The Battle for Media Freedom, Part 3: A Conflict of Cyber-Visions

by Adam Thierer on July 23, 2010

Part 1 of this series defined what real media freedom is all about and Part 2 discussed the rising “cyber-collectivist” threat to media freedom. In this installment, I’ll offer an analytical framework that better explains the major differences between the antagonists in the battle over media freedom.

Understanding the Origins of Political Struggles

In his many enlightening books, Thomas Sowell, a great economist and an even better political scientist, often warns of the triumph of good intentions over good economics. It’s a theme that F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman both developed extensively before him. But Sowell has taken this analysis to an entirely differently level in books like A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, and The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. Sowell teaches us that no matter how noble one’s intentions might be, it does not mean that those ideas will translate into sound public policy.  Nonetheless, since “the anointed” believe their own intentions are pure and their methods are sound, they see nothing wrong with substituting their will for the will of millions of individuals interacting spontaneously and voluntarily in the marketplace. The result is an expansion of the scope of public decision-making and a contraction of the scope of private, voluntary action.  As a result, mandates replace markets, and freedom gives way central planning.

Sowell developed two useful paradigms to help us better understand “the origins of political struggles.” He refers to the “constrained” versus “unconstrained” vision and separates these two camps according to how they view the nature of man, society, economy, and politics:

“Constrained Vision” “Unconstrained Vision”
Man is inherently constrained; highly fallible and imperfect Man is inherently unconstrained; just a matter of trying hard enough; man & society are perfectible
Social and economic order develops in bottom-up, spontaneous fashion. Top down planning is hard because planners aren’t omnipotent. Order derives from smart planning, often from top-down. Elites can be trusted to make smart social & economic interventions.
Trade-offs & incentives matter most; wary of unintended consequences Solutions & intentions matter most; less concern about costs or consequences of action
Opportunities count more than end results; procedural fairness is key; Liberty trumps Outcomes matter most; distributive or “patterned” justice is key; Equality trumps liberty
Prudence and patience are virtues. There are limits to human reason. Passion for, and pursuit of, high ideals trumps all. Human reason has boundless potential.
Law evolves and is based on the experience of ages. Law is made by trusted elites.
Markets offer benefit of experience & experimentation and help develop knowledge over time. Markets cannot ensure desired results; must be superseded by planning & patterned justice
Exponents: Aristotle, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Lord Acton, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Robert Nozick Exponents: Plato, Rousseau, William Godwin, Voltaire, Robert Owen, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Dewey, Earl Warren, Bertrand Russell, John Rawls

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The Unconstrained Nature of the Cyber-Collectivist Vision

Sowell’s taxonomy provides a useful frame of reference for today’s debate over communications and media policy. The unconstrained vision crowd here might best be labeled “cyber-collectivists.” This collectivism is not necessarily the hard-edged Marxist brand of collectivism of modern times. It is more the collectivism of Plato’s rule by “philosopher kings” as much as it is modern European “social democrat” collectivism. It generally rejects outright State ownership of the means of production, although there are some exceptions. (Free Press founder Robert McChesney, for example, would go much further than most other collectivists in having the State intervene and directly control or even own media and communications outlets and infrastructure).

Like their many “unconstrained” intellectual predecessors, what unifies the cyber-collectivists is the belief that the State should have a hand in guiding market outcomes toward a “fairer” end. The cyber-collectivists, for example, get indigestion over unequal patterns whether we are talking audience shares or technological diffusion. They are quick to allege “market failure” when some of their preferred media voices only capture miniscule audience shares (even when it’s just the result of consumer demand in action).  And when some people or communities gain access to a network or new technology quicker than others, they are often quick to conclude some nefarious plot by greedy capitalists must be to blame.

Of course, in reality, this is just the way things in a free society have always worked. “Liberty upsets patterns” the late Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick taught us in his 1974 masterpiece “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” What Nozick meant was that there is a fundamental tension between liberty and egalitarianism such that when people are left to their own devices, some forms of inequality would be inevitable and persistent throughout society. Correspondingly, any attempt to force patterns, or outcomes, upon society requires a surrender of liberty.

All of this is equally true for media and communications policy. Just as there will never be perfect equality of outcomes in the provision of homes, cars, or incomes, there will never be perfect equality of tech gadgets or audience shares for media speakers / outlets.

Speech Redistributionism

The cyber-collectivists are not content with that, however.  Just as they call for a redistribution of wealth to rectify the supposed injustice of unequal incomes, so too they call for “something to be done” to “balance” outcomes and ensure “fairer” outcomes. We might call this “media redistributionism” or even “speech  redistributionism.”

Consider, for example, a proposal set forth by Cass Sunstein, the prolific University of Chicago law professor (and now Obama Administration official). In his 2001 book Republic.com, in which he suggests that government should consider requiring “electronic sidewalks” in cyberspace to encourage more balance on Internet websites. The state would impose the equivalent of “must carry” mandates on popular or partisan websites, forcing them to carry links to opposing viewpoints.  In the name of “media access” or “fairness,” Sunstein and others are apparently willing to let the state impose tyrannical mandates on private website operators, forcing them to open their private property to use by others. Essentially it’s a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet Age.

Elsewhere Sunstein has argued in favor of greater “public interest” regulation to actually change public attitudes and tastes, claiming that there “is a large difference between the public interest and what interests the public.” [See: Television and the Public Interest, 88 California Law Review 499, 501 (2000).]  He and many other cyber-collectivist scholars claim that they have a better idea of what interests the public.  Essentially, the public doesn’t know what’s best for them, so someone else must tell them—and potentially even force supposedly better choices upon them. For example, Ellen P. Goodman of the Rutgers-Camden School of Law, and currently an adviser to the Federal Communications Commission, believes that, “a proactive media policy must not only correct a poorly functioning market, but also provide diversions around existing media markets and tastes.  Proactive media policy can do this by changing consumer wants.”

The thought of having government “change consumer wants” is positively Orwellian and raises the obvious question: according to who’s tastes and values?  The viewing and listening public has a broad array of interests and desires that cannot be easily gauged by congressional lawmakers, and certainly not by five unelected bureaucrats at the FCC.  As media scholar Benjamin Compaine has correctly noted, “[i]n democracies, there is no universal ‘public interest.’ Rather there are numerous and changing ‘interested publics.’”

And, more practically, how should such goals be accomplished in an age of information abundance?  The sheer scale and volume of media activity taking place across an unprecedented variety of communications platforms makes it difficult to imagine how a scarcity-era regulatory regime will be applied going forward.  Are we going to have speech patrols standing on every cyber-corner policing the Net for “fairness” violations or determining what is and isn’t “in the public interest”?

Opportunity, Not Outcome, Is What Matters Most

Those of us who subscribe to a more “constrained vision” understand that what is really important is equality of media opportunity, not equality of media outcomes.  A focus on the latter is both foolish and destructive. It is foolish because media equality is an impossibility absent extreme measures, which in turn explains why it is destructive. We would need totalitarian government controls on media outputs and consumption in order to achieve anything remotely close to “balance” or “equality” in terms of media results. What counts most is that people have a chance to be heard, not whether millions are listening or whether there is a perfect distribution of digital technology.

Again, that is not enough for the unconstrained visionaries who guide the cyber-collectivist movement. They want action and they want results and they want them now! And, they will always remind us, they have the best of intentions, so we should just trust them.  The problem is, intentions + action = control. When they say “something to be done” that is usually code (excuse the pun) for heavy-handed government action to control the messy, un-patterned outcomes of a free marketplace.

And so we arrive at the critical difference between the cyber-freedom and the cyber-collectivist movements: Those of us who adhere to a more constrained view of nature, society and economy (i.e., the cyber-freedom movement) believe that liberty is the default position and that it generally trumps other values. Supposed “market failures” (or “code failures,” as the case may be) are ultimately better addressed by voluntary, spontaneous, bottom-up, marketplace responses than by the coerced, top-down, governmental solutions that the cyber-collectivists call for.  Moreover, the decisive advantage of the market-driven approach to correcting code failure comes down to the rapidity and nimbleness of those response(s). Finally, and quite importantly, we in the cyber-freedom movement are not so quick to cry “market failure!” and call in the code cops. We understand that those messy, un-patterned market outcomes are the result of an evolutionary process or trial-and-error and that society and economy benefit from the resulting learning process.

Sure, there may be times when governments may need to intervene at the margins, but we would counsel against abrupt and incessant interventions to correct every supposed “market failure” or “unfair” outcome. After all, those interventions will simply beget more and more interventions to correct the inevitable failures of, or dissatisfaction with, previous interventions. There is simply no sugar-coating the reality that, no matter how well-intentioned, more and more media control is the inevitable prescription.

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In my next installment in this series, I will detail the cyber-collectivist blueprint for radical media redistributionism by outlining this movement’s goals and its proposed methods of control.

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