Private Surveillance

Although public surveillance is more frightening to me because the consequences are generally more dire, I also don’t shy away from criticizing private surveillance. This is where I often part company with other libertarians because they often instinctively say private surveillance, because it’s voluntary, is entirely acceptable. Of course this attitude is overly simplistic. First, private surveillance often turns into public surveillance. Second, the market manipulations performed by the State have raised the consequences of private surveillance even when it doesn’t turn into public surveillance.

Consider health insurance. For most people their health insurance is tied to their employment. This practice is a holdover from World War II, where the State manipulated the market in such a way that employers had to find forms of compensation besides pay to attract employees:

There is no good reason for any of this, aside from historical accident. During World War II, federal wage controls prevented employers from wooing workers with higher pay, so companies started offering health insurance as a way around the law. Of course, this form of nonmonetary compensation is still pay. When the war ended, the practice stuck.

I doubt the long term consequences of this marriage were realized by the employers who first used health insurance as a means to attract employees. Fast forward many decades later and we have a relationship so tight that employers are surveilling their employees’ health data:

Employee wellness firms and insurers are working with companies to mine data about the prescription drugs workers use, how they shop, and even whether they vote, to predict their individual health needs and recommend treatments.

Trying to stem rising health-care costs, some companies, including retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are paying firms like Castlight Healthcare Inc. to collect and crunch employee data to identify, for example, which workers are at risk for diabetes, and target them with personalized messages nudging them toward a doctor or services such as weight-loss programs.

One of the downsides of employers providing health insurance is that they front a lot of the costs. Employers, like everybody else, have an interest in keeping their costs down. Now, instead of minding their own business, employers are trying to snoop on their employees’ health care information.

Health care information is something most people see as confidential. It can reveal a lot of potentially embarrassing things about a person such as having a sexually transmitted disease or mental illness. Unless your health is preventing you from working it shouldn’t be the business of your employer and most likely wouldn’t be if your health insurance wasn’t tied to your employment status.

This is why I respect Samuel Edward Konkin III more than most libertarian philosophers. His philosophy, agorism, argue for the death of wage labor. Instead it encourages everybody to be an entrepreneur that contracts directly with others. This is a stark contrast to many libertarian philosophers who seem to encourage wage labor.

The more independent you are the more free you are. By moving away from wage labor an individual becomes more independent and therefore more free. If you’re your own employer then you are free from worries of being surveilled and possibly fired for simply being too expensive to insure.