The Master Switch and State-Worship

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.

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4 Responses to The Master Switch and State-Worship

  1. Rhayader says:

    It’s a tricky argument. One example Wu gave in his TLF post was: “If you do not speak your mind for fear of being shamed or fined, the fact in both cases is that you do not speak your mind.”

    Am I to infer that Wu thinks both restrictions on speech are equally problematic? I have to say I find this line of thinking highly suspect. My freedom is not limited by the idea of public shame for what I say. It’s simply an incentive that shapes my ultimate decision. Having Polite Society tsk-tsk me for my vulgarity is very different from having the state punish me, and I think it’s pretty disingenuous to present the two scenarios as if they pose equal threats to freedom of expression.

    Another example he uses is kidnapping — something he calls “exaggerated,” but it really verges on absurd. Kidnapping is a crime, a reality to which no libertarian would object. An instance of kidnapping is emphatically not, as Wu puts it, “the fault of too little law.” It’s a violation of an existing law, otherwise known as a crime.

    I understand the point and I’m sure there are plenty of examples of extra-government restrictions on liberty that would indeed infuriate me. But to dismiss a particular focus on government-enforced restrictions on freedom as “state worship” seems flippant to say the least.

  2. Tim Lee says:

    Am I to infer that Wu thinks both restrictions on speech are equally problematic?

    No, he specifically declines to make that argument: “even if state rules are the worst, why pointedly ignore all of the other threats to human freedom?” The point isn’t that all threats to freedom are equally bad. The point is that threats to freedom from non-state actors are threats to freedom, and therefore ought to be of concern to libertarians.

    There’s nothing wrong with “a particular focus on government-enforced restrictions on freedom.” But Wu’s book devotes quite a lot of attention to government-enforced threats to freedom. You can reasonably say it should have devoted more space to these threats and less space to threats originating from the private sector, but if that’s the primary problem with the book it’s hard to understand the vehemence of Adam’s critique. Personally I’m really happy when left-of-center thinkers write books that largely blame government regulators for bad policy outcomes, even if they don’t assign the government quite as much blame as I would.

  3. Matthew Johnson says:

    “For most of history, the state has, indeed, been the primary enemy of human freedom.”

    I agree with this. However, I see an equal potential for risk toward human liberty coming from industry. Arguments between classical liberals and left liberals always seem to set up a reductive dichotomy between government and industry as two opposing poles, with the general public somehow lumped in with industry, as if the interests of industry and individuals are the same. Therefore, libertarians always seem to see liberties granted to corporations/industry also being granted to individuals, as if the two were the same: what’s good for the company is good for the public.

    Yet to me, there is an equal risk in either too much governmental power or too much corporate power. What puzzles me is that libertarians who profess to support human liberty often seem to side with industry over/against both the government and individuals, with the implicit assumption that industry’s interests are the same as the individual’s (and as if industry cares at all about the liberty of the little guy.)

    I think there’s another, trivalent model for talking about liberty in which it’s not only state power that encroaches on human freedom, but corporate power as well. The history of corporations curtailing individual liberty is long and well-documented, from the examples you cite above, through Bhopal to Enron to Halliburton to Citizens United etc ad nauseum.

  4. vector says:

    Good article. Useful

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