Private-sector "Big Brothers"

Posted: Jul 06, 2006 12:00 AM

Real conservatives value their liberty and privacy. Freedom from "Big Brother" intrusion by government -- and much else -- has always been the basic operational tenet of the philosophical political and social ideal that stems from the impulse to be left alone to live one's life as one sees fit, as long as no one else is harmed.

But today's world offers many contradictory instances in which technological advances in information and other industries and services too often compromise the most passionate laissez-faire philosophical views.

For a moment, rather than beat up on the potential intrusions by government, a topic which often unites fierce liberals and passionate right-wingers, let's instead look at instances when private institutions decide to hold court over all of us, as individuals or as a nation.

These lofty actors range from the credit lords who rate your individual worth as that of your credit worthiness, to the august The New York Times, and many others. There are plenty of private institutions that consider themselves the arbiters and enforcers of their own self-styled system of justice.

I'll start with a simple fact that most people don't know. Consider those of us who have looked in the mirror and seen someone who is taking on too much debt, has the means to pay it off, and therefore decides to eliminate the opportunity to fall into such debt again.

Sounds like good personal fiscal responsibility, right? Think again. According to leading consumer experts like bestselling author Clark Howard, it's fine to pay a credit card off. But if you close the account, the "Big Three" companies that score your credit will count that against you and lower your credit score!

If that shocks you, you're in big company. Surveys show that most Americans are unaware of this. So let's comprehend the unbelievable by repeating it: These private companies have decided that if you choose to eliminate one of your credit cards, then you've done a bad thing.

That makes plenty of sense -- if you're an issuer of credit. Obviously it's in the best interest of the huge credit-card companies and their affiliates to "encourage" you to hold on to that tempting apple of easy credit. They know you're more liable to do so if you know you'll be punished for tossing it out.

Moreover, the credit company's condemnation has wide ramifications. Credit scores are used to decide everything from whether an insurance company will insure you and at what premium levels, to -- potentially -- the government's evaluation of you as a threat to national security.

Since I'm Catholic, I can get away with that old saying, "Who died and left them pope?"

Unfortunately, the world of private institutions acting as if they authorize our lives doesn't stop with the finance industry. It's everywhere. If you don't believe me, just ask The New York Times.

Several weeks ago, the Bush administration pleaded a case to several newspapers, The Times included, asking them not to disclose a secret financial tracking program designed to keep tabs on the spending habits of suspected terrorists and their supporters around the globe.

I've made it clear in this column that the public isn't wild about these programs. Even so, I'm not sure that most Americans appointed The New York Times to be the final judge as to what national security programs should or shouldn't be made public.

Last week, The Times again insisted that it had acted in the public interest by publishing news of the tracking system and elaborating that there must be oversight of such secret initiatives.

As I've pointed out so often, most journalists continue to believe that the First Amendment provides them, as the "arbiters of the truth," with a "right to know."

It does not. It provides them with freedom of speech.

When we as individuals are forced to cry on bended knee to credit bureaus, or when the presidential administration must plead its case to editors of a private publication, then something is out of whack.

Mr. Credit-Rater, please don't punish me!

Mr. New York Times Editor, please don't print national secrets that you first justify as publishable because there's a "right to know," and then later claim, "Everyone knew, so it's all right!"

After all, we are a nation of laws -- some created by elected lawmakers, but many others virtually written by the same for-profit companies that will most benefit by them.

Comforting, isn't it?