Over at the Technology Liberation Front in recent weeks Adam Thierer has been doing a series of posts about Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch. Adam wasn’t a fan. Wu himself jumped in with a response, where he focused on the nature of libertarianism, and suggesting that Adam is ignoring the libertarian-friendly aspects of his book.
I jumped into the debate with a guest post of my own:
Adam began his first post by stating that he “disagrees vehemently with Wu’s general worldview and recommendations, and even much of his retelling of the history of information sectors and policy.” This is kind of silly. In fact, Adam and Wu (and I) want largely the same things out of information technology markets: we want competitive industries with low barriers to entry in which many firms compete to bring consumers the best products and services. We all reject the prevailing orthodoxy of the 20th century, which said that the government should be in the business of picking technological winners and losers. Where we disagree is over means: we classical liberals believe that the rules of property, contract, and maybe a bit of antitrust enforcement are sufficient to yield competitive markets, whereas left-liberals fear that too little regulation will lead to excessive industry concentration. That’s an important argument to have, and I think the facts are mostly on the libertarians’ side. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the extent to which we’re on the same side, fighting against the ancient threat of government-sponsored monopoly.
My friend Kerry Howley coined the term “state-worship” to describe libertarians who insist on making the government the villain of every story. For most of history, the state has, indeed, been the primary enemy of human freedom. Liberals like Wu are too sanguine about the dangers of concentrating too much power in Washington, D.C. But to say the state is an important threat to freedom is not to say that it’s the only threat worth worrying about. Wu tells the story of Western Union’s efforts to use its telegraph monopoly to sway the election of 1876 to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. That effort would be sinister whether or not Western Union’s monopoly was the product of government interference with the free market. Similarly, the Hays code (Hollywood’s mid-century censorship regime) was an impediment to freedom of expression whether or not the regime was implicitly backed by the power of the state. Libertarians are more reluctant to call in the power of the state to combat these wrongs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned with them.
You can read the rest of my response over at TLF.
The Master Switch is a great read, and I expect to write more about it in the future.