January 17, 2008

I’ve never understood the libertarian fascination with Microsoft, a company which, in practice, violates everything libertarians claim they believe in theory.  Microsoft triumphed not by offering a superior product at lower prices, but through a series of (admittedly business-savvy) backroom deals that allowed them to get their foot in the door at both IBM and Apple.  Virtually every Microsoft success since then has been leveraged, using its dominance in one area to crush the competition in another.

Some libertarians, such as Lew Rockwell, have belatedly come to understand why Apple builds a better product, but when push comes to shove, they’ll still defend the would-be monopolist from Redmond.  Business success, no matter how it’s attained, apparently trumps the ideal workings of the market.

Still, every time I see a story such as the one published in the London Times yesterday, I can’t help but wonder when the libertarian love affair with Microsoft will come to an end.  It’s hard to imagine a less libertarian proposal than Microsoft’s latest patent application:

Microsoft submitted a patent application in the US for a “€œunique monitoring system”€ that could link workers to their computers. Wireless sensors could read “€œheart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure”€, the application states.

The system could also “€œautomatically detect frustration or stress in the user”€ and “€œoffer and provide assistance accordingly”€. Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker’s weight, age and health. If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed help.

Of course, Microsoft puts the proposal in the best possible light.  It’s all about the health and welfare of workers, don’t you see?  The fact that such data could (and therefore would) be misused by employers is irrelevant.  The libertarian knee will jerk when the libertarian brain registers this line from the article:

Unions said they fear that employees could be dismissed on the basis of a computer’s assessment of their physiological state.

If unions are against it, and business owners are for it, then Microsoft is clearly doing the Lord’s (or at least Adam Smith’s) work.

The fact that such technology will also be sold to the government (which will likely turn out to be the most enthusiastic customer) shouldn’t bother anyone, should it?  After all, the problems of the modern world can all be solved by making government more like business.  What better place to start?


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