The Book Club

Real-World Libertarians and the Net

I’m finding it a bit hard to locate my book in Richard’s kickoff to this discussion. Its argument is not, as he suggests, that “liberty converges onto anarchy.” To the contrary: My argument is that a certain form of libertarianism will lead to less liberty. A certain form of libertarianism–a knee-jerk libertarianism that looks at every proposed intervention by government and says “leave the Net alone.” My argument is that this response will lead to a Net with far less liberty than the Net we know now, with a potential to be far more regulated than any world we have known–ever.

Advertisement

How?

That’s the second part of the argument that seems to have gone missing: that the liberty, or freedom, that cyberspace guarantees now is a function of the architecture of that space. That that architecture–which I call “code,” meaning the software and hardware that constitutes cyberspace as it is–was initially an architecture that protected fundamental freedoms. But that that architecture is changing. As it changes, the freedoms that the Net will guarantee changes as well.

Advertisement
Advertisement

How is it changing?

This is the third part AWOL in this initial kickoff of the discussion. The original architecture, given to us by researchers and hackers and generally libertarian sorts, is being changed as new layers of code are being added to this architecture. And these new layers are being added not by the same libertarian sorts who gave us the initial version of the Internet. They are being added by coders who work for commerce. The values implicit in their code are different from the values implicit in the code of the original Internet. And under one story about how that code evolves, they threaten to flip the character of the Net–from a place that protects liberty to a place where liberty has been coded away.

Advertisement

Rather than focusing on those arguments, Richard wants to defend “libertarianism”–a cause that he has admirably defended for a great deal of time. Libertarianism is not, Richard says, quoting me, the view that “government is the enemy”; nor is it a focus on “reducing government’s power.” That is “not the way in which a libertarian … thinks about government.” Rather, the libertarian “starts in the state of nature.” His or her “objective function starts with the goal of minimizing the use of force and fraud in human interactions. The hard part of the system is to figure out a way in which that minimization takes place over both public and private actors.”

Advertisement

But there is “libertarianism” in the ivory tower and there is “libertarianism” on the ground. I recognize the species that Richard describes; I am a permanent resident of the ivory tower. But my book describes a present political attitude, not the ivory tower. It is about a present political reality, and a present rhetorical push. I am describing it because I have been watching it for the past six years. In that world, if someone argued (as Richard does above) that a “law of privacy” was needed, as well as law protecting trade secrets; that laws regulating libel and slander were necessary, as well as a law regulating blackmail; if one even raised the issue of taxation, or suggested that the government was needed to “secure the infrastructure,” then one would not be a “libertarian.” One would be a Red. The libertarian of the Net has a simple message, quite different from ivory-tower libertarianism. It is: Keep the government out.

Advertisement

Now of course this is an extreme, but the extreme affects the mean. And so while there are few who would insist that the government always stay out, it has become mainstream to argue that the government should just leave the Net alone. “Let the Net take care of itself,” is the slogan of our generation–and the current administration. But if we do, then the Net will become something very different from what it is just now.

That’s the argument of my book. Not an attack on ivory-tower Libertarianism. Nor even an attack on “sensible libertarianism.” But an attack on a certain do-nothingness that pervades our present political culture.

So forgive me, Richard, if I decline your sending it “over to” me “to explain why the same version of sensible libertarianism … should not guide our activities in cyberspace.” That’s the question of your many valuable and important books. My book asks a different set of questions. Let me send it back over to you to address some of them.

Advertisement