The Clark County Republican Party believes smart meters are an intolerable invasion of our constitutional right to privacy, but their argument is in conflict with a long tradition of Republican thought that denies the existence of … a constitutional right to privacy.
NVEnergy wants to equip the homes it powers with “smart meters.” The meters record energy usage by the hour and send the information back to the utility to help NVEnergy match its production with our consumption. The idea is to maximize efficiency. The meters would also give consumers information that would help them reduce unnecessary peak-hours consumption, reducing the burden on the power grid. The utility believes this will save both energy and money.
Either that or they’re out to destroy American liberty.
“The constitutional issue with the smart-meter policy involves an invasion of privacy,” a recent press release from Clark County’s Republican Party declares. “These meters have the ability to detect, record and report private customer energy consumption and other personal information without prior customer consent.” A capitalized plea follows: “URGENT: Tell Governor Sandoval to Protect Our Right to Privacy.”
The sudden concern with the rights of people to live as they see fit in their homes should come as news to people who have been … fighting for the right to live as they see fit in their homes.
Recently, for instance, Republican leaders have been deeply concerned about contraception. The Blunt amendment, named for the Republican congressional whip, said employers should be able to opt out of providing birth-control coverage if they have “moral grounds,” whatever they may be. When Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, testified before Congress that employers should not be able to exclude contraception from employee health benefits, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”
Unless congressional Republicans would also argue that employers have the right to selectively deny coverage for, say, cholesterol medication “on moral grounds,” it’s clear that the debate is not about restricting government’s role in business but about doing what it can to limit private, victimless behaviors that it dislikes—or to make victims of those who want the right to their private behavior.
Fair enough, but even if NVEnergy’s smart-meter plan is as invasive as Republicans say it is, it would also be a case of an entity outside the home (the utility) picking a behavior (wastefulness) and … not limiting it, but measuring it to improve overall performance. No one has proposed denying access to electricity to homes that overuse it. In fact, those who don’t want the smart meter can opt out of getting one (though they’d have to pay for installation of a different type of meter). In other words, they can easily evade the state’s intolerable invasion of their privacy.
The concept of a constitutional right to privacy has never been a darling of the Republican Party. Strict constructionists would say that the Constitution doesn’t mention privacy, but a 1965 Supreme Court opinion, Griswold v. Connecticut, determined that such a right was inherent in the constitution as a “penumbra” of the text. The specific ruling was that a state had no right to prohibit the use of—get ready—contraceptives.
The right to privacy was also the core of the high court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which held that the “right to privacy … is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Republicans such as Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have argued otherwise, including voting to uphold sodomy laws on the grounds that the right to privacy doesn’t exist in the Constitution.
But when the public utility wants to equip our homes with meters to help households and the community as a whole save energy, the GOP is ready for pitched battle in support of our constitutionally guaranteed privacy.
Nationally and locally, the Republican Party has disavowed any kind of logical consistency. As Republicans have shown, they don’t find it difficult to twist themselves into ideological pretzels. As long as they don’t do that in the bedroom.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.