Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear, right? Isn’t that how the saying goes? In a conversation about drug testing welfare recipients, this bit of popular political philosophy came up, and I was a little taken aback by how strongly I reacted to this sentiment. I guess it’s one of those things, like how the first time you hear “If I Had $1,000,000″ on the radio, it’s not so bad, but the millionth time you’ve heard it in a week, that one makes you want to commit a hate crime against quirky Canadian bands with multiple lead singers. And like that fun little tune, it has a catchy kind of ring to it; say it out loud and it has a nice, even rhythm to it, the saying just rolls off the tongue: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” There’s a certain sort of upright, white-bread poetry to it, the sort of thing your grandparents would have said to your parents when they were kids trying to hide something behind their backs. You know, a respectable working-class ethic, an honest openness and respect for authority that we ought to encourage in the younger generation. And when you’re talking about parents speaking with small children who are obviously trying to get away with something they know they aren’t supposed to be doing, it’s a right and fitting aphorism for the situation.
The problem is, the federal government isn’t your kindly old parents trying to get you to fess up to taking a cookie from the jar, they’re actually trampling on some rather fundamental rights to privacy that we as citizens of a free society should stand up to protect. It’s not that if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear; it’s that if I have nothing to hide, you and nobody else has a right to search me or my property. If you believe you have just cause to search my person or possessions, then you go right ahead and talk to a judge and get a warrant to search me. Present the evidence you already have to support your suspicion of me, and then come knock on my door, but not before. The fact that someone is collecting government assistance is not probable cause to accuse them of being drug addicts, any more than being a politician is probable cause for accusing someone of accepting bribes and kickbacks from special interest groups to influence government policy. If you want to treat a citizen like a criminal, you need to have some kind of evidence to justify that treatment, period. Without real evidence that can be tested and examined by an impartial judge, nobody has the right to violate another person’s privacy rights.
Before you get all up my nose about being soft on welfare abuse, this isn’t the only place where this argument applies. Gun owners, how would you like it if the government were to set up a federal firearms registry and make it illegal to own an unregistered rifle or buy ammunition without a license? The anti-gun lobby would say that if you are in fact a law-abiding, responsible gun owner with nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear from the government intruding in your gun cabinet and snooping around for contraband. “But wait!” cries the anti-gun lobby, “There are thousands of gun-related deaths and incidents every year, we need this registry to protect lives!” Now I’m not unsympathetic to this objection; I do realize that many people are injured or killed with firearms every year, and that a federal gun registry could potentially save someone’s life, maybe, possibly. However, treating the millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners who do not use their varmint rifles to hold up liquor stores or carjack people as though they were criminals is totally unwarranted.
By the same token, you might possibly save tax-payers a few hundred bucks a month by cutting an addict off welfare, potentially, maybe. However, treating the rest of the responsible, law-abiding people receiving government assistance as though they were cashing their welfare cheques at a crack house is equally unwarranted. In the constituencies where drug testing for welfare applicants has been implemented, the incidence of positive tests has proven to be lower than the general average rate of drug abuse found in the rest of society. You can explain this by saying that drug addicts are stupid, but not stupid enough to take a drug test while on drugs, or you can explain it by saying that people on welfare simply don’t have money for drugs, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the process of grossly violating people’s privacy rights, these governments have incurred far greater losses in lab fees than they could ever hope to save on paying out benefits without the testing. So, not only are these laws an unwarranted invasion of privacy, they are having the exact opposite net result on the cost of operations that their proponents promised voters.
Which brings us to the question: Who supports this kind of law, and why? Well, in a word, Bigots. Because that’s what bigots do; they take the worst stereotypes of a group they don’t like, assign those largely fictional characteristics to the entire group, and then elect politicians who will set policy up in a way that treats people like the caricatures bigots carry around in their heads, rather than the actual rights-holding citizens and tax-payers they really are. Bigots call social aid recipients crack addict welfare queens, and they call gun owners red-necks and criminals. What’s more, politicians know that this is how bigots think, so they tailor their message in such a way as to take advantage of this mode of thinking. They point at “those people” as outsiders, as enemies, as being not *quite* as human as you are, and then they propose the kinds of laws that are designed to put “those people” in their place. Don’t like your tax dollars going to help people in need of assistance, but don’t want to look like a selfish prick? That’s ok, they’re all lazy drug addicts who don’t deserve your saintly generosity, so it’s alright to cut off their payments and leave them to starve? Got a deep-seated irrational fear of guns, but don’t want to look like a coward and can’t afford therapy? Hey, it’s not you, it’s all those dangerous gun nuts out there buying up AK-47′s and bazookas so they can take down society and create a Lord of the Flies-like anarchist free-for-all who need to be tracked by the government and monitored closely.
Really, anything that can locate the problem with society and its solution outside of you and your circle of friends, right? Anything that places blame on the other, while leaving us to play the role of victim, of hard-working pillar of the community, a saint among the sinners, that’s what we want our politicians to tell us, so they do it, and we reward them with power. If we stopped electing the people who feed off our fears and prejudices and started seeing each other as equals and fellow citizens, how many of our current political problems would evaporate all on their own. Right now, we simply have the government we deserve; we have earned our current crop of parasites and weasels by rewarding them for playing into our biggest character flaws. There are still people working in the public service who are actually working for the sake of serving the public, but they are becoming more and more difficult to find. If you know of one, if there’s someone running in your constituency who refuses to speak the language of bigotry to get elected, then get out there and support them, even if they aren’t members of the party you happen to belong to. Start rewarding politicians who treat citizens like citizens, and perhaps we could see some real change in the way government conducts itself, but if we keep electing the people who want to hang on to power by making us fear one another, it’s just going to keep going on the same stupid path we’ve been heading down for far too long now.
One last thought, just to wrap this up, if you still think that “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” is a good rule to live by, I would invite you to post your facebook and email login information in the comments below, along with a screencap of your last month’s browser history. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right?
That’s what I thought.