All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 2002

The Right to Be Left Alone

The Enjoyment of Financial and Personal Privacy Is Fundamental to a Free and Civil Society

“The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone.”

-Justice Louis D. Brandeis

According to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, one of the “repeated injuries and usurpations” committed against the American people by the King of England was the erecting of “a multitude of New Offices, and . . . swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

Today, following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the American people face another troublesome threat—swarms of security agents harassing us at airports, borders, buildings, and highways. Like many of you who travel frequently, my wife, Jo Ann, and I have been subjected to these often overzealous security guards who ask inane questions; force us to remove our shoes, jackets, and belt buckles; and meticulously go through our carry-on bags. I’ve had my fingernail clippers confiscated twice. Jo Ann was frisked three times in one day. Others have fared far worse. My friend and IOL fellow columnist Walter Williams was almost arrested in Jacksonville, Florida, after he refused to be patted down. A congressman was required to disrobe. After these security encounters, I always feel my privacy, indeed my dignity, has been violated.

President George W. Bush has urged citizens to return to normal life, but business and domestic affairs are never the same when a war is on, and this war on terrorism is no exception.1 Bush’s proposed federal budget jumped 9 percent from last year, pushing the United States into a deficit again. Private enterprise has been forced to spend billions on security measures, a real burden on a recessionary economy. (Imagine, intelligent employees spending the rest of their lives trying to catch some nut out there, representing 1/1000 of 1 percent of travelers.) Airport security has now become federalized. And we have become, in the words of Sheldon Richman, “tethered citizens.”

In revolutionary times, colonists were so incensed by the invasions of privacy and other personal abuses by British officers that Congress’s first act was to pass a Bill of Rights, including Amendment III, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law,” and Amendment IV, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Fourth Amendment forms the basis of a “right to privacy,” the right to be left alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis put it. The enjoyment of financial and personal privacy is fundamental to a free and civil society. True liberty is to be able to walk down the street, cash a check, buy goods, talk on the telephone, or take a trip without being hassled, hounded, followed, or interrogated by government agents. People should be able to get away from the madding crowds without being followed or asked stupid questions. When I travel abroad, there is no better feeling than walking through the green customs door marked “Nothing to Declare.” When I return home and close the door, there is a feeling of security, knowing that the police aren’t going to break it down in the middle of the night for a “warrantless” search. It happened in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but surely not in America!

Privacy Eroding

Yet the right to privacy so cherished by Americans of generations past is gradually eroding. New airport-security laws require all travelers to carry a “government-issued” ID, usually a driver’s license or passport. Thus we have come dangerously close to creating a national identity card for all Americans. The war on drugs has made it virtually impossible to deal legally in large amounts of cash, the most anonymous form of doing business. Some banks are requiring thumbprints for identification. Mandatory drug-testing of students and employees is becoming commonplace without any reference to the constitutional principle of “probable cause.” Since September 11, police routinely check automobiles and trucks coming into New York City without a warrant. Tampa and other big cities are videotaping citizens in “crime-prone” areas around the clock. California and other states are capturing all drivers on film and issuing tickets for alleged speeders.

I wrote the first book on financial privacy in the early 1980s.2 It was a huge underground hit, selling over 400,000 copies. Clearly, vulnerable Americans felt the need for protection against potential lawsuits, government surveillance, prying relatives, aggressive salesmen, and professional thieves. From time to time, I am asked to do an updated edition, but I have refused. Why? Because the law has changed and become so complex that it takes a full-time professional to stay up on all the dos and don’ts. However, I can recommend an excellent newsletter that focuses on privacy issues: The Financial Privacy Report, published and written by Michael Ketcher (to subscribe, call 1-866-429-6681; P.O. Box 1277, Burnsville, MN 55337).

Despite the recent intrusions into individual personal affairs, you can still maintain a certain degree of privacy. You can take a car, bus, or train, and go to most destinations without being noticed or tracked. In small transactions, you can still pay with cash instead of using credit cards or checks. You can buy a large number of gold and silver coins with cash and avoid reporting requirements. You can refuse to give your Social Security number to schools, hospitals, dentist and doctor offices, insurance companies, and most private organizations (but not banks, brokers, or the IRS). You can open a foreign bank account with less than $10,000 and not have to report it. You can use a post office box to keep direct mail promoters from contacting you. You can demand a search warrant before allowing the police to come into your house or business, or to search your automobile.

In short, by maintaining a low profile, you can usually avoid the scrutiny of overzeal-
ous bureaucrats, nosy neighbors, or jealous relatives.


  1. Historian Robert Higgs makes this very clear in his excellent article, “How War Makes Government Bigger,” Ideas on Liberty, December 2001.
  2. Mark Skousen, The Complete Guide to Financial Privacy (Alexandria House Books, 1979; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).

  • Mark Skousen is a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, editor of Forecasts & Strategies, and author of over 25 books. He is the former president of FEE and now produces FreedomFest, billed as the world's largest gathering of free minds. Based on his work “The Structure of Production” (NYU Press, 1990), the federal government now publishes a broader, more accurate measure of the economy, Gross Output (GO), every quarter along with GDP.