Contra McCarthy

by Jonah Goldberg

Andy McCarthy had a great piece yesterday throwing cold water on some of the hysteria over the Verizon/phone story. His conclusion was that the “problem here is not government power. It is the government officials we’ve elected to wield it.” I argue that that’s sort of half-right in my column today.

The arrival of “big data” — the ability to crunch massive amounts of information to find patterns and, ultimately, to manipulate human behavior — creates opportunities for government (and corporations) that were literally unimaginable not long ago. Behavioral economists, neuroscientists, and liberal policy wonks have already fallen in love with the idea of using these new technologies and insights to “nudge” Americans into making “better” decisions. No doubt some of these decisions really are better, but the scare quotes are necessary because the final arbiters of what constitutes the right choice are the would-be social engineers.

Until recently there was great anonymity in crowds. But the near-magic of math has changed that equation. Given a big enough data set, data-crunchers can figure out a great deal about every face in the crowd.

I’m no Luddite. Just because government could, in theory, poison people doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, in practice, inoculate people. But we’re in uncharted territory, and a healthy dose of old-fashioned American skepticism seems warranted, no matter who’s in charge.

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