E Pluribus Unum was the unofficial motto of the United States until Congress, in 1956, made it by law, “In God We Trust.”
In view of a recent bipartisan initiative in the Republican-led Congress to pool data from every federal agency on every American in the supposed interest of “evidence-based policymaking,” you have to wonder if a new motto is taking shape, whether ever explicitly enacted or not.
Call it, “In Big Data, We Trust.”
The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (FEPA) breezed to House approval on a voice vote in mid-November, and likely will sail through the Senate with minimal, if any, debate. FEPA calls on all federal agencies to share the data they possess on individuals and to grant access to researchers working for assorted interests. The feds would write their own rules for all this data-sharing without having to obtain the informed consent of persons whose information is passed around and used—or abused.
A representative of grassroots groups opposing FEPA, lawyer Jane Robbins, made the excellent point that citizens who yield their information to a federal agency for a specific purpose don’t expect their data to be “repurposed” without their permission just because Washington wonks think they are achieving some transcending good.
“In a free society, the government is subordinate to the citizen,” Robbins wrote. “If it wants to use his data for something he didn’t agree to, it should first obtain his consent. FEPA operates according to the contrary principle – that government is entitled to do whatever it wants with a citizen’s data and shouldn’t be hindered by his objection.”
The Declaration of Independence remains clear on that point: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Absent that consent, governmental actions are illegitimate.
Of course, the chief sponsors of FEPA—House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)—see the issue quite differently, as one of Big Data aiding the government in rescuing people from a scourge such as poverty. Ryan, the ultimate policy nerd, has argued the consolidated data are needed to determine which poverty-fighting programs are working and which are not.
It is no secret Ryan and Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, are fans of Big Data-driven policymaking (though they may have divergent visions of what kinds of policies would prevail). In March 2016, Ryan and Murray introduced bills in the House and Senate, respectively, to create an Evidence-Based Policy Commission charged with developing a strategy of implementation. On September 7, 2017, the commission issued what Ryan’s press office called a “groundbreaking report,” trumpeting it under under this modest headline: “Realizing the American Idea Through Evidence-Based Policymaking.”
On November 1, Ryan introduced FEPA based on the commission’s findings. On November 15, the House approved it on a voice vote, with normal rules suspended.
Cue the Johnny Cash classic “Folsom Prison Blues”: “I hear the train a comin,’ it’s rollin’ round the bend.”
Perhaps this fast-tracked measure could help verify why dozens of ultra-expensive federal programs constituting LBJ’s War on Poverty utterly failed. What is unclear is how a de facto national database would magically identify new poverty programs sure to work.
In essence, Ryan, Murray, and other friends of Big Data are asking Americans to trust the government to safeguard every speck of information the administrative state collects about them and their families. In that regard, it is instructive that in EdChoice’s latest public-opinion survey, only 10 percent of Americans believe they can trust the federal government to do what is right “always or most of the time.” And when it comes to protection of their most sensitive information from security breaches, why should they trust the feds?
Major data breaches have occurred at the National Security Agency, Department of Defense, Office of Personnel and Management, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Department of Education, among other giants in the federal establishment. Expanding the pool of information across the entire government and making it available to outside interests can only increase the threat to personal privacy.
The ultimate outrage is that this is happening largely without debate, hearings, or recorded votes. Those who take an oath to uphold the Constitution should program “consent of the governed” into their personal operating systems.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org
) is a senior fellow in education policy with The Heartland Institute.