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Private Life

Mises Daily: Monday, August 10, 1998 by

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Clinton wants his private life back. His personal behavior is his business alone, and his family's. It's a moral outrage that a government prosecutor wants to turn a private matter into a public one. Ken Starr's power is wholly illegitimate.

Welcome to the early 19th century, when people actually did have private lives because the government dared not intrude. Family was autonomous and so too were extended families. Homes were sacred spaces. Businesses were private property. Neighborhoods managed their own affairs without outside intervention.

There were no spooks listening in on phone calls, reading our mail, investigating our politics, monitoring our income and stealing up to half of it for "public policy." There was no army of social workers telling people how to raise their kids. There was no war on tobacco or drugs. These were all private matters.

Heads of households, pastors, and community leaders were the social authorities, not politicians. The president had no agencies to regulate business, tell property owners whom to hire and fire, much less pretend to manage the national and world economy.

There was no "sexual-harassment" law. People who didn't like their jobs didn't sue. Instead, they sought out a new job. Discrimination on any basis whatsoever was not a crime but a natural right. There were no laws that punished people for their choices and associations so long as they didn't harm anyone.

It was a system called freedom, and it made possible the most prosperous and humane society in human history. We owe our current prosperity to the remnants of the old system.

But Bill Clinton represents something different, an ideology whose primary tenet is that private life shouldn't exist. All behavior is public behavior. The State has an interest in managing all aspects of it. What choices and freedoms we have are ours because the State grants them. Children don't belong to the family but to society. Businesses are public property. Our thoughts and motivations—even our jokes—are the business of courts and prosecutors.

But now Clinton, in high-flown libertarian rhetoric, attempts to tap into the seething resentment the public has for big government and demands that the Administrative State he heads and loves leave him alone. In his new-found worldview, he alone enjoys the right to conduct his affairs as he sees fit.

He says no one has a right to know what he is doing with his subordinates. His friends cannot be subpoenaed and forced to rat on him to the feds. "Even presidents have private lives," he says. He means only presidents should have private lives.

Can someone please welcome Bill to the late 20th century? The power and intrusions of the government now frying him are the same power and intrusions the rest of American is forced to endure every day.

Every penny we spend is subject to investigation by the tax police. No business owner can take a step on his own property without consulting federal agencies. Even in our own homes, we are not free to decide what kind of paint to put on the walls or the size of our toilet tanks.

Recall that Bill would not be in this fix were it not for the preposterous advent of sexual-harassment law. On the day of his speech, thousands of cases are roiling through the courts that will result in million-dollar fines against bosses accused of far less. Managers' lives will be ruined by a subordinate's lewd remark or provocative picture displayed on a desk.

This is a law that Bill defends and champions. His own wife, now bitter that her personal space is invaded by government power, is the icon of the feminist movement that has long claimed that the personal is the political.

Bill is inviting all of us to reject the authority that Starr is exercising. Bill didn't like the questions Starr was asking and reportedly even refused to answer them. Why should he? Hey, it's a free country.

It might be possible to be more sympathetic to Bill's predicament. Let him repeal the sexual harassment laws in which he is now entangled. Let him strip the CIA, the IRS, the FBI, the ATF, and the NSA of their power to spy on our private lives.

Let Bill light a bonfire on the White House lawn made of the federal code and a hundred years of the Federal Register. Let him grant to every American the broad rights to private life that he demands for himself. Until then, we are entitled to regard his speech as the plea of a tyrant caught in his own web.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.