May 12, 2020 Reading Time: 13 minutes

The coronavirus crisis has, once more, reminded us all of how much we live in an interdependent world in which what happens in one part of the globe has serious impacts in many other places, and how each of our own actions potentially have implications and importance for the well-being of multitudes of others around us, both near and far. The question is, what societal arrangement is most likely to effectively and successfully assure cooperative coordination of all that we are doing? 

Dr. Diane Coyle, professor of economics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, believes that the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the need for greater politically organized collective action, both in the current crisis and looking ahead. She argues in, “Covid-19 and the End of Individualism,” that the market economy has met its match, and political paternalism in the forms of regulation and control is needed in its place, more than ever. 

However, some of us would reply that it is precisely because of our mutual interconnectedness in a global division of labor and exactly because each of our individual actions have influences on the well-being of others that we need to utilize a system of open, competitive markets even more than before to overcome the personal and societal effects from the coronavirus. 

Social Interdependency and Government Big Data Collection

The dramatic decline in overall production around the world, along with the accompanying massive rise in unemployment almost everywhere shows, Dr. Coyle says, that Adam Smith was right that the division of labor has the capacity of making all participants better off. But the interdependency of specialization highlights that “what affects some parts substantially affects the whole. This web of linkages is therefore a vulnerability when disrupted.” 

Modern technologies have intensified the possibilities of spillover effects, she says, because of the “sophisticated logistical networks and just-in-time supply chains. The very nature of the digital economy means that each of our individual choices will affect many other people.”

The new age of potential “big data” collection and the need to make it as comprehensive as possible to enable “global” and collective policy decisions by governments means that individual privacy must be given a lower priority so those in political authority can know enough about the nature, transmissions, and impacts of the coronavirus to design and implement effective government responses to the epidemic, including the planning of any moving out of the politically imposed lockdowns. 

Dr. Coyle states, “This approach will be effective only if a high enough proportion of the population uses the same app and shares the data it gathers . . . No app will be effective if people are unwilling to provide ‘their’ data to governments rolling out the system. If I decide to withhold information about my movements and contacts, this would adversely affect everyone . . . In the current circumstances, the collective goal outweighs individual preferences.” 

Rationalizing the Need for Government to Know Everything

The implication is fairly clear: Everyone in the country (in the world!) must be required to download government-chosen apps on their respective mobile devices; they must allow the apps to collect whatever personal information is considered essential for tracking the movements and activities of the individuals in question; and permit his and her data to be sent and integrated with all the information transmitted from everyone else. The government will, then, use this data to determine the best policies and their timing for responding to the coronavirus crisis, and presumably any other social and economic targets aimed for in the future. 

The wider context, therefore, of Dr. Coyle’s analysis and proposal is that national and global interdependencies lead to the conclusion that beyond the current health crisis, governments and others associated with governments should have the latitude to collect and utilize a wide variety of bits of information about everyone, everywhere, all the time. 

Otherwise, you or I or anyone else might do something as consumer or producer, buyer or seller, proponent or recipient of ideas, attitudes, and actions that might have potentially unwanted or undesired impacts on others, somewhere, that might be considered by someone in the data retrieval and analysis authority to need some type of government policy response. 

Now, I am confident that if the argument was expressed to Dr. Coyle in this way, she would respond that I am reading too much into it. First, the data can be collected and utilized in ways that leave individuals “anonymous” in terms of from whom it has been ultimately collected. And, its purpose is only for determining and tracing out aggregate trends and patterns found relevant in some way for various policy purposes important for social coordination, stability, or betterment.

Governments Knowing Everything Can Control Everyone

Let us not forget that such things as social coordination, stability and betterment are not independent of the eyes of the beholder, and especially in the arena of public policy-making since whatever the government does potentially impacts large numbers if not everyone in society. Nor it is free of the changing historical circumstances of who is in political power with access to and use of such data. Such concerns and suspicions are not merely hypotheticals held by those who may be extraordinarily sensitive about individual liberty and privacy matters 

Just look at China, where over the last few years, the communist government has been setting up a “social credit system,” under which Chinese citizens are expected to download and keep active and accessible to the political authorities an app on their mobile devices that surveils everything they do and say, everywhere they go and with whom, every purchase and use they make of all that incorporates the affairs of ordinary everyday life. 

The “good” Chinese citizens are “credited” with those activities, interactions, and purchases that the government deems to be in the social and national interest, “credits” that give individuals various perks and benefits. Those found to have acted and interacted in ways viewed by the government as “anti-social” can experience limited opportunities for travel, difficulties in purchasing an apartment, or obtaining better employment. Combined with China’s “state-of-the-art” facial recognition technology increasingly surveilling intersections, streets, alleys and highways through the country, along with drone patrols overhead, Big Brother is not a futuristic fantasy. It is here – now.

This is not just being done in China. In the name of fighting terrorism and crime, and now in the name of the needed surveillance of anti-social distancing behavior, the same technologies of tracking mobile devices and facial recognition technologies are increasingly being used in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world, and have been for a while. 

In the current coronavirus crisis, such technology is being used across the U.S. to rank states and counties within states from an “A” to an “F” in terms of traced movements and interactions by people in abiding by “social distancing” rules and restrictions; this includes tracking of how many hours people have been “socializing” or communicating with each other. Also being traced are how much time is spent in sports, exercise and recreational activities while people are locked down in their homes and immediately surrounding environments. In addition, mobile devices are used to register the new patterns and amounts of consumer expenditures under the imposed shopping and other restrictions. 

Private Sector Collection of Personal Data

For a good while, now, friends of freedom and civil libertarians in general have been concerned with the collection, storing, use and sharing of personal data via the apps and social media sites used by virtually everyone. There have been reasonable and serious discussions and debates about the right or acceptability of private firms on the internet sweeping up the details of their users’ activities, and using that information through the application of various algorithms in determining people’s spending habits and patterns, their interests and pursuits, their political and social values based on what they search for and read online, as well as a wide variety of other activities. 

Most social media sites provide access and use for free; but there are no free lunches in the real world. If costs of offering such services are to be covered and profits possibly earned, then the social media providers must have something to sell to third parties to earn advertising and other revenues. Old-fashioned network television, before paid satellite and cable services, required viewers to put up with frequent commercial breaks while watching any show so the three major networks could earn advertising revenues, since the airwaves were accessible in every household for “free.” 

Yes, I am sometimes annoyed when the streaming services I subscribe to decide what shows and films I’m interested in watching from my past viewing choices, and post their “picks” for me when I would like to just look around myself on their site without their “recommendations.” But I have sometimes discovered movies that it turns out I am interested in seeing due to their viewer “profiling” of me. Likewise, I am irritated when a search engine or a social media site decides what news or political sites fit my “profile” based on their algorithms.

I also assume that they use the information they glean from my viewing patterns for other profitable purposes. But I, personally, care less about that than the gains from the market availability of such streaming services compared to when, years ago, I was limited to what the three major networks offered based on the lowest common denominator of taste that could attract the widest audiences across America under the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations on content and language.  

Big Government Makes Big Data a Threat to Liberty

I wish to make clear that I do not discount or consider illegitimate or unimportant the types of concerns people have about the data mining of all of us in these ways. But whatever the pros and cons of permitted and restricted use of such information by and in the private sector, the greatest danger is the collection or acquisition of all that “big data” by government. 

I can opt in or out in using some social media sites or doing more or less of my shopping online through various apps or sharing my social and political views with people on particular internet outlets. But unless I really want to go totally “under the radar” with a completely non-internet presence, including with no mobile devices or online computer uses, I cannot even attempt to fully escape from the prying eyes of government. It is the government and its use of any such data that it collects or can strong-arm private media and internet sites to share that is the most serious danger and threatening intrusion into our individual liberty and privacy. 

But these are the types of information for “collective action” that someone like Dr. Diane Coyle seems to want governments to have access to and be able to use. It is a strange social psychology in our day and age that both political conservatives and “progressives” want governments to have such informational collection and use authority. Now, it is true, they see its desirability and application in different ways, but many in both groups see it as necessary for the asserted national or social good.

Conservatives and “Progressives” Both Want to Deny Privacies

Conservatives most often see the need for it in terms of national security to fight terrorism or to combat drug smugglers or to prevent “illegal aliens” from entering the country without government passport and visa permission. “Progressives” champion it to fight “hate crimes” or human traffickers (under the presumption that everyone in the sex business is a victim or a “slave”) or to enable the overseeing of social services concerning, say, health care or presumed environmental abuse, or, in the latest instance, for government to decide on and implement policy in the face of the coronavirus. 

Combined, the conservative and “progressive” variations in favor of technological surveillance add up to leaving little in any person’s life being outside of the prying eyes of government. Of course, both conservatives and “progressives,” respectively, insist that its purpose is only for the national or social interest, with no intention of abuse – unless, of course, the power over its use is in the hands of the “other” group. 

But that is the point: You can never know for sure who in the next electoral cycle will be the “democratic” choice that gains access to the reins of political power and therefore will have the use of those informational tools to spy on anyone or everyone. When discussing with my students the desirable limits to government authority in society, I often ask them to think of the answer to the following question: Who is the politician they trust the least and hate the most? Now imagine that that person is the one in control of all that technological surveilling power. Would they want that person to have it and to use it? 

That is the reason why thoughtful people concerned with human liberty and fearful of abuse by those in political power have long argued for constitutions that narrowly define, determine and delineate the functions and responsibilities of government and those elected or appointed to serve in some capacity in its various branches. It is the only way to assure a rule of law instead of a rule of men. 

The wider the governmental responsibilities over aspects of our lives, the more the discretionary authority that must come with it. That also means the greater its use in ways that deny and abuse freedom instead of protecting people’s individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property, including the right of peaceful association both within the marketplace and outside of it in the other institutions of voluntary civil society. 

Free Markets Overcome the Conflict Between Individuals and Society

Fundamental to Dr. Coyle’s view is a dichotomy and a tension that she sees between the individual and society. It is certainly the case that throughout history, individuals through the use or threat of private or political force have attempted to use and abuse others for their own gain. 

Marauding bandits or conquering kings and princes seized and laid claim to the lands and properties of their victims, and often enslaved those they found it advantageous not to kill. Here in stark contrast was the conflict between the individual and other members of society. The use or the intimidation of physical force enabled some to make others obey and serve. 

Since Dr. Coyle refers to Adam Smith and the benefits to all in society from the greater productivity and wider variety of things made possible by division of labor, it is almost embarrassing to have to remind her of the social and institutional context in which Smith explained how this all became possible for a growing circle of participants.

In the market society, individual interest and gain are harnessed to the betterment of others in society precisely by making it necessary for each to associate in what Smith called a “system of natural liberty,” under which each collaborates and cooperates on the basis of voluntary agreement and mutual again. If I cannot kill you, or rob or defraud, or make you my slave, then the only way I can obtain what you have is by offering you something in exchange that makes it worthwhile and advantageous for you to enter into a transaction with me.

As Smith famously said, the essence of every trade is, if you give this to me which I want, I will give you something else in exchange that you desire. It is through this method of human association that we receive the benefits of the abilities, talents, and productive possibilities of all the other members of society; just as they, in turn, gain what we can do for them. 

The more extensive and intensive the division of labor, the more dependent each of us is upon multitudes of people who we personally know little or nothing about. We are strangers to each other, whether we are strangers in parts of the same town or city, or across national boundaries and halfway around the world. 

Market Prices and Personal Data to Coordinate Everyone’s Actions

What connects us is precisely the social network of markets, prices, and local and international competition. The supply-chains of resources, production, wholesale delivery and retail sale are all kept in structured and coordinated order through the information and incentives provided through the price system, and the networks of localized data about people and markets that interconnect to serve the personal purposes of each attempting to do the best they can as buyer and seller, consumer and producer, and employer and employee in their respective corners of the world. 

Businesses want various types of collected data to complement and to fill in the details that prices and other market informational sources provide so they may make more informed and forethoughtful decisions on what and how to produce, with the hope of profits instead of losses. If our privacy seems to be being pried into, private enterprises in the market use that data to get better “pictures” of us as individuals and subgroups in society as potential buyers of existing or new and better goods and services they are attempting to make attractive for us to be willing and interested in purchasing.

Yes, private businesses try to influence all of us in trying to find out what we want or are interested in, and in what ways advertising and offering us goods and services are more likely to get our attention and the spending of our dollars in their direction rather than someone else’s. 

Rationalizing Paternalism by Assuming Others are Irresponsible

But while private enterprises may try to sway us through what they learn about us, they cannot compel us to buy what they are trying to sell. Unless we think of ourselves as mindless and passively responding automatons, we all have the capacity to look before we leap, to say “No” rather than saying “Yes” to everything a seller says or offers. Most of us assume that in most instances we are more intelligent than that. 

We too often give into the presumption of a seller’s mind control over others because we too easily assume that while we can usually see through any influencing manipulation, it is the other person who is too weak-minded and thoughtless to be trusted with the latitude and liberty to say yes or no on his own. So, “we” need the political overseer because others in society cannot be trusted with the freedom to choose on their own. We support and call for it, often, because of our concerns for the irresponsibility or ignorance of others in society. 

Of course, in many instances those others are thinking the same about us and support the same political paternalism because they consider us to be too unenlightened to live and choose on our own without that political protecting and guiding hand. So, each thinks freedom must be denied, to one extent or another, because each thinks the other to be too weak-minded to have a fuller liberty, while each rarely thinks of themselves as needing that same government control over their choices and actions. If only there was a way for each to retain their freedom while the others who need that watching over are given the government’s restricting and regulating helping oversight!

The fundamental problem is that governments do not “reason” with people to get them to follow what those in government want others to do or not to do. Government forces our compliance through their legitimized authority to use coercion. Don’t follow social distancing decrees and you may be fined or arrested, including because you jogged in a park, or took a walk on a beach, or shopped for or offered something the political authority insists you should not. 

The More Government Controls in Society, the Big Data Needed

Why does government need that “big data?” Without it, how can government know enough to assure that we do not do things they don’t want us to do? Examples are the ones we mentioned earlier: trying to stop illegal drug dealing or to prevent “hateful” thoughts or actions. That is, to prohibit or restrict actions that may not involve private uses of force or fraud, but which those in political power declare to be “bad” for us or harmful to others if we are allowed to do it or say it. 

The big data also is wanted because the government’s reach has extended into many aspects of life which in a freer society would not be the concern of those in elected or appointed political office. Government needs to know our eating, drinking, exercising and related social habits because government has already taken over so much authority and control over the health industry and the medical health insurance business. 

Government oversees our retirement, our workplace wages and work conditions, the forms and types of goods we produce and consume, the way we grow and market crops, the way we manufacture goods for domestic and foreign sale. Also increasingly in the purview of government is how we interact with others in our words and deeds, including how many of us there are in various social, gender, ethnic and racial groups because how else can government monitor and manipulate the association of people into patterns the political paternalists know to be better or even best? 

The big data is needed, therefore, to more heavy-handedly make us act in ways wanted or to “nudge” us in the desired directions through manipulation of the right fiscal or regulatory incentives to get the responses out of us that those in and around government just know to be “good for us.” 

Getting us to accept and even support more of this government intrusion and data mining into our private affairs is one of the great dangers facing us in the coronavirus crisis. It is why it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking, as Diane Coyle wants us to, that this pandemic should be taken to mean “the end of individualism.” It should, instead, remind us of the dangers from and the need to impose limits on government at all levels. 

The “individualism” that Dr. Coyle scornfully criticizes is really the liberty of each one of us to more fully design and direct our own lives in peaceful and mutually productive associations inside and outside of the marketplace, rather than turning that freedom over to the political paternalists desiring to tell us how to live, think and act, and, of course, all for our own good.   

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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