By Chet Yarbrough
The Great Courses Series
Lectures by: Professor Jeffrey Rosen
Are Americans more or less free in the 21st Century? Professor Jeffrey Rosen in “Privacy, Property and Free Speech” leaves the question unanswered. However, he clearly frames the question for listeners to draw their own conclusion. It is difficult to give a definitive answer for three reasons. One, new technology redefines freedom. Two, September 11, 2001 redefines security. Three, globalization redefines nationalism.
Technology encroaches on privacy with internet access by the public and private sectors. The public sector continually revises laws regarding the internet. Laws passed by government attempt to regulate internet use, ownership, and censorship by redefining freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of religion, and the freedom from want and fear. Government classifies organizations and decides which can legally access the internet. Government is in the process of defining who can own the internet and how access can be regulated. Government has the power to censor information that it views detrimental to the freedoms historically held by Americans. Control of internet use, ownership, and censorship by the government encroaches on freedom.
The private sector uses the internet to define consumers. What an internet user purchases becomes a profile factoid used to pander to consumer desires. The detailed profile can affect the price advertised and the personalized pitch made by a retailer. Private sector search engines use consumer profiles to pitch private sector businesses for advertising. Web-based profiling steers the public by profiling individuals and algorithmically congregating personal information. Consumer manipulation by the private sector encroaches on freedom.
Professor Rosen addresses the issue of property by lecturing on women’s rights and the right of government to claim eminent domain on property owned privately but taken by the government for the public good.
In addressing women’s rights, Rosen reviews the history of Roe v. Wade and implies that the judicial system may have acted too quickly by not allowing the States and the general public to fully address the issue.
Rosen is equally conflicted by the government’s right to claim eminent domain. He notes how confiscation of private property at fair market value has a spotted history of success when claimed by the government for the public good. In some cases, the taking results in failed projects; in others, like Baltimore’s revitalized Inner Harbor, the taking revitalizes a neglected and deteriorated landmark.
The American judicial system encroaches on the freedom of women to choose and the fifth amendment’s clause that says private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The Trade Center tragedy redefines security for America and the world. September 11th convinces the world that there are no unbreachable terrorist constraints. Terrorism is like lighting in a storm; i.e. it is a force of nature that can strike anyone at any time. Governments have changed the world of travel by invading the privacy of minds and bodies to reduce the chance of a terrorist act. Rosen suggests governments cross the line when citizens are detained or incarcerated for what they think rather than what they do. The fear one has is that thought becomes grounds for prosecution. To the extent that terrorism is like lightning in a storm, one can only wait for the storm to pass. Invading one’s privacy and arresting citizens for what they think is a slippery slope to totalitarianism.
Despite Brexit and nationalist sentiment of aspirants to the American Presidency, Congress, and Supreme Court–all human beings are citizens of the world. There is less and less room for nation-state nationalism.
Encroachment on privacy, property, and free speech are inevitable in the 21st century (and beyond). In reality, freedom’s encroachment is an inherent part of civilization. When the first man and woman joined together as a couple; when the first tribe became a hunting and gathering troop, and when the first hunter-gatherers became part of a farming community, freedom diminished.
The last lecture in Rosen’s series is about the right to be forgotten. Now, we are citizens of nation-states; tomorrow we will be citizens of the world. With each regrouping, there is a diminishment of freedom. The last bastion of freedom will be “the right to be forgotten”. It will be a programming code designed to volitionally erase one’s identity. This volitional reboot will offer temporal freedom but the nature of public engagement will once again encroach on that freedom.
Professor Rosen offers an excellent and informative outline of America’s history of privacy, property, and free speech. A listener will draw their own conclusions about present and future freedoms from Rosen’s lectures. My view is that freedom has always been limited; thankfully so.