The Regulatory Cathedral and the Bazaar

by on March 19, 2009 · 17 comments

Yochai Benkler ponders the death of the newspaper:

Critics of online media raise concerns about the ease with which gossip and unsubstantiated claims can be propagated on the Net. However, on the Net we have all learned to read with a grain of salt between our teeth, like Russians drinking tea through a sugar cube. The traditional media, to the contrary, commanded respect and imposed authority. It was precisely this respect and authority that made The New York Times’ reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq so instrumental in legitimating the lies that the Bush administration used to lead this country to war.

This is a fantastic insight, and indeed, it’s precisely the insight that we libertarians apply to the regulatory state. That is, just as a decentralized media and a skeptical public is better than the cathedral style of news gathering, so too are decentralized certification schemes and a skeptical public better than a single, cathedral-style regulatory agency “guaranteeing” that businesses are serving consumers well. Most of the time the regulators will protect the public, just as most of the time newspapers get their stories right. The problem is that no institution is perfect, and the consequences of failure are much more serious if you’ve got a population that’s gotten used to blindly trusting the authority figure rather than exercising healthy skepticism. Regulatory agencies are single points of failure, and in a complex economy single points of failure are a recipe for disaster.

Will Wilkinson makes the related point that journalists are prone to journalistic capture that’s very much akin to the regulatory capture that plagues government agencies.

Worried that decentralized news-gathering sources won’t be able to do the job the monolithic newspapers are leaving behind? Jesse Walker has a great piece cataloging the many ways that stories can get from obscure city council meetings to popular attention.

Previous post:

Next post: