Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ownership and Privacy Rights

The terms "ownership" and "property" simply refer to control over a resource.

Property is an abstract concept. It really means that a person has say-so over a physical resource. The statement "Bob owns property in Aspen" doesn't mean that Bob is physically possessing the land. It means that Bob has say so over the piece of land in Aspen. Bob might physically be in Vegas, but he still has property rights in Aspen (well, he had property rights before placing a foolish bet on two sixes.)

Anyway, i was writing a blurb on property rights in the Medical Savings and Loan when the relation between property rights and ownership struck me like a thunderbolt.

A key element of the Medical Savings and Loan is that the patient owns their own medical records. In standard pooled insurance, the insurance company owns and carefully guards your medical records as a proprietary business asset.

In the Medical Savings and Loan, policy holders contract with a group of people called Health Care Advocates to maintain and help interpret their medical records. If a policy holder changes to a different health care advocate, the records will follow the policy holder.

The thunderbolt that struck me was the realization that, since policy holders own their record, privacy rights become a non-issue. Their ability to control access to their records flows through their property rights.

The observation that "privacy rights" automatically flow from "property rights" brings up the specter that the thing we call "privacy rights" is not really a fundamental rights. In an axiomatic system of fundamental rights, the fundamental rights should be logically independent of each other.

Now the fact that people are so head-over-heels with privacy-rights is a sign that businesses have been systematically taking away more fundamental property rights.

Even worse, it is possible that the concerted effort to promote privacy-rights as a fundamental right is really nothing but a diversion to allow the systematic stripping of property rights from the people by big business and big government.

In the classical liberal tradition, property rights flow from the person. The most important right is right to their own body (a right which a person really can't sell). We see this principle in copyright laws that has people owning their ideas as they flow from the writer through the pen. One can derive privacy rights in a similar fashion saying that people have rights to the information that flows from them.

The so-called "privacy rights" are not fundamental rights but a recognition of one's fundamental property rights.

Rhetoric that tries to elevate a seconary right to a fundamental right runs the risk of undermining that real fundamental rights.

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