On Balance, or Why Privacy Is A Red Herring

A shorter, less academic version of this post appears at Cyborgology.

This post follows up on my earlier post about a culture of moderation. Here I want to consider one aspect of this contemporary focus on moderation: the idea of “balance.” We talk about work/life balance, the “balance” between individual freedom and national security, and, as Cyborgology’s Jenny Davis notes, the “balance” between tech use and abstention.

This language of balance was particularly prominent in recent discussions of NSA spying. In fact, “balance” is the term the Obama administration uses to justify and rationalize government surveillance. In an August 2013 news conference, President Obama said “we have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms.” When he was interviewed by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper elaborates on the administration’s concept of “balance” (this starts in the video around 6:30):

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Clapper says: “The challenge for us is navigating between those two poles. It’s not a balance, it’s not either/or, there has to be that balance so that we protect the country and also protect civil liberties.” Though he appears to contradict himself in this statement (it’s not a balance, it is a balance), I read this as a contrast between two different concepts of balance. On the one hand, “balance” could mean the average of two extremes, an either/or; on the other hand, “balance” could mean a dynamically-adjusting continuum (the kind of balancing done, for example, by an audio equalizer or an electrical resistor). What Clapper is arguing, I think, is that the “balance” the government must strike is of the latter type, not the former type. Mitchell’s follow-up reinforces this reading. She says, paraphrasing President Obama, “You can’t have a 100% security and then you have 100% privacy and then 0% inconvenience.” Security and freedom/privacy are not absolutes or binary opposites; rather, they’re like asymptotes or limits on a continuum, limits that you can approach but never reach.

According to this model of balance, the most just approach is the one that finds the sweet spot, or, in Clapper’s language, “the exact tipping point” in which both freedom and security are maximized without one pushing the other beyond the point of diminishing returns (the Boston Marathon bombings are the example Clapper cites of diminishing returns).

This language is echoed in Ludacris’s song and video “Rest of My Life.” I’ve written about this here, but the tl;dr is: the image of a cresting wave captures the ideal of maximizing risk and reward, a life pushed to its limits, or, what I call elsewhere, “living on the edge of burnout.” The lyrics constantly evoke this ideal:
…What the hell is a life worth living if it’s not on the edge
Tryin to keep my balance, I’m twisted, so just in case I fall/written on my
tombstone should be ‘women, weed, and alcohol
…I go for broke…I’m willing to bet…

So if balance is the ideal, how is it achieved? Clapper argues that the best way to preserve the balance between individual freedom and state security is “to be as precise as we can be” in selecting “what we actually need to ‘read’.” In this view, a just society is one that most accurately filters the signal (useful information, or information whose use reaps a profit) from the noise (information that’s not profitable, info with too high an opportunity cost). This echoes Nate Silver’s argument in his book about big data, The Signal And The Noise. “Information is no longer a scarce commodity; we have more of it than we know what to do with. But relatively little of it is useful…We have to be terribly selective about the information we choose to remember” (34/26 of Kindle version). Filtering signal from noise (“the truth” from “what distracts us from the truth,” Silver 35) is, according to Silver, the epistemological, social, and ethical problem facing us today.

Ok, so, filtering. But what are the filters? But Clapper and Silver suggest utility as a filter. But that just pushes the question back: useful for whom, and in what way? In the end, it all depends on the end balance you want to achieve. Think back to the audio equalizer example: some equalizers let you choose among different acoustic profiles–rock arena, concert hall, etc. In social and political terms, these profiles might be something like the relative distribution of wealth, whiteness, vulnerability, health, etc. In other words, you can strike a balance that distributes risk and rewards at specific levels for specific populations. For example, it is now common for US government policy to distribute risk to individuals and rewards to corporations (e.g., bailouts for banks but not borrowers). Stop-and-frisk and stand your ground laws are other examples: risk is distributed to people of color, reward (security, survival) to white citizens and to the state/police. We choose the filters that produce the distribution of risk and reward (i.e., the social profile) that is most beneficial to society’s powerful and privileged groups. So, this concept of “balance” isn’t really about protecting individual rights, liberties, or privacy; rather, it’s about maintaining the overall mix or balance of relationships that allow society to function at maximum efficiency and productivity. (This is why, as Jenny notes in her above-linked post, that at the individual level this ideal of balance is really only an ethical imperative for privileged elites–a well-balanced society maximizes the capacities of its most privileged members. For this overall balance to work, oppressed groups need to live relatively “unbalanced” lives, lives that can never really get ahead.) This means that “privacy” as an individual liberty is more or less a red herring–it distracts us from the real focus and intent of contemporary ideology and practice.


“Balance” is neoliberalism’s upgrade on classical social contract theory. The basic premise of social contract theory is that individuals consent to governmental authority. They consent because it’s a good deal, a value-added exchange of individual freedom for social protection and security. For example, I’ll agree to respect other people’s private property if this means that I don’t have to worry about other people stealing mine. I might give up a little, but I get more in return–that’s what motivates me to consent to the social contract. Thus, as Foucault argues, Rousseauian-style contract theory

tries to define the natural or original rights that belong to every individual, and
then to define under what conditions, for what reason, and according to what ideal or historical procedures a limitation or exchange of rights was accepted (BoB 39; emphasis mine).

Balance re-frames this transaction: the relationships between individual and society, freedom and security, these are no longer exchanges but a balance of, to use Foucault’s term, interests. This balance is NOT an “equilibrium between forces established in such a way that the force of one never prevails too decisively over the force of the other” (BoB 54). Balance is not “equality.” In fact, the best balance may require radicalizing the inequality among individuals and segments of society: just think of the growing wealth gap in the US–this produces the balance that is most beneficial to “society” (meaning, the most privileged members of society). Balance is a relationship among individual parts that maximizes and optimizes overall outcomes.

One of these outcomes is “freedom.” If the exchange model from classical contract theory treats freedom as a natural given that individuals trade for social membership and security, this “balance” model treats freedom as a return on social investment. As Foucault explains, “freedom is something which is constantly produced.” Government “proposes to manufacture it constantly, to arouse it and produce it, with, of course, [the system] of constraints and the problem of cost raised by this production” (BoB 65). Balance here is the economic cost/benefit analysis of an entrepreneurial venture: how much should I invest in order to optimize my returns? This is not an exchange, but an investment. Government here isn’t selling security in exchange for individual freedom; it’s an enterprise that generates “freedom” as a dividend or return on investment. Freedom isn’t an external limit on government power, but the reward for playing the game, a gamble you take. This is why individual privacy is a red herring–it works with this older model of freedom as limit, not freedom as outcome.

As an outcome, freedom is something that can and ought to be assessed. A just government is one that produces the levels of freedom appropriate for each segment of society (this is why, for example, the NSA makes a big distinction between citizens and non-citizens; the former are due a different level of freedom than the latter, presumably because they make greater investments in the US nation/state.) To make these assessments, the state/government “arms its politics with a precise, continuous, clear and distinct knowledge of what is taking place in society, in the market, and in the economic circuits, so that the limitation of its power is not given by respect for the freedom of individuals, but simply by the evidence of economic analysis which it knows has to be respected. It is limited by evidence, not by the freedom of individuals” (BoB 61). Foucault’s language echoes Clapper’s and Silver’s from above–to assess and maintain optimal levels of freedom, it’s about knowing precisely whom to subject to increased surveillance. And, as Silver’s book argues, this filtering is a matter of truth, not freedom.