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The right to privacy is enshrined in constitutions and law around the world. But does it have limits? The United States Constitution does not provide for any general right to privacy, though it is a right recognized with varying degrees of power in federal and state laws. Politicians frequently claim this right, contending that the public has no right to know about their private affairs. Is that a fair request?
Given their proclivity for diminishing the rights of citizens generally, as well as the peculiar power and trust placed in them, there is a strong case to be made that politicians should not be free of personal scrutiny.
Stepping into the Spotlight
When an individual seeks elevation to public office, he or she must accept that the role is a special one in society. As the representative of the people, the politician is more than just the holder of a job appointed by the people, but is the elected servant, whose duty is to lead.
Leadership includes leading by example as well as simply directing policy. It is a strange relationship, and it is one that demands the utmost confidence in the holder. But confidence can only be developed through increased scrutiny and transparency. This means understanding the private life of the politician, since it so often informs their public life. Thus, when citizens place their political power in the hands of an elected representative, they gain the reciprocal right over that representative to have his or her life and character laid bare for their approval. This is the only way true representativeness may be achieved.
The Right to Know
It is also important to understand the nature of representatives as stand-ins for the citizens who elect them. Politicians are basically surrogates. Their duty is to represent the people in public life across all issues and policies. Yet it is impossible to ascertain the desires of the citizens on all issues in the course of an election campaign.
Even harder is to understand political decision-making in a context that had not existed at the time of the election. For example, if a war was to begin suddenly in a country that had not expected any conflict and had not elected representatives on the basis of how they stood on fighting this war. But that is exactly why politicians are elected as much for who they are as for what their avowed policy aims are.
We elect politicians who we believe will act best under such changing conditions; the ‘3 am phone call’, how a candidate will react in a crisis, is often a major issue in U.S. presidential elections and temperament is often the only way to judge this. Understanding the personal lives of politicians allows voters to elect one who best represents them in the sense of being able to act in their name in a changing world. Thus it is critical for the good electoral decision-making that the right to privacy of politicians be overruled.
The Boons of Scrutiny
When politicians see themselves constantly under the lens of public scrutiny, they are essentially forced to dedicate themselves wholesale to their duties as representatives. They are disincentivized in the extreme to pursue any transgressive or hypocritical activities behind closed doors, resulting in more energy dedicated to legislating, and less to lining their pockets or chasing interns, since the added risk of being discovered increases the cost of trying to conceal their foibles.
Having a culture of scrutiny of politicians’ private lives will mean those who most see their work as a public service and so will be dedicated to it will be the ones who seek to become politicians. Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s lurid sex life, for example, threw light on the sexual misconduct rife in French politics and has actually sparked a major effort to reform the system and a change to a more demanding culture towards politicians. Politicians are human, after all, and susceptible to the base human urges that power unchecked is wont to accommodate.
A powerful probe into politicians’ private lives can only serve the cause of better governance.