What is Cyber-Libertarianism? (The Debate over Lessig’s Code at 10 Continues)

by on May 14, 2009 · 18 comments

I’ve posted another response in the Cato Unbound online debate over the impact of Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace upon the book’s 10th anniversary.  You will recall that I went fairly hard on Prof. Lessig in my essay, “Code, Pessimism, and the Illusion of ‘Perfect Control,’” and Lessig responded with a counter-punch that went after me for it.  I respond in a new essay about “Our Conflict of Cyber-Visions.” In the piece, I address Lessig’s assertion that I just didn’t understand the central teachings of Code, as well as his reluctance to accept the “cyber-collectivism” label that I affixed to his book and life’s work.  Again, please hop over to Cato Unbound for my complete response.

But one thing from the essay that I thought worth reproducing here is my effort to better define the key principles that separate the cyber-libertarian and cyber-collectivist schools of thinking.  I argue that it comes down to this:

The cyber-libertarian believes that “code failures” are ultimately better addressed by voluntary, spontaneous, bottom-up, marketplace responses than by coerced, top-down, governmental solutions. Moreover, the decisive advantage of the market-driven approach to correcting code failure comes down to the rapidity and nimbleness of those response(s).

Of course, another key difference relates to how quickly one jumps to the conclusion that “code failures” are actually occurring at all. I argue:

What concerns me about the way Prof. Lessig approaches these issues in Code and in his subsequent work is that he is far too quick to declare the debate over by labeling short-term code hiccups as sky-is-falling market failures. The end result of such myopic techno-pessimism is the inevitable call for governments to intervene and “do something” to correct supposed code failures.  The cyber-libertarian instead counsels patience. Let’s give those other forces — alternative platforms, new innovators, social norms, public pressure, etc. — a chance to work some magic. Evolution happens, if you let it.

Moreover, if you are always running around crying “market failure!” and calling in the code cops, it creates perverse marketplace incentives by discouraging efforts to innovate or “route around” bad code or code failure. We don’t want the whole world sitting around waiting for government to regulate the mousetrap to improve it or even give everyone better access to it; we should want the world to be innovating to create better mousetraps! To reiterate a key point I already stressed in my original essay: One need not believe that the markets in code are “perfectly competitive” to accept that they are “competitive enough” — or at least, better than regulatory alternatives.

Anyway, please head over to the Cato site to read the whole thing and let me know what you think.  If nothing else, I’m sure that Seth Finkelstein will have something incredibly nasty to say about me!  And I will wear his scorn as a badge of honor.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    UPDATE: Prof. Lessig has already responded:

    http://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/05/14/lawrence

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Now, now, Adam – be fair. My view about Libertarianism are very well-known. However, in these comments, I don't think I've said anything nasty about you as a person. There are Libertarians I think are nice people, and Libertarians I think are utter sleazes, apart from being Libertarians. I think there's a big difference between my criticizing Libertarianism, and the personal criticism of an individual (one could quibble the former entails the latter to some extent, but I'd reply that's not the spirit of the charge you make above).

    I did ask if I was misreading you about being unhappy in the “professional opponent” role, but that was meant more as cynical political observation of the dynamics here.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    UPDATE: Prof. Lessig has already responded:

    http://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/05/14/lawrence

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Now, now, Adam – be fair. My view about Libertarianism are very well-known. However, in these comments, I don't think I've said anything nasty about you as a person. There are Libertarians I think are nice people, and Libertarians I think are utter sleazes, apart from being Libertarians. I think there's a big difference between my criticizing Libertarianism, and the personal criticism of an individual (one could quibble the former entails the latter to some extent, but I'd reply that's not the spirit of the charge you make above).

    I did ask if I was misreading you about being unhappy in the “professional opponent” role, but that was meant more as cynical political observation of the dynamics here.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    UPDATE: Prof. Lessig has already responded:

    http://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/05/14/lawrence

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Now, now, Adam – be fair. My view about Libertarianism are very well-known. However, in these comments, I don't think I've said anything nasty about you as a person. There are Libertarians I think are nice people, and Libertarians I think are utter sleazes, apart from being Libertarians. I think there's a big difference between my criticizing Libertarianism, and the personal criticism of an individual (one could quibble the former entails the latter to some extent, but I'd reply that's not the spirit of the charge you make above).

    I did ask if I was misreading you about being unhappy in the “professional opponent” role, but that was meant more as cynical political observation of the dynamics here.

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