Jewish World Review July 20, 2001 / 29 Tamuz, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

Are we still Americans? -- THERE was a time when Americans valued their independence and their privacy -- and resented anyone who threatened either. Today, however, we put up with an incredible amount of snooping and hassles from people we could stop from bothering us if we wanted to.

Unwanted phone calls from people we don't know have now become part of the American way of life. It doesn't matter whether we are eating dinner, sleeping, sick or making love, the phone rings and interrupts us for the benefit of some stranger who wants to sell us something, solicit our money or our votes or just conduct a survey.

The simplest way to stop this would be for people to start refusing to listen to any stranger who phones them. If enough people just hang up, it will no longer pay the telemarketers to keep pestering us.

In some states, there are already laws to prevent unsolicited calls to people who have registered themselves as not wanting such calls. Why not a national law covering everybody?

It should also be against the law to sell anyone's name, address or phone number without that person's express permission. Some banks may send you some fine-print gobbledygook that most people are not going to read -- and buried in all these tedious words is a notice that your personal information will be sold to others by the bank unless you specifically object. But why should the burden be on you? Where did the banks get the right to sell your privacy?

Then there are still the old-fashioned door-to-door solicitors, who want to sell, beg or get your signature for their pet crusade. Just refuse to talk to them and they too will find that it is no longer worth their while.

The electronic age has increased the number of ways that strangers can intrude on you. Some fax you their advertisements. Who gave them the right to use up other people's paper? Perhaps the most insidious intruders are those who plant their messages in your computer, without your even being aware of it, and monitor what you are doing on the Internet. These planted items are called "cookies" for some reason. And while they are gathering information about you, you don't even know who they are or what they are up to.

You can get your computer set up to block cookies, but then the anonymous cookie monsters can bombard you with notices that another cookie is available -- and that they will keep plastering this notice across your screen every time you go on the Internet, unless you accept it. One of these announcements on my computer said that they will keep showing it until the year 2009. I have to put up with this nuisance for 8 years!

There is no point saying that we are helpless, which seems to be a big cop-out these days. Every one of us has a Congressman and two senators. Let them know that you are sick and tired of these invasions of our privacy by people you don't even know.

No doubt the telemarketers make campaign contributions to politicians but the bottom line is that votes are what get the pols elected. If they don't get our votes, money from special interests will not save their jobs.

People who have tried to build or remodel a home discover that they are under the thumbs of a veritable army of bureaucrats, ranging from local inspectors, who can tell them what kinds of windows they can and cannot have, to the federal government which prescribes what kinds of toilets and shower heads are legal and what kinds are illegal.

When I asked a carpenter about replacing the aging deck on my house with a new one, he was horrified at the thought. A new deck would require notifying the local bureaucrats. This could then mean that, after he spent days of his time and I spent thousands of dollars, some inspector could come around and say that it had to be done all over again because of his interpretation of the local building codes. Far better to keep repairing the old deck forever.

At one time, a man's home was his castle. Today it is the bureaucrats' plaything.

Why does the public put up with this? Obviously we could vote elected officials out of office if they didn't fix the laws to get all these people off our backs. But too many of us have gotten used to being pushed around and are willing to accept it if it is washed down with pious rhetoric about safety, compassion or the environment. Why are we so ready to give up our rights for spin?

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate