Walter Block: There Is No Right to Privacy

privacy-350x250-ssDon’t get me wrong. I am a BIG fan of Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg and all other who have undermined the legitimacy of the state apparatus. I go further; no one is a greater supporter of these heroic men than me. So when I say there is no right to privacy, this should not be interpreted as in any way a criticism of them. Rather I am attempting to call into account numerous libertarians, all of whom should know better, when they write in support of these magnificent men and say things like: “The liberty of which I write is the right to privacy: the right to be left alone. The Framers jealously and zealously guarded this right by imposing upon government agents intentionally onerous burdens before letting them invade it.”

There is no right to privacy; none at all. It is not a negative right, all of which are supported by libertarian theory; e.g., the right not to be molested, murdered, raped, etc. Rather, the so called right to privacy is a so called “positive right,” as in the “right” to food, clothing, shelter, welfare, etc. That is, it is no right at all; rather the “right” to privacy is an aspect of wealth. As Murray N. Rothbard (The Ethics of Liberty, chapter 16) made clear, there is only a right to private property, not privacy:

 It might, however, be charged that Smith does not have the right to print such a statement, because Jones has a “right to privacy” (his “human” right) which Smith does not have the right to violate. But is there really such a right to privacy? How can there be? How can there be a right to prevent Smith by force from disseminating knowledge which he possesses? Surely there can be no such right. Smith owns his own body and therefore has the property right to own the knowledge he has inside his head, including his knowledge about Jones. And therefore he has the corollary right to print and disseminate that knowledge. In short, as in the case of the “human right” to free speech, there is no such thing as a right to privacy except the right to protect one’s property from invasion. 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.

The government, of course, has no right to invade our privacy, since it has no rights at all. It should not exist. Period.  It is an illegitimate institution, since it initiates violence against innocent people. Therefore, it can have no right to do anything. Anything.  A forteriori, the state has no right to privacy, either. And this for two reasons. First, is has no rights of any kind, since it is an illicit institution. Therefore, it cannot have any privacy “rights.” Second, even if it did have some rights, it could not possibly have a right to privacy, since there is and can be no such thing. As a corollary, we need pay no attention to its “secret” classifications, apart of course from pragmatic or utilitarian considerations: Edward Snowden’s personal life has been threatened by these criminals; this evil institution still has a lot of power. But as a matter of deontology, we are free to ignore statist “secret” classifications.

But suppose a private individual were to invade our privacy without violating our private property rights. Would he have a right to do that? Yes, at least insofar as I understand the libertarian perspective. The paparazzi have a right to take pictures of movie stars, professional athletes, without permission, provided only they do not violate private property rights. If the streets and sidewalks were privately owned (I make a case for that in this book, The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors; Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute; available for free here), their owners would presumably supply an environment desired by customers. If they wanted to attract famous camera-shy people to their property, it is to be expected that they would protect them from the shutterbugs.  If not, not. The market would determine these sorts of things. In a forthcoming book in myDefending the Undefendable series, the first of which is available for free here, I shall be devoting a chapter to the Peeping Tom who looks at people who would prefer not to be seen. For a more scholarly treatment of this issue, I recommend the following article: Block, Walter, Stephan Kinsella and Roy Whitehead. 2006. “The duty to defend advertising injuries caused by junk faxes: an analysis of privacy, spam, detection and blackmail.” Whittier Law Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 925-949.

All men of good will owe a great debt of gratitude to those who told truth to power, preeminently Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg. When and if the present rash of statist murder ever ceases they are the people who will have done more than pretty much anyone else to stop it. We must all take our hats off to them. However, to claim that there is a right to privacy is to misunderstand the libertarian philosophy, the last best hope for our prosperity, and even the very survival of mankind. It does us our movement no good to mischaracterize libertarianism in this very proper libertarian outpouring of appreciation for these whistle-blowers who very properly denigrated and exposed governmental attacks on our privacy. The state should not reduce our privacy. The state should not be doing much of anything at all.  But private incursions into privacy, as long as achieved without private property rights violations, are licit under libertarian law.

Privacy is a benefit, not a right. It is a benefit that the market, when and if it is freed, will confer on those of us who wish it.

Source: Lew Rockwell

Privacy photo from Shutterstock


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  • HorseTeethSam

    Interesting concept. I think a lot of people THINK they understand our government and Constitution, but are quite mistaken. One sees the expression “right to privacy” in print so much that one automatically assumes that there is, in fact, such a right. There is not. We want privacy, but it is not guaranteed. Likewise we all assume the Government to be legitimate, good and proper – but it is not. It is big, it has been there for so long, it SAYS it is legitimate – but SO WHAT? That does not make it so, any more than my declaring on the evening news that I am a tomato. Doing so does not morph me into a red nightshade fruit. Very good.

    • Alan

      To understand natural rights you don’t need no stinking constitution.

      Libertarian theory is not about American Americans in America, it’s about people. and freedom.

      Don’t waste your brain on the constitution. Either it allows everything that has happened since, or it failed to prevent everything that has happened, either way it’s a failure.

  • marineh2ominer

    I know that was not the case when we had a constitutionally controlled government , but I am afraid that we will NEVER see those days again without reservoirs of blood running in our streets and fields .

  • tdupuy

    Being a novice on libertarian theory I don’t understand why a right must be negative in order to be a legitimate right – especially when “right to property” is a positive right. I would appreciate someone explaining this to me.

    • Alan

      Rights cannot be “positive” such as the right to healthcare, because that would mean care providers being FORCED to supply you with something, see?

      It ultimately comes down to the rejection of force, unless used in self-defense.

      As we reject force we cannot force someone to not look at you, to not photograph you, to not publish those photos etc. Ultimately if you want privacy then it is your responsibility to close your curtains or whatever. You don’t have the right to blind your neighbors.

  • Scott

    The only proper and correct view to private rights is not based under a libertarian view, it is based under the Declaration Of Independence and prescribed by the 9th Amendment. Because we each have the right to protect our privacy which is a self evident right, therefore we have the right to hire somebody to protect our privacy; to create a Gov. to protect our rights. Governments get their rights from the people, to consider otherwise is folly, therefore Governments do have rights that are given to them by their masters; the people.

    Mr. Block’s analogy of paparazzi’s taking pictures of famous people while in a public forum is not violating a famous persons right of privacy because the individual who took the picture had a right to show the world what that individual had witnessed, therefore to say the paparazzi have a right to violate a privacy right while in a public forum is a contradiction in terms. .

  • honestann

    The entire notion of “rights” is bogus. Why? Because the unavoidable implication is, individuals have no inherent rights, except those granted to them by some “authority”. The opposite is true – individuals are completely unrestricted free agents who can and may do anything that doesn’t harm or destroy other individuals or their property.

    The author also makes a technical mistake about “government”. The fact is, “government” does not exist. No “organization” exists. They are all pure fictions. That’s why fundamental laws for centuries calls all organizations “fictitious entities”. They are indeed fictions, though the formulation is unfortunate, since an fictitious entity can’t be a real entity. The fact is, what humans call “government” is exactly

    predators DBA government.

    This is the key humans need to comprehend to deal effectively with the predators who utterly dominate mankind today.

    There is no “government”, only predators. This should be obvious, but brainwashing since birth has deluded virtually every human being on the planet.

    Think about this for a moment. What happens when 10, 20, 50 individuals sit around a table and craft, then sign a document. Whether the document is called an “incorporation” document or a “declaration of independence” or “constitution”, NOTHING real pops into existence when they draft the document or sign the document.

    The notion that 10, 20 or 50 individuals can somehow bind, obligate and enslave millions of individuals by writing and signing a document is… absolutely, completely and utterly insane. The only individuals who can be obligated by signing any document are the individuals who signed it. This is so obvious that only completely and clinically insane individuals could make a mistake about this. Anyone who thinks for even a moment about such a notion has to notice how absurd and self-contradictory this notion is. I mean, really! If a small collection of individuals can enslave millions, or entire planets, or entire galaxies of sentient beings, simply by writing and signing a piece of paper (an insane and inherently unethical notion), the fact is, any number of groups of individuals can sign any number of documents and create utterly endless contradictions. This has to be obvious to anyone with even a tiny bit of sense and reflection.

    On top of this aspect, we add the fact that nothing real pops into existence when individuals sign a document, and that any attempt to obligate, control or enslave individuals who did not voluntarily agree is obviously predatory aggression.

    As such, liberty advocates waste endless hours and years debating nonsense. I say “nonsense” because treating fictions as real IS nonsense. To even imagine that documents created by 10, 20, 50 individuals nearly 250 years ago somehow obligates hundreds of millions if not billions of individuals today is completely wacko, crazy, insane. These simple observations are almost all we need to know to figure out how to defend liberty and discount fictions like “government”, “corporation”, “authority” and the endless other fictions created by the predators DBA government.

    All effort to debate the fine points of fictions are wasted, because debating subtle aspects of things that don’t exist at all is obviously pointless. Unfortunately, humans are habit machines, and almost all humans seem almost incapable of breaking out of mental habits, no matter how insane and destructive they are revealed to be.

  • R.Young

    Privacy is not a right, privacy is what each and everyone determines what it’s definition is!

  • mlk12

    We do have a right to privacy. It is exampled in the fourth amendment. We have the right to expect our private matters will not be infringed and thus for someone to invade our privacy, they have harmed our own personal bubble we can claim to be ours alone and off limits to all others. Look at it like your skin is the bubble, no one else has a right to invade the confines of your skin, it is your private area. The same holds true to extend that bubble to include the walls of your home. It is yours and no one else has the right to be there without your allowance to be there. This all will have the fact following it that anyone’s rights are an argument of nothing, we really have no rights at all. We can do and say anything we want to at any time. If what we say and do harms another, we lose what we perceive to be a right of freedom or privacy or some other “right”. What has happened is we harmed another and the result of that harm was that it either 1).caused others related to the harmed party to come find me to exact the damages I caused and in doing so they have done something they can do at any time for any reason or 2.) they have taken away some of my rights once they find me in the form of my right to live or to be living without restraint(jail). Any way you slice it, what has happened is all have acted on their own free will to do as they wish. No one gained any rights or lost any. One action caused another to occur between living beings doing things that living beings do. Rights are a fiction whereas actions are real.

    • Alan

      I think you need to more time thinking, reading and learning, and less time telling everyone your opinion.