There's something about the personal computer that brings out the worst in Big Brother.
The folks in Washington who want government to keep a heavy hand on our private lives dislike the personal computer precisely because it's so personal. It lets people go about their personal business, keep their personal records, and -- perish the thought! -- carry on personal correspondence in private, away from the prying eyes of Uncle Sam.
Some of our elected "leaders" don't like to see free people running their own lives; they think government could do a much better job of it. Surprisingly, many of those who support the most intrusive big brotherism are conservatives who purport to despise excessive governmental intervention.
Take Ronald Reagan, for example. Remember those wonderful campaign speeches when he promised to "get government off our backs"? Now this same Reagan has issued regulations requiring your bank to snitch on you if you withdraw more cash than the bureaucrats approve of. This gets government off our backs?
Another of the Big-Brother-in-Conservative's-Clothing types is Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.).
Sen. Trible is one of those brave politicians willing to take on tough issues. This summer, for example, he found the political courage to come out against child abuse.
The problem was that, by the time Trible got around to it, other senators had introduced dozens of bills on the issue. Child abuse is such a perfect hobby horse for politicans to ride -- safer and easier by far than taking on the deficit or tax code -- that there was almost no room left in the saddle when Trible decided to mount.
But one should never underestimate the ingenuity of a politician who's desperate to board the bandwagon of the moment. Trible found a whole new approach to child abuse. The result is a gem of political cynicism he calls "The Computer Pornography and Child Exploitation Prevention Act."
Trible's bill empowers a corps of federal computer cops to seize and search your personal computer files -- that pile of floppy disks on your desk -- and store it all in a government dossier under your name.
Trible's justification for this titanic governmental intrusion comes straight out of Saturday Night Live. He says his bill is needed, despite its infringement of privacy, because some minute number of child abusers might use personal computers "to catalogue information about their victims."
Whatever else you might say about Sen. Trible, this explanation indicates he must have a rich fantasy life. Your average pedophiliac fiend does not rush down to the office after a criminal exploit, fire up his IBM-PC, and load a database program so he can update the meticulous computerized records he maintains on each victim.
Trible's bill also calls for federal G-men to check up when you call a computer bulletin board. Trible doesn't trust Americans to choose their own reading material; he's afraid they might call a bulletin board that includes "offensive material."
There was a time when what you read in the privacy of your own home was your business, not the government's. Trible wants to change that; how can big government watch out for you, after all, if it doesn't keep track of what you read?
Accordingly, Trible's bill authorizes the feds to snoop on the bulletin-board calls you make; if you happen to call one that has "offensive material," you're headed for Leavenworth. And who decides what reading material is "offensive?" Big Brother, of course.
There's a revealing passage in Trible's explanation of his bill. "Computer use is becoming ever more widespread," he said. "They [sic] afford their users anonymity . . . "
Anonymity! For Trible, that's the real problem with personal computers. The big-government types hate anonymity and personal privacy. Trible and his fellow conservatives would outlaw privacy so Big Brother can watch over your shoulder when you sit down at your computer.
In places like Russia and Poland, it's official procedure that any work you do on a computer, personal or otherwise, is open to government search and seizure. Now Trible, in a ludicrously off-target lunge at child abusers, wants to impose that same rule on the Land of the Free.