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Autarkic House on the Prairie

March 18, 2010

Thanks for the image, Wikipedia

From an R-bloggers post on the future of open-source data, an interesting (and unsettling) fact:

Did you know that it’s possible to identify a specific appliance, like a Kenwood dishwasher, from the “DNA” of its power draw signal? Consider that when your power company tracks your power usage with e-meters.

This is the sort of thing that reminds me that the popular discourse on issues like privacy usually lags the relevant socio-technical developments by a few hundred years. Of course, there are plenty of tech-savvy privacy advocates out there. But I feel like the really resonant rhetoric comes from those rearguard fighters, struggling jealously to preserve the privacy they imagine their yeoman ancestors enjoyed in their far-flung homesteads dotting the plains of a mythic ur-America.

Anyway, it’s time to stop worrying about what the federal government knows about the number of people in our household, and time to have a mature discussion about what the electric company, internet service providers, search engines, and credit card companies know (and can legally do with) the fine-grained data that honestly does a pretty good job at getting to the essence of each of us. (I hope to write more soon on the next generation of statistical discrimination.)

Nowhere else is our 18th-century mentality as evident as in the popular discourse around freedom. The desire to live a life free from government intervention may have made sense when (free) Americans were, again, mostly yeoman farmers. Yeoman farmers grew a lot of what they needed, and they traded locally for the rest. What business did government have interfering with their affairs?

But the age of self-sufficiency is gone, flattering as it is to imagine ourselves as self-made men and women. Adam Smith and Marx described the worker as a malformed appendage of the industrial machine, but today Switzerland is as grotesquely misshapen as your average assembly-line worker. We’re all embedded in a system that necessitates governmental – and intergovernmental – regulation of nearly everything: ironically, even laissez-faire.

Putting dreams of an autarkic house on the prairie behind us would benefit the popular discourse immeasurably. I think a major task for progressive thinkers needs to be popularizing the second connotation of “freedom.” This second connotation is often described as “freedom to [pursue the goals of your choosing]” as opposed to “freedom from [the government]” In the literature on social welfare policy, the second freedom is often measured by the extent of the “decommodification of labor,” or your ability to temporarily and voluntarily drop out of the labor market.

The irony is that the two freedoms can be inversely related: accepting an individual mandate in health care in exchange for an end to discrimination based on prior conditions will decrease our “freedom from” but increase our “freedom to.” The stronger the welfare state, the easier we can engage our freedom to decommodify for a year or two in order to raise a family, write a novel, undertake a risky business venture, learn a trade, travel, or whatever else we choose.

In the end, “freedom to” is really about achieving the American dream of creating a society without an aristocracy. It’s no accident that so many of the great philosophers, scientists, and authors throughout history have been noblemen: noblemen have always had the greatest freedom to (though rarely the greatest freedom from). Progressives, then, need to make it known that their policies will achieve an equally American, but more desirable, vision of freedom.

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