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

by on July 23, 2010 · 17 comments

Over at MediaFreedom.org, a new site devoted to fighting the fanaticism of radical anti-media freedom groups like Free Press and other “media reformistas,” I’ve started rolling out a 5-part series of essays about “The Battle for Media Freedom.” In Part 1 of the series, I defined what real media freedom is all about, and in Part 2 I discussed the rising “cyber-collectivist” threat to media freedom.  In my latest installment, I 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

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.

_________

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.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Ah, Brett, since you have such a strong opinion about Sowell, I take it you’ve read most of his 31 scholarly books on law, philosophy, economics, political science, intellectual history, sociology, race, class, education, etc. Or perhaps just the two great works discussed by Adam above, A Conflict of Visions and Vision of the Anointed. Which did you read first and where did you detect Sowell’s “unabashed Republican party hack[ery]?” Was it perhaps in Chapter three of Conflicts, Visions of Knowledge & Reason? I often hear Republican candidates explaining the epistemological foundations of their views on tax, immigration, and regulatory policy.

    Clearly, Sowell is just supplying intellectual fodder for his GOP paymasters! Yup, just another in a long line of black pseudo-intellectuals who can think of nothing better to do than shill for the Republican party by producing fake scholarship with pretentious titles intended to conceal their shallow right-wing hackery at the rate of one major book a year every year of their adult lives.

    It’s a good thing we can rely on you to debunk such frauds and their chicanery! I look forward to reading your next work on the epistemological foundations of the conceptions of justice that undergird policy debates. Make sure to send us a review copy and we’ll give it the same attention we’ve given to the dozens of other lengthy tomes you’ve produced in your lengthy and prolific academic career.

  • Brett Glass

    This article gets off on the wrong foot by quoting Thomas Sowell, who is not a visionary at all but rather an unabashed Republican party hack. Like McChesney on the left, Sowell isn't intellectually honest; he just wants his team to win.

    PFF would do much better to cite the ideas of someone who actually was visionary and not just playing for the interests of a power-hungry gang.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Ah, Brett, since you have such a strong opinion about Sowell, I take it you've read most of his 31 scholarly books on law, philosophy, economics, political science, intellectual history, sociology, race, class, education, etc. Or perhaps just the two great works discussed by Adam above, A Conflict of Visions and Vision of the Anointed. Which did you read first and where did you detect Sowell's “unabashed Republican party hack[ery]?” Was it perhaps in Chapter three of Conflicts, entitled “Visions of Knowledge & Reason?” I, too, often hear Republican candidates on Glenn Beck spouting off about the epistemological foundations of their views on tax, immigration, and regulatory policy! And, like you, I'm sick to death of it!

    Clearly, Sowell is just supplying intellectual fodder for his GOP paymasters! Yup, just another in a long line of black pseudo-intellectuals who can think of nothing better to do than shill for the Republican party by producing fake scholarship with pretentious titles intended to conceal their shallow right-wing hackery at the rate of one major book a year every year of their adult lives.

    It's a good thing we can rely on you to debunk such frauds and their chicanery! I look forward to reading your next work on the epistemological foundations of the conceptions of justice that undergird policy debates. Make sure to send us a review copy and we'll give it the same attention we've given to the dozens of other lengthy tomes you've produced in your lengthy and prolific academic career.

  • Brett Glass

    Berin, Thomas Sowell was a joke even I first encountered him at Stanford, my alma mater, many years ago. Completely intellectually bankrupt, there is no level of twisted logic or just plain falsehood to which he will not stoop so as to support his party and its agenda. His columns, which happen to appear in our local newspaper now and then, are the source of much laughter even among conservatives and libertarians here in Wyoming (an overwhelmingly “red” state). He makes Beck and Limbaugh look like serious, contemplative thinkers by comparison — which is funnier all the more because he pretends to be one — prolifically publishing paper after paper and book after book full of total drivel.

    It's beneath PFF to associate itself with such crackpots. Next you'll be saying that the earth is flat and embracing “intelligent design.” Please don't go that way.

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

    Coming from a raging lunatic like you Brett, that's tall praise for Thomas Sowell. You are such a pathetic little man that I feel sorry for you. Do you realize that people on BOTH SIDES of the net neutrality debate sit around laughing about your antics on Twitter and in blog posts like this? There isn't anyone in this field who takes you seriously. Not one.

    Incidentally, do you really have a job in the wireless ISP industry? If so, how do you get by Tweeting and be a blog stalker all day long?

    Grow up, punk.

  • Brett Glass

    Adam, I most certainly do have a job in the wireless ISP industry. In fact, I founded that industry.

    Right now, because my assistants are off for the rest of the day, I'm on tech support duty. Which makes me feel like the Maytag repairman because our networks run so well. Gives me time to get online and engage in online banter.

    What surprises me is your intense overreaction to my statements regarding Tom Sowell. You've always been civil to me before. My remarks must have touched a real nerve to cause you to be so abusive — in public, no less! — above.

  • Brett Glass

    It's easy to put out a book a year if you don't care about quality. And my opinion of Mr. Sowell is widely shared. Type his name and then “crackpot,” “hack,” or any similar word into any search engine.

    Frankly, I've thought some of the things you've written have been much better than his output. I just hope that the blog posting above isn't a sign that PFF is drifting in his direction — that is, toward becoming dogmatic and partisan.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    So, Brett, which of his books have you read, exactly?

  • Brett Glass

    Frankly, the one time I tried to read one of his books (I believe it was one that claimed to expose economic “fallacies”), I was gritting my teeth. I put it down after one chapter, saying, “This is trash.” His columns (which I sometimes glance at because they are occasionally printed in a local paper) are bad enough.

  • Nonymous 4

    I've really liked this site for a long time but I was surprised by the divisiveness presented in both the article and the responses to Brett's comments. I have fully support many of the arguments you lay out about why we shouldn't take certain actions in the promotion of media and cyber/internet freedom as well as the whole, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” theme. However, it seems like you haven't read any Marx yourself. It seems like you don't really care what its actually about. It seems that your also unaware that Marx had a profound respect for capitalism. It seems that you are unaware that Stalin and Lennin were not Marxist. It seems that you do not understand that any political ideology can become tyrannical, and that an example of a basically fascist interpretation of Marxism is no reason to reject Marxism, let alone groups that barrow from Marxist schools of thought. It seems you read a lot into groups like Free Press too. It seems like you don't really support them being able to express their own ideas. I, as a student of Marx, am probably reading a lot into this as well, but I would just like to state that being a Marxist, if that is what you would label me as a student of his work, does not mean I would ever promote some kind of single party system, and that I think Marx himself would agree with many of your goals, but probably dismiss you for the kind of offensive argumentation presented here.

    Just my thoughts. Much love for the cause, and you as a person, but not this article.

  • Nonymous 4

    Oh also I would like to point out that I totally agree with the point you bring up from Nozik, that liberty inevitably means some inequality, but that if you extrapolate that trend over time you end up with a large group of people who have a lot more than some, as wealth and power are known to concentrate, aka “spend money: make money” aphorism. So how do you respond to that? Left to itself this is what MARX and many others say causes financial crises, and in a truly free market would lead to catastrophe and eventual recovery and restructuring. Which is the free market way of saying wealth redistribution. That or in a sufficiently libertarian society someone will find a way to turn a profit by going after consolidations of power supported and funded by people are less well of en mass. Which is essentialy wealth redistribution.

    So why is it unreasonable when some groups bring up these issues in an era where the income of the top 2% of wealth holders income has more than doubled when in the same time the middle class has only grown 50%, well behind increases in cost of living?

    Your own subheader states “Opportunity, Not Outcome, Is What Matters Most” clearly opportunity is stifled when individuals in the wealthier percentages of the nation have so much money they are richer than some nations and the rest of the nation finds it harder to meet basic needs? I myself am totally supportive of maximizing opportunity and a fan of the journey being more important than the destination and similar sentiments, but we must recognize that if what we seek, a free fair a just society, is not the out come at all, then there is something wrong with the means.

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  • http://www.medyumburak.com medyum

    Frankly, the one time I tried to read one of his books (I believe it was one that claimed to expose economic “fallacies”), I was gritting my teeth. I put it down after one chapter, saying, “This is trash.” His columns (which I sometimes glance at because they are occasionally printed in a local paper) are bad enough.

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