What Zelda Teaches Us About Privacy

The first game I played in the Elder Scrolls series was Oblivion for the Xbox 360. Its in-game legal system, among many other features, blew me away. In most video games, you can loot any area you can access. In Elder Scrolls, trespassing where you do not belong or stealing something or killing an innocent attracts the long arm of the law. Villagers report your crime to town guards, who pursue you until you pay a bounty, spend time in jail, or fall under their sword.

That element of realism puts into perspective how much bad behavior goes tolerated in other games. Playing any game in The Legend of Zelda series provides ample opportunity to trespass, ransack, and thieve to your heart’s content. Some games have even made a joke of the trend by scripting a non-player character who objects to an intrusion. Then there’s the parody above with close to six million views on YouTube, leveraging for laughs the wanton destruction and looting committed by a “hero.”

The best humor rests upon truth. A live recreation of Link smashing pots in a random house makes us laugh because we recognize its absurdity. You can’t just barge into someone’s home and start trashing and looting.

… unless you’re the government.

There is  a strange tendency in our political culture to wring hands over imagined violations of perceived privacy while tolerating routine violations of actual privacy. We see this while juxtaposing reaction to recent state laws toughening restrictions on abortion and the lack of sustained concern over the IRS and NSA scandals. Tell a women she can’t kill her unborn child, and you supposedly violate her privacy. But feel free to tax her political speech and search her phone records.

When you want to be sure.

When you want to be sure.

The confusion arises from a fundamental mischaracterization of privacy fostered by the Supreme Court of the United States in its decision resolving Griswold v. Connecticut. In that case, the court took on a statute banning contraception. The court ruled that the state law was unconstitutional due to an alleged “right to privacy” found in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of our founding document. That’s a fancy way of saying they invented the “right” out of whole cloth.

Certainly, the Connecticut statute against contraception violated the citizen’s right to apply their own judgment to conduct which does not violate the rights of others. However, acknowledging that proves significantly different than proclaiming a sweeping and subjective right to privacy.

Surely, privacy exists, but as a derivative of rights, not a right in and of itself. The property you own and the contracts you enter define your privacy. If someone makes a recording of you walking down the street, you experience no violation. If they trespass on your property, you have standing to complain. Likewise, if an action is taken in violation of a contract, like a disclosure made private through agreement, a tort has been committed.

An objective view of privacy, defined by the true rights from which it is derived, fosters clear thinking regarding the many intrusions committed by government. The income tax set a horrific precedent for violating citizens’ privacy. If we concede that the government may tax income, we invite them to scrutinize our finances. Otherwise, would it ever be anyone’s business how much money you make?

Topping the intrusion of the income tax, Obamacare makes every aspect of your life the purview of government. Everything you do (and, as the court ruled last year, everything you don’t do) has some effect upon the state’s effort to manage your health. So your whole life becomes their business.

By recognizing and affirming the same principle which makes us laugh at Link ransacking a random home, we inch closer to reclaiming our privacy from a government which has relentlessly taken it away.