PRIVACY….Whenever I talk about the underlying principles that should guide liberals, as I did a couple of days ago, one of the ideas that always pops up is privacy rights. In fact, it comes up so often that it strikes me that we’re missing a bet by not making a bigger deal out of it.

There are two different senses in which people talk about “privacy” these days:

  • Privacy in the traditional Roe v. Wade or Lawrence v. Texas sense. That is, the right to be left alone to do what we want with our own bodies, as well as the right to be left alone to do what we want in our own bedrooms. Liberals are already comfortable with advocating privacy in this sense, but we do a lousy job of selling it as a general principle. Instead, we mostly approach it as a grab bag of specific issues like abortion rights, gay rights, the right to read and watch what we want, and so forth. As an overarching concept to sell to the masses, we don’t do so well.

  • Then there’s privacy in the sense of being free from surveillance. This is a newer concern, and revolves around corporate databases of personal information, identity theft, computer spyware, access to medical records, and government programs like Total Information Awareness and no-fly lists. This is a newer concern, and so far it’s up for grabs by either party.

Liberals would be wise to start making these issues their own. The case for privacy definition #1 is obvious, since it’s the cornerstone of several existing liberal hot buttons already. The case for privacy definition #2 is less obvious, but is more likely to be embraced by liberals than conservatives since it inherently embraces both corporate regulation as well as restrictions on the police power of the government.

To repeat what I said in my previous post, I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how to approach this. I’m just tossing out ideas and inviting comments. But this issue comes up so often, resonates so strongly, and provides such fertile ground for justifying a wide range of liberal policy issues, that it seems like something we ought to jump on. If we own it first, conservatives will be playing catchup a decade from now.

UPDATE: What exactly is privacy? It’s both a strength and a weakness of the concept that it encompasses so many different things ? and, like anything else, can also be stretched so far as to become meaningless. More thoughts here if you’re interested in reading a rigorous approach to this problem.

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