Maybe I Do Have Something to Hide

The single most common, and most annoying, argument offered in defense of the democratic totalitarian surveillance state must be, "If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide." This rhetorical argument has been around for generations, is used the world over, and is offered with equal boldness by progressives and conservatives alike.

There is only one small problem with this ubiquitous argument for coerced transparency: it's a load of baloney. More specifically, it is utterly unsound, both logically and morally.

As a logical matter, the argument as routinely stated is merely a major premise, leaving the hearer to supply the minor premise and draw his own conclusion. The argument, spelled out explicitly, would look like this:

One who hasn't done anything wrong has nothing to hide.
You haven't done anything wrong.
Therefore, you have nothing to hide.

The argument is meant as a kind of moral intimidation. The hearer is put in the position of incriminating himself by demanding his privacy, since this suggests that he has "something to hide," implying that he must have done something wrong. Sometimes only the conclusion of the argument is explicitly stated, thus: "I have nothing to hide." This version is even more directly accusatory, as it functions as a moral grenade tossed into the mind of one's opponent. As soon as the full implicit argument develops in the hearer's mind, his case for privacy is exploded in a burst of moral inferiority: "I must have done something wrong, or else why do I think I have something to hide?"

This argument, however framed, is pure sophistry, built on equivocation and deliberate ambiguity. Specifically, the major premise, if properly explicated, reveals itself as simply false: it is patently untrue that people who have done nothing wrong necessarily have nothing to hide. Furthermore, it is a classic example of one of the most aggravating (and successful) sophistical techniques, namely shifting the terms of the argument, so that we are no longer trying to prove what actually needs to be proven. In this case, we have shifted the burden of justification from the intrusive government to the rights-bearing individual, as though it were the individual's responsibility to justify not having his life laid open to the state. ("What's the problem? Do you have something to hide?")

Let's unpack this famous sophistry, and see how insidious it really is, and how contrary to the spirit of human freedom.

"One who hasn't done anything wrong has nothing to hide." The trickery begins with the major term, "has nothing to hide." Hide from whom? This question -- deliberately left unanswered -- makes all the difference. The unstated answer to this question is the sleight of hand on which the argument depends for its effectiveness. We instinctively think of secrecy as a suspicious practice, and "feel" that hiding something is inherently questionable, and in need of a justification. Anthony Weiner has something to hide. Should I?

But this sense of moral self-doubt would be greatly diminished if it were openly stipulated that it is the government from whom we are being said to have "nothing to hide," assuming that we are not doing anything wrong. For then the premise, rather than carrying the moral weight of an accusation, would instead sound like what it actually is, namely a direct assertion of governmental authority over any and all aspects of our lives.

"One who hasn't done anything wrong has nothing to hide from the government." Here, having clarified the argument's deliberate ambiguity, we immediately run up against the obvious next question elicited by this premise: "Do we have nothing to hide from any government, or does this statement only apply to a just and legitimate government?" Everything depends on the answer to this question, for if the statement applies to any government at all, then it is nothing but a veiled declaration that might makes right. If, on the other hand, the statement is intended to apply only to a just and legitimate government -- "If you haven't done anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide from a just and legitimate government" -- then the entire argument is revealed as vacuous, since the justice and legitimacy of a government that demands authority to collect your private communications and personal data is precisely what this argument is intended to establish, and has no right to assume without proof. As Groucho Marx said that he wouldn't join a club that would have him as a member, so we might ask whether we ought to be willing to reveal everything about our lives to a "just and legitimate" government that would claim the authority to know everything about our lives.

This leads us to the broader moral tendentiousness of this popular sophistry about having nothing to hide. This nonsensical argument only carries any plausibility at all if we confine ourselves to the realm of innocuous activities bearing no relation to our political existence. (Although I do not see why we should be comfortable with the government knowing how often we call our mothers or visit our doctors.)

Where the argument breaks down entirely, however, is in relation to our lives as members of a political community. How might I have something to hide, without this implying that I have "done something wrong"? If a criminal breaks into my home and demands to know where I keep my valuables, am I obliged to tell him? Am I "doing something wrong" by wishing to conceal such information?

More to the point, if I believe that powerful political entities are violating basic rights, encroaching upon natural freedom to a legitimacy-threatening degree, or otherwise demonstrating symptoms of fundamental injustice in practice and intention, am I "doing something wrong" if I communicate privately with others about how best to resist or counter the unjust expansion of state power? Am I doing something wrong if I make an effort to avoid revealing my full thoughts and intentions to such dangerous and untrustworthy authorities?

Was Miep Gies doing something wrong when she hid Anne Frank and others in an attic in an effort to save them from the Nazi regime? Should she have invited the SS to search the premises? After all, "If she hadn't done anything wrong, she had nothing to hide." Were the representatives of the American colonies at the First Continental Congress wrong to meet in secret to discuss a response to the Intolerable Acts? Should they have allowed representatives of the British government to attend the meetings, take notes, and collect the names and correspondence of all those in attendance? After all, "One who hasn't done anything wrong has nothing to hide."

You see, looked at from the presumption of individual liberty, rather than the presumption of state authority, "I have nothing to hide" appears as what it really is -- the delusional rationalization of the submissive subject, equivalent to the failing student's false bravado in telling his friends, "I don't care if I get an F." Knowing he is going to be subjected to unwarranted surveillance whether he likes it or not, the submissive subject decides to preserve some simulacrum of his pride by pretending he likes it.

So let us begin again from the correct starting point, rejecting once and for all the sophistical hokum of "If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide." If you have a governing authority claiming illegitimate powers, unjustly demanding control over aspects of human life that rational, free individuals would never willingly relinquish to collective coercive authority -- that is, if you live anywhere on Earth right now -- you know, or ought to know, that "having something to hide" is a vital part of your political existence, and a small remaining pocket of your natural freedom, to be cherished and protected.

This pocket of freedom is not merely the domain of anti-government activists. On a daily, practical basis, it is the realm of the oppressed individual's legitimate pride, the part of him that remains inaccessible to "the authorities." His private life -- his work and social interaction that remains beyond the reach of any government database -- provides him the saving grace of knowing there is still a sense in which he owns himself. What he therefore gives up by finally accepting the sophistry that he "has nothing to hide" is more essential than any particular piece of information or pattern of behavior that the government's data collection might reveal.

Furthermore, accepting in principle that you have nothing to hide from the government may allow you to salvage your dignity when that government is not (apparently) inclined to abuse its intrusive powers. What will you do, having made this concession in principle (and in law), if and when a governing authority does indeed seek to gain illegitimate political advantage from its intrusive capabilities? (Provide your own examples.) The brilliantly conceived and hard-won reality of limited government was intended precisely to avoid the consequences of such short-sighted decisions.

And if, looking at the situation from the other side, you were part of a vast regulatory authority with powers unjustified by any political or moral theory based on reason and individualism, and you wished to expand and perpetuate that authority, your greatest problem and fear would be all those crevices in social existence into which you could not peer, blind spots where men may be developing a counterargument, forging a mass resistance, or forming strategic alliances against you. You would crave means of shining a light into all those dark places, creating both practical and psychological barriers to private correspondence, planning, or organization. The secret of all modern "secret police" is that they are not a secret. The awareness of their existence, and the well-disseminated rumors of their omnipresent tendrils, greatly enhances their actual social effect.

In short, you would crave universal surveillance capabilities, whether real or perceived. And you could never achieve any such general intrusiveness without the assistance of your victims. You would need them to intimidate themselves into compliance with pseudo-arguments that appear to justify the intrusiveness by marginalizing those who resist as people of dubious morality. "If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide."

The tyrant's best friend -- the most trustworthy friend in his fear-based existence -- is a passive, submissive population: a population that has ceased to hold its private essence in reserve, that can no longer see why in the world men should care so much about whether their correspondence is being monitored or registered by the government, that has forgotten how the ability to conduct their affairs without the state's omniscient awareness might become more than a dispensable luxury.

We have created a civilization in which the government's "need to know" seems to trump all other considerations. From progressive taxation to entitlement programs to socialized medicine, national security and even local policing, late modernity has woven a web of "legitimate" excuses for the state to know our finances, our behavior, our health condition, our patterns of correspondence, and on and on. Try denying any of this "personal information" to the state and find out who belongs to whom.

As if we haven't done enough, collectively, to emasculate ourselves, we now have the humiliation of hearing our friends, our associates, or even perhaps ourselves, handing what little is left of our independent existence over to the state with a casual "I have nothing to hide." Our practical capacity to resist unjust government -- our ability to talk about such a problem quietly amongst ourselves -- is being poured away with the false bravado of the failing student, "We don't care if we get an F."

Well, that's a good thing, because we did.

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