Thin Liberalism and the Folly of Burning Bridges

Eben Moblen

Eben Moglen

James Lakely, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, recently pointed me to a new study he’s written on the network neutrality debate. (See also his op-ed summarizing the argument.) Lakely is clearly a smart guy, and his paper is backed up by a significant amount of research. However, the basic argument of his paper—that the network neutrality movement has “unwittingly bought into” the “radical agenda” of the free software movement—strikes me as pretty misguided.

Lakely quotes extensively from the work of free software intellectuals like Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen. To his credit, he gives a relatively even-handed account of what free software advocates believe, quoting them in their own words and acknowledging some important nuances. The problem is that this very fair-mindedness undermines his argument, because the quotes he selects reveal not a collectivist ideology, but an individualist, bottom-up one. From Moglen’s unfortunately (and, I suspect, half-ironically) named “The dotCommunist Manifesto,” for example, Lakely quotes a passage in which Moglen declares himself “committed to the struggle for free speech, free knowledge, and free technology.” Which sounds pretty good for me. Lakely also quotes Students for Free Culture, a campus activist organization that to my knowledge has never taken a position on network neutrality regulation. He quotes the following passage, with what I assume is disapproval:

The mission of the Free Culture movement is to build a bottom-up, participatory structure to society and culture, rather than a top-down, closed, proprietary structure. Through the democratizing power of digital technology and the Internet, we can place the tools of creation and distribution, communication and collaboration, teaching and learning into the hands of the common person — and with a truly active, connected, informed citizenry, injustice and oppression will slowly but surely vanish from the earth.

I’ve re-read that passage several times, and I’m still baffled about why any libertarian or supporter of the free market would object to it. The free market, after all, is a “bottom-up, participatory structure” for the economy—why wouldn’t we want “society and culture” organized in the same fashion? And what possible objection could there be to expanding access to “the tools of creation and distribution, communication and collaboration, teaching and learning?” Aren’t we all opposed to “injustice and oppression?”

Yochai Benkler

Yochai Benkler

I’m playing dumb a little bit. Stallman, Moglen, Benkler, Wu, Lessig, et all are not libertarians, and they have a tendency to rhetorical excess that rubs free-market types the wrong way. Moglen in particular likes to salt his speeches with Marxist jargon that almost seems tailor-made to alienate libertarians. So fair enough: Eben Moglen is not the free software movement’s best ambassador to the libertarian movement.

But it’s important that we not exalt form over substance. The libertarian quarrel with socialism isn’t with their egalitarianism, but with their willingness to impose that egalitarianism by force of law. Libertarians argue that free markets and robust civil society are good for the poor precisely because they are “bottom-up, participatory structures” that give every individual the opportunity to make the most of their own lives.

The free software movement is textbook example of the libertarian thesis: it’s a private, voluntary community producing public goods without a dime of taxpayer support. Some leaders of the free software movement don’t realize they’re walking libertarian case studies, and some have an unfortunate tendency to employ left-wing rhetoric to describe what they’re doing. But if you look at the substance of their views, and even more if you look at their actions, it’s hard to find anything for libertarians to object to.

So Lakely winds up attacking a movement full of actual and potential allies because some of its members support a proposed government regulation Lakely (and I) oppose. And to be fair, Lakely is far from alone. A number of libertarian and free-market intellectuals and organization have gone out of their way to antagonize the free software movement.I think this illustrates the danger of the “thin” conception of liberty espoused by Seavey, McCarthy, and company. A libertarian whose conception of liberty is confined to limited government is going to be left rudderless when confronted with a pro-liberty movement whose concerns are orthogonal to the size of government. And this is not only stupid politically, it’s also a huge mistake on the merits because ultimately classical liberalism is about liberty, not just limited government.

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55 Responses to Thin Liberalism and the Folly of Burning Bridges

  1. hacksoncode says:

    The one comment I’ll make is that, while it’s true that network companies should be allowed to do whatever they want with respect to the traffic on their networks (per libertarian ideals), it’s *also* true that with freedom comes responsibility.

    Network providers can’t treat different traffic differently based on content, and still claim that they bear no responsibility for that content.

    If they want a free ride on the liability for the data on their networks (effectively common carrier status), they need to not selectively pick certain content for special treatment.

    Personally, I think that it would be a good trade for them to make: network neutrality in return for no liability for the data crossing their networks.

    But it should be their free choice to make.

  2. Net neutrality proponents demand government force and coercion against the owners of network property. Free Culturists demand the elimination of property rights to creative works. How is this libertarian, regardless of whether or not you capitalize it?

    It isn’t.

  3. I would agree that net neutrality legislation is unnecessary if we had a free market for telecommunications. In that case people could choose whether to buy from a service provider that offered net neutrality. But when you’ve got so many places with telco/cable duopolies for broadband (sometimes even monopolies), net neutrality is needed to discourage them from abusing their powerful position. Now I’d prefer that something be done to create a freer market (opening more of the wireless spectrum to all comers might be a good start), but it’s clear that’s not going to happen.

    “Free Culturists” demand the elimination of IP rights? News to me. I read (and loved) the book “Free Culture” and that wasn’t anywhere near Lessig’s intent.

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  5. yatty says:

    “The free software movement is textbook example of the libertarian thesis: it’s a private, voluntary community producing public goods without a dime of taxpayer support.”

    But this is not the case. The movement developed itself on technology (computers, the “Internet”, etc.) built by the state, my friend.

    And the original “libertarians” were socialists. If you read old anarchist literature, they refer to themselves as “libertarians” (see, for example, The Modern School Movement – pertaining to freely undertaken education). Moglen seems to me an anarchist – a libertarian of the classical sort.

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