anyone else monitoring conversations, reading e-mails, tapping cellphone conversations, or eavesdropping. We would have a technological “war,” in effect. The private police would attempt to avail themselves of “offensive” weapons destroying privacy, while individuals who want to keep their secrets, well, secret, would try adopt “defensive” modalities in order to curtail such initiatives.
How libertarian law would apply in the modern era needs more discussion. Block's points are relevant, however, it might be argued that the creator of a cell phone conversation might own possession of such a conversation, since via the non-aggression principle, there is no aggression taking place when the cellphone conversation "particles" are created and thus what is created by a person should belong to that person. It can't be taken from him by hands grabbing it or a monitoring device grabbing it. The same applies for emails and text messages.

Back to Rozeff. From a different angle, in 79 words, Gordon appears to put the final kibosh on the Rozeff attack on Rothbard:
Michael Rozeff's criticism of Murray Rothbard is odd. He says that Murray offers no defense of privacy, but Murray is arguing that we don't have such a right. Rozeff gives no defense for saying that we do, other than to say he considers privacy a personal and social good. Surely there are many goods, e.g., a high income, that we don't have a right to; why is there a right to privacy? As Rand would say, blank out.


  1. Interesting discussion. It is always fun to read Mr. Wenzel on IP related topics though I was underwhelmed by his suggestion that "it might be argued that the creator of a cell phone conversation might own possession of such a conversation, since via the non-aggression principle, there is no aggression taking place when the cellphone conversation "particles" are created and thus what is created by a person should belong to that person."

    Block's discussion of Rozeff would seem to apply with slight adjustment. "If there were any such (right of ownership) then people would be obligated to go around with their eyes almost entirely shut. They would have to look down at their feet at all times, lest they inadvertently see something that interferes with someone else’s right to privacy(ownership). And not only that. They would also shut down their other senses too, such as smell, hearing, etc., out of fear they would, again, learn someone about someone else that the other person wanted to keep secret."

    To be crude, under Wenzel's suggestion I not only dealt and smelt it but I also own it? No thanks.

    1. You missed Wenzel's point. "If they do so while or by trespassing on private property, it would be illegitimate; but if they do so without such nefarious activities, then they are entirely justified."

      Erego, if you are out talking in public, broadcasting your conversation. Too bad for you. It is not the responsibility of others to avoid coming across information that you broadcast publicly, it is only the responsibility of others to not trespass to illicitly acquire your information.

  2. Interesting discussion indeed. I wish LRC would allow comments. Any idea why they don't?

    Bob makes an interesting point about ownership rights for electronic signals. I think libertarian theory is lagging behind on that one. For example, the trespass to chattels doctrine has been used by the courts to fight spam and unauthorized server usage. So I wonder, is there a libertarian case against spam? What about distributed denial of service attacks? What about eavesdropping on a VoIP conversation at a third party router? We could say that many of such situations could be covered by the contracts in place, but what if there is no contract?

    1. He would want them moderated and that would require the full-time attention of someone.

  3. Protection of electronic signals from wiretapping with encryption is easy and well-understood; in fact it is only government regulation which keeps our cellphone conversations accessible to the snoops. In the Internet world, SSL/TLS is widely deployed, though many website operators prefer not to enable it to save some money. Others offer the capability, but don't advertise it. Push them to make HTTPS the default choice... so that the snoops will have no ability to focus on sensitive exchanges.

  4. Fascinating! Rozeff makes really good points about the importance of privacy, and Block makes excellent points about how privacy works in the free society.

    I am surprised by Rozeff’s taking Rothbard out of context- he must have been in a rush or going by memory.