The Ten Dotcommandments

Or, the joy of pandering.

What’s that feeling? It’s nice, but unfamiliar. Oh my gosh, I’m being pandered!

As a journalist, I’ve been cajoled, flattered, and importuned (not to mention insulted, ignored, bored, and patronized) by politicians. But getting pandered is a whole new experience. The main difference is that political pandering goes beyond ego massage to give you something you really want, usually money.

To what do I owe the honor? Answer: I work on the Internet. Therefore I am “providing Americans with more freedom” and “creating new jobs and new opportunities for all Americans” and walking on water while turning it into wine and so on. No, no, don’t thank me. That’s a job for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who last week unveiled his “eContract 2000”–some flattering blather plus 10 bits of hard-core pandering. The eContract is, of course, an hommage to the Contract With America that God gave to Newt Gingrich in 1994.

Crude materialists might suppose this is just about campaign fund raising. But it is not. Politicians of both parties sense the spotlight focusing elsewhere and, like old vaudevillians, are trying to sing and dance their way back in. They start by humbly proclaiming their own tiny irrelevance to this huge force transforming our blah, blah, blah, and then they proceed to wrack their brains for legislation that will make them relevant. The denizens of e-world tend to agree about our own importance and the irrelevance of politics and government, but we are not above accepting or even soliciting a pander now and then.

Armey’s “eContract” naturally promises to ban (for five years) all state and local taxes on Internet transactions. “Big government bureaucrats see [Internet shopping] as another opportunity to levy a tax,” the document explains. Since there is no plausible argument why a purchase should be exempt from sales tax just because it is over the Internet, the eContract makes none. Nor does it explain why Republicans–who haven’t yet called for the nation’s nuclear arsenal to be turned over to the states, but almost–think state sales taxes, of all things, are a matter about which Washington should get to decide. Or why state legislators are “big government bureaucrats” who must be crushed by the feds in this case, but wise Solons who will save us from federal overreaching on every other issue.

Or why, if “We assert that freedom is the answer, not government intervention,” the government should intervene to give retailers on the Internet an artificial price advantage over retailers with stores you can walk into. Or why, if the Internet is so miraculous and powerful, it should need this kind of unfair advantage. (Or why freedom will stop being the answer in five years.)

Here we have a pander of laboratory purity. There is no other reason for it. Its biggest beneficiaries won’t even ask for it. At an MSNBC “Silicon Valley Technology Summit” in February, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Meg Whitman of eBay, and Jerry Yang of Yahoo!, among other e-commerce heavyweights, all told Tom Brokaw they’re prepared to pay sales taxes like everyone else, though some clung to the five-year moratorium fiction.

Not every pander is so pure. But most proposals for the government to help the Internet enjoy the same self-contradiction: The Internet is the most powerful social force to come along for a millennium or so, and yet it is so weak and feverish that Dr. Pol is needed to write a bunch of prescriptions and hope the patient will pull through.

Rhetorically, Armey’s eContract is all about getting the government out of the way. But at least half of his Ten Dotcommandments actually are forms of government activism. That alone doesn’t make them unwise. Of all 10, some are wise, some are not, and some are carefully worded to be meaningless. (Dick Armey is against “excessive regulations.” You?) Together, these political promises demonstrate the foolishness, if not the dishonesty, of the cheap anti-government rhetoric that accompanies them.

“Preventing frivolous lawsuits” means having the federal government crush the traditional freedom of states to make and administer their own tort laws. “Protecting intellectual property rights” means taking away people’s freedom to make and sell copies of software or music or e-books if someone else happens to own the rights. Sensible limits (and national standards) on lawsuits is a good idea, and copyright protection is essential. But both involve the exercise of federal power to limit individual freedom.

Not clear what’s involved in “modernizing our education system” (another traditional state matter) or “expanding digital opportunities” or “promoting workplace flexibility” or “promoting basic research.” No doubt nothing as straightforward as federal spending or regulation. I smell a lot of tax credits. But a tax credit skews private incentives and loses the Treasury money just like direct spending. And “promoting” something may be different from requiring it, but it is still government interference that is supposed to improve the purely private sector result.

But these are all quibbles. Speaking, if I may, for all cyberworkers and cyberbosses, we could always use another tax credit or three, even though we hate government and politicians as much as the next guys (biotech). Internet to Congress: Pander away.