The Cato Institute claims to be a leading defender of individual liberty, and in that role, it has endlessly sounded the alarm about government surveillance and other state encroachments on people's privacy. Weirdly, though, Cato rarely mentions even bigger threats to privacy from corporations.
That's quite a blind spot. After all, who spends more time and energy scouring the details of your life: The U.S. government or Google? Who is more likely to track everything you buy, everyplace you go, what you eat, and how you vote -- the geeks at the NSA or consumer data firms like Acxiom, which is said to have information on 500 million consumers worldwide, including nearly every adult in the U.S., with up to 1,500 data points per person? Who is more likely to materially affect your life chances -- say, for getting a mortgage or a job—federal intelligence agencies or private credit rating agencies, including those that sell information about your borrowing history or criminal record that may be incorrect? Finally, what's scarier to you—the idea that your medical records and genetic information could end up in the hands of health and life insurance companies or end up in some computer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services?
The answers to these questions seem pretty clear: Private entities not only have a lot more information about our lives, they are more likely to misuse that information in ways that adversely affect our lives. Just look at Demos' research
about how employee credit checks bar people from jobs they desperately need—even though there is no evidence that one's credit history predicts job performance. Or look at the studies
of how errors in credit reports lead people to have lower credit scores and thus pay more for loans.
When was the last time that the NSA increased anyone's mortgage payments?
I'm not saying that government intelligence agencies don't pose a threat to our liberties. They do, and there is a long history of such agencies abusing their powers to monitor and repress domestic dissent. Scary stuff. But most people have come to recognize that surveillance capacities of corporations are pretty damn scary, too. And, in fact, polls show
that Americans are concerned about both private and public threats to privacy and want better controls in each sphere—including tighter regulations of corporations.
Of course, though, the Cato Institute opposes nearly all new regulations of market entities. And you'll find barely anything at all on its vast website addressing the privacy issues raised by corporate surveillance, even though it's been all over the NSA issue.
Apparently, Cato's allegiance to free markets is so great that it's willing to compromise the values of individual liberty, which are supposedly most paramount in libertarian thought.
Is this hypocrisy a surprise? I guess not. As I have written here before, there are plenty of other ways that markets threaten our individual liberty—and indeed our lives (through toxic air or unsafe products)—that Cato is blithely unconcerned about.
Cato's defense of individual liberty is strictly a la carte.