What is a Tech Libertarian?

by on November 16, 2010 · 38 comments

THE MASTER SWITCH was written to be readable and hopefully entertaining.   But its real goal is to urge readers to examine our relationship with all forms of centralized power.  There are deep contradictions between a fully centralized society and a free one; indeed I am not sure the two can co-exist.   Its message to libertarians is this:   if human freedom is truly the value that matters most, we need pay attention to the size of the institutions that govern the most important human functions.

As this suggests, while my book is designed to be relatively easy reading, at deeper levels it is a meditation on human freedom.  And while this may be unkind, I will respond to Thierer’s review to show how I think that contemporary libertarianism has begun to lose its way and betray its own creed.   Instead of a philosophy of freedom, it is at risk of becoming a theory of villanization, where every single wrong must be traced, somehow, to “government;” to say otherwise is to betray the movement.   To my mind that’s not true libertarianism in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, but just another theology of blame.

(N.B. I am grateful for Adam for inviting me to post a response.   Why we disagree in profound ways, I am flattered by his engagement with the book, and his readiness to give me space to respond).

Let’s get to the basics.  I define a libertarian as someone who is, at the deepest levels, prioritizes freedom over other values.  He is willing to forgo a preferred substantive outcome he might prefer, in exchange for a system that gives him freedom.  The classic example, of course, is the speech system: many of us might prefer that certain people to shut up forever (pick your favorite), but nonetheless still support a system of free speech.

Anyone deeply interested in freedom as a value should, by implication, be interested any non-chosen limits on that freedom, no matter what the source. Whether you are kidnapped or wrongly arrested, the fact is that you are no longer free.  If you do not speak your mind for fear of being shamed or fined, the fact in both cases is that you do not speak your mind.  All of these are limits on freedom, which, as we’ve said, is the value paramount to a libertarian.   That their source is “public,” “social” or “private” matters a little, but not completely, if, again, if you really believe it is freedom that matters most.

While Mill agreed explicitly with this point, 20th century American libertarians tend to elevate one category, namely state-based infringements over any other.   The main reason is obvious and a very good one.  For people like Hayek, the experience of fascism and communism proved convincingly that a totalitarian, centralized state is the greatest enemy of basic human freedom ever invented.   Furthermore, the path from here to there is often premised on excessive optimism and good intentions; that’s the point of The Road to Serfdom.

But the question remains:  even if state rules are the worst, why pointedly ignore all of the other threats to human freedom?   What about everything else?   Here is, I suggest, where contemporary libertarianism is in deep danger of betraying its creed.  For any attachment to a value – say, a deep hate for all “law” or “regulation” – necessarily takes you away from a view that freedom is paramount.   It creates a blindness to other limits on freedom,  tolerates excessive concentrations of private power as “natural.”

The point is obvious with my kidnapper / wrongful arrest example.  One is the fault of too little law, the other the fault of too much.   But if you hate law and the state more than anything, you become blind to the kidnapping as an infringement of freedom because there’s no state power involved.   It might, rather, be described, rather, as the market in action.  You’re worth a ransom, and supply has simply met demand in the market for kidnapping services.   To borrow another trope, it is simply “natural” and not a cause for concern.

This example is exaggerated, but it makes an important point.  You can be a committed deregulationist or a libertarian, but not both.  For you either care about freedom most, or something else.    You cannot serve two masters.

This leads me to my criticism of Thierer’s review.  It is so fixated on my relatively mild recommendations of federal oversight at the end that the review is mostly blind to the deeper issues of human freedom that the book is really about.  Instead, Thierer is like the Freudian who suspects a childhood fixation  must lie behind every problem.  It must always, in the end, government that is the cause of all that ails us – no other villain is allowed.

The truth is that my book is full of both heroes and villains, private and public, sometimes combined in a single figure at different stages.   The FCC is terrible from the 1920s through the 1960s, but does brilliant work in the 1970s.   The leaders of the Hollywood studios break the censorial hold of the Edison Trust in the 1910s, but then themselves become censors in the 1930s.   The book refuses to dish up a theory where government or private industry is consistently evil or good, because that just isn’t how it was.   The real villains in my book are excessive centralization, stagnation and suppression of speech or innovation.   And unfortunately no man has a monopoly on that.

I don’t blame Thierer for his approach for he is merely following the libertarian speech code of our times.   As in the Hollywood endings in the 1930s, you can tell whatever story you want, but in the end you must blame Government for all manifest evil.  It is the conformity demanded of a movement supposedly dedicated to non-conformity.   Blaming one set of enemies for all of our problems is an easy and indeed comforting way to look at the world.  But it is a one note instrument, and after a while, nothing but a squawking sound.

The point also leads me to address Thierer’s argument that I am too pessimistic.   I am surprised to hear this criticism from a so-called libertarian.  A libertarian by nature ought not, perhaps, be paranoid, but certainly wary of infringements on human freedom.   What Thierer calls “optimism” can quickly and easily become good old fashioned worship of power.   And, to repeat what I said above, Hayek pointed out best, excessive optimism is, in fact, the road to serfdom.

I’ve gone on long enough on this.  For my part, I think that one thing libertarians in our time should be thinking about are three harder questions:

One is the relationship between freedom and centralization – a favorite topic of Friedrich Hayek’s.   In other words, they should ask whether Joseph Schumpeter’s vision of capitalism as a series of successive monopolies is, say, good enough for J.S. Mill.  Perhaps it is, and perhaps not: I don’t know the answer, but I do know that there are inherent dangers in centralization that ought not be ignored.

Second, and here I will, however, concede a point to Adam’s review:  since writing the book I think I should have emphasized more explicitly the danger that any complex government schema, however well intentioned as a tool of competition, can easily become a tool of lasting monopolization.   The book points this out with reference to the 1913 Kingsbury commitment and the 1996 telecom act, both instruments designed to open competition that soon destroyed it.   The spectrum auctions are similar:  designed originally to open the wireless markets, they now help insulate Verizon and AT&T from disruptive competition.

Libertarians, then, should be trying to understand how pro-competitive regulatory systems can become the opposite; and whether it is possible to enact laws or take actions that actually have long-term pro-competitive effects.   Perhaps this leads to a greater taste for episodic breakups.

Third, libertarians ought to be asking whether open or closed systems are more conducive to human freedom.  I tend to think the former are but I there is definitively room for debate:  for example, some systems by their nature need to be closed to be what they are, like, say, a private home, or a private club.  When it comes to code, many West Coast tech libertarians are obsessed with this issue, without having to invent plots by the federal government.

My final message is this.  To my mind, real libertarianism is a philosophy of human freedom, not a theology of blame.  Worship of the private sector is simply another form of power worship of the kind Hayek warned of; I believe a libertarian should be wary of any concentrated power.   And in the end, resistance to any non-chosen limit on freedom should be the creed of any true libertarian; you can care about other things, but you should care about freedom most.

  • Anonymous


    It is bewildering to me how the strain of self-declared tech libertarianism so often exhibited here can be so wholeheartedly blind to the coercive effects of anything but the government… and to any freedom-enhancing effects of government intervention. The unrelenting drumbeat of sarcastic scorn of the state simply drowns out more holistic consideration of how to encourage freedom of and by technology.

  • Brett Glass

    We should all be wary of centralized power – especially Google, which has multiple worldwide Internet monopolies and lobbyists inside the government (such as Andrew McLaughlin). Oh, and also its lobbyists outside government, such as Mr. Wu and Free Press.

  • Proofreader

    Mr. Wu – can you at least proofread your post before putting it online? This post is littered with mistakes. For shame.

  • Ryan Radia

    Tim Wu’s a real Google shill alright. That’s why he routinely argues that Google is a dominant, entrenched monopoly that policymakers should be very concerned about. What better way to keep regulators off a firm’s back than by labeling it an “information empire?”

  • Brett Glass

    Actually, in recent articles involving his book, he has cited Google’s rival Apple as an “information empire” – but, notably, not Google.

  • Pingback: On the Definition of Monopoly

  • Hcashny

    I’m merely a casual observer of this Issue but it seems to me that Facebook has no more power over me than New Years Eve; although there may be peer pressure to use Facebook rather than Friendster or use an Ipod rather than a Zune, I am no more compelled to do so against my wishes than I am to go out on NYE just because everyone else is. That being said, it is govts role to enable competition but not to referee in such a way as to always ensure an advantage for the underdog.

  • Jim Harper

    This response begins to fail with, “I define a libertarian as…” Could you even take a moment to look up what it’s about?

    At Wikipedia’s libertarianism entry, for example, David Boaz is quoted saying, “Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others” and that, “Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property–rights that people have naturally, before governments are created.” Most of the views you see expressed here are consistent with this expression of the creed.

    Given your unfamiliarity with liberty, your kidnapper / wrongful arrest comparison fails. Both are wrongful exercises of coercion, equally rejected by libertarians.

    Offering a service like Internet search or social networking is not coercion. It is an invitation to voluntarily transact. People should be free to offer those services on whatever terms they want, just as people should be free to accept or decline those services as they wish. And they are.

    We all understand the idea that “social constraint” can be an arguable limitation on freedom, in the casual sense of “doing whatever you want.” But social constraint is not coercion, and the existence of social constraint does not justify coercion to counteract it.

    Your resort to impugning the thinking of your critics here reflects your failure to understand their deeply held, and well thought-through, beliefs. The robe you try to draw around yourself — as the better defender of freedom — is thin where it isn’t already completely in tatters.

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

    Tim, thanks for your response. I’m glad you took us up on the offer to post your views here.Our disagreement comes down to a fundamental conflict of visions about the nature of “freedom” and “power.” We simply cannot agree on what these terms mean. I believe, however, you are far too casual with your implications that all forms of power are equal. That comes through in your essay here as well as in your book when you make a statement like, “If we believe in liberty, it must be freedom from both private and public coercion.” (p. 310) A statement like that requires one to accept that public and private power are somehow on par, or at least just a few degrees apart. Second, it asks us to ignore or accept the inherent contradiction associated with enhancing State power in the name of expanding human liberty.A true libertarian accepts neither of these two assumptions.On the first point: At the risk of repeating what I have already said in the first and sixth installments in my series of reviews of your book, neither your essay nor your book contains a serious exploration of — or even appreciation for — the qualitative difference between State power and corporate power. There’s even the suggestion at times in your book that private power is the more significant threat to personal liberties and freedom of speech with statements like “the disposition of firms and industries is, if anything, more critical than the actions of the state in controlling who gets heard.” Again, as I noted previously, the problem with this theory is that (a) history shows it’s simply not true and (b) the corrective remedies such a theory counsels would require a massive enhancement of State power to counter the supposed threats of private power, which (c) would create an even bigger threat to human liberty, since only the State can fine, imprison, and truly foreclose speech.The other crucial difference concerns the possibility of escape from these differing forms of power. While it’s certainly true corporations aren’t angels, we default to freedom for private individuals as well as organizations because the possibility of escape exists from undesirable social or economic situations. Moreover, a belief in liberty usually entails a corresponding belief in human ingenuity and the likelihood that — if they are truly free — humans respond powerfully to undesirable market scenarios. I am not going to go off on another 6-part, 17,000-word rant to prove this, but I beg other readers to closely examine the evidence I mustered in support of that thesis in my earlier essays.But I do want to repeat what I said in the fifth installment in the series about your contention that libertarians are blind to the dangers of other forms of power, namely corporate power. Libertarians do NOT believe everything will be all sunshine and roses in a truly free marketplace. There will indeed be short term spells of what many of us would regard as excessive market power. The difference between us comes down to the amount of faith we would place in government actors versus market forces / evolution to better solve that problem. Libertarians would obviously have a lot more patience with markets and technological change, and would be willing to wait and see how things work out. We believe, as I have noted in my previous responses, that it’s often during what critics regard as a market’s darkest hour that innovation is producing some of the most exciting technologies with the greatest potential to disrupt the incumbents whose “master switch” you fear. Again, we are simply more bullish on what I have called experimental, evolutionary dynamism. Innovators and entrepreneurs don’t sit still; they respond to incentives, and for them, short-term spells of “market power” are golden opportunities. Ultimately, that organic, bottom-up approach to addressing “market power” or “market failure” simply makes a lot more sense to us – especially because it lacks the coercive element that your approach would bring to bear preemptively to solve such problems.One final point, Tim. I hate to sound snarky about this, but I’m rather astonished by the way you so casually go around citing Hayek and Mill in defense of your twisted conception of liberty. Would you care to be a little more specific about where in their work you find support for your seemingly exclusive focus on “positive liberty” (the freedom to…)? Perhaps in Mill’s later work we find some of that, but not really in “On Liberty.” (See my look back at the book upon its 150th anniversary.) It’s even more difficult to find any evidence of Hayek agreeing with your conception of freedom. I think you might want to be more careful about implying that they would be so eager to empower the State since they generally embraced “negative liberty” (freedom from…). Or will you next be claiming Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Robert Nozick in defense of your revisionist conception of libertarianism, too!I don’t know if you call yourself a “progressive” or a “liberal,” Tim, but I can tell you that some of us, as you put it, “so-called libertarians” are none too happy about having those labels hijacked by people who have bastardized their very meaning. And now you want to take “libertarian” away from us too? Well, I’m sorry, but as Capt. Picard once famously said: “The Line Must Be Drawn Here!”

  • Ryan Radia

    Armen Alchian brilliantly articulated the fundamental distinction between state power and market power in one of his speeches at the University of Chicago. I’ve excerpted the best parts below:

    Excerpted from “The Economics of Power,” The Collected Works of Armen A. Alchian: Choice and Cost under Uncertainty

    We hear a lot about the power of giant corporations. GM has great political influence. It can affect wage rates by withdrawing from the market. It can drive small businessmen out of business by threats of withholding business. It can affect the prices at which it sells cars depending upon how many cars it produces.

    Right off, I should admit I don’t know what to make of all that. What is General Motors, other than a group of individuals? The stockholders are constantly changing. The directors change, and the employees change — at a rate no different from any small furniture store or drug store. To say it has great political influence leaves me mystified. Its many employees and stockholders constitute a large bulk of people, but do they have any more power than any other similar bulk of people? It could certainly drive out of business many firms if it wanted to. But to do this would cost GM a large amount of wealth. We could all do lots of things, but when the costs are considered, we don’t. In the same sense, the people in GM could do lots of things, but the sheer economic costs are such that they don’t. They may have the power but they haven’t the power to ignore the costs. In other words, it’s not some social responsibility or business statesmanship that is needed to explain why GM stockholders, directors, or employees are unwilling to use power in so-called irresponsible ways. Concern with their own wealth restrains them — wealth that would be lost by the economic costs of such “irresponsible” action. At least, and this is the point I would emphasize, this is what economic theory says.

    One also hears that GM could drive down wages by withdrawing its labor demand from the market. What this means is that by having entered the market, it has driven up wages. And the question to consider is, “even if it has the power to withdraw and let wages fall to what they would have been in the absence of General Motors, what incentive would GM have to do this?” They would only suffer a loss of wealth. The stockholders of GM surely have this power, but they haven’t the power to ignore these costs — they haven’t the incentive to lose wealth.


    In summary of this first point — it is the costs that one bears consequent to his actions — or the rewards that he gets — that determine how he shall use his wealth and power. And these costs and rewards are not merely those imposed by our legal system: our economic system of exchange provides an extremely effective control to use of power if competition and exchange are not made illegal.

    The main point of all this is that an exchange is involved. I apply some “force” to you; i.e., I have some power over you as a result of offering you something, and you have power over me by offering me something. If the gain in my opinion of what I get is greater than the costs in my opinion, the exchange is consummated — behavior is affected.


    The bedrock foundation for the economic power of a labor union is its monopoly position. Without that it could not enforce wages above a free entry competitive level, for if it tried to do so, non-union workers would offer to work at competitive wages, thus destroying the union scale. To enforce its higher wage rates, it must keep out the wage-cutting competitors — it must be a monopoly. How does it get to be a monopoly and how does it remain one? First you induce the rest of society to accept your goals of being a monopolist. In the case of public utilities, this has been easy. In the case of unions, this was much harder, although it seems now to be widely enough accepted for all practical purposes. But when it comes to enforcing the monopoly right, i.e., keeping out competitors, the public is not willing to help the union be a monopolist in the way it will help a public utility. The union cannot telephone the police and have non-union competitors put in jail. Although the public attitude toward labor monopoly seems favorable, the public is not willing to let its police power be used to enforce it, nor, and this is most important, is it willing to use its police power to prevent it by protecting “strike breakers.”

    Instead, our police power is used neutrally; that is, it is not used to protect labor rights of non-union workers. How then does the union enforce its monopoly? It resorts to private threats and applications of violence rather than enforcement through publicly operated agencies. Private police forces are called “goons and gangsters,” presumably because their actions are reprehensible or illegal. These special employees are specialists in private applications of force and violence and compulsion, although literally they are in the same class as police or military action. One is state owned; the other is privately owned. One is socially acceptable; the other is not, although its purposes are. Thus, if striking is done peacefully — that is, if potential strike breakers are kept out with no overt violence-no legal sanctions are available. Mind you, I do not decry this. I merely recite it as a fact of life which our society accepts and encourages — as, for example, when we urge collective bargaining between owner and union without non-union workers being allowed. Public utility officials can act in a civilized, socially acceptable way, but union officials cannot. Until the union is granted the aid of the police force, as utilities are, or until the picket is recognized as the equivalent of a policeman, union officials must retain specialists in violence, if not themselves be such people. We have come close to this position in many unions, where the picket line or mere strike call is accepted by all people as equivalent to the force of law. And just as overt violence is unnecessary to make you and me obey most laws, so overt violence is absent in these unions. But the fact remains that so long as the law is not available to them in the same way it is to utilities, they must at least have a standby army ready for action. I illustrate this by noting that one labor union already has the power of the police behind it, and the union officers do not need specialists in violence — thugs — and the union officers and members are recognized as among the most respected members of our society. I mean, of course, the American Medical Association.

    But it is not only this feature of irresponsible use of power, the presence of gangsters and thugs, that is implied in the effort to obtain monopoly power. There is also the use that is made of this monopoly power, the power to keep out competitors by threat of violence. In some instances the power to create this kind of monopoly is used to raise wages of the union members to the full monopoly height, with the benefits going to the members who are employed. In other instances the employed must share part of their gains with the unemployed members of the union, but not with those workers who are unable to work because union membership is denied them. Part of the unemployment is disguised by non-union members being forced to work at wages, in other areas, even lower than the competitive wage would have been in this industry had it not been monopolized. It is the sharing of these monopoly gains and the fight for them that is characteristic of much of the labor union behavior that seem to us to be so reprehensible.

  • john

    In a truly free state, such as that envisioned by David Friedman, any sufficiently powerful company could simply relabel itself as “the government.” Of course, this refutes anarchist/minarchist theories that assume that no one would simply seize power and overturn the libertarian utopia.

    More practically, this is why I fundamentally don’t accept the “monopoly on the use of force” argument. The government of a given state is merely the most powerful of many power centers, and in our state at least it’s at the beck and call of various private interests. From my perspective, it doesn’t particularly matter whether a given limitation on my action is traced to “government” or a “private” actor or otherwise.

  • http://www.torontowebdesigner.info toronto web designer

    no comment on that

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    I haven’t read Wu’s book so I’m hesitant to defend it too forcefully, but I don’t think this is quite right. Three points.

    First, although I think Facebook and Google are operating in something very close to an ideal free market, many of the private firms Wu discusses in his book have been deeply embedded with the regulatory system for decades. It’s impossible to say what (say) the market for broadband service would look like in a perfect free market, but we don’t have one and definitely didn’t have one in the past. Therefore, everything AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, et al carries some (possibly small) element of implicit state power. So Comcast’s offering me broadband service is not coercion, but a tangle of coercive regulatory impediments, past and present, likely prevented other firms from offering me competing broadband services. Given that this situation describes the overwhelming majority of telecom and communications firms, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask libertarians to approach these firms with a healthy dose of skepticism.

    Second, the propensity of private firms to become agents of and/or advocates for state coercion is sensitive to market structure. Highly concentrated industries are far more likely to exhibit incestuous relationships between private and state power. We can see this, for example, in telcos’ participation in warrantless wiretapping schemes and the recording industry’s lobbying for ever-more-draconian copyright regulations. Even if a particular industry is currently a free market with minimal state involvement (as, say, search seems to be at the moment) I think libertarians should still be mindful of the danger that the state and industry incumbents may find it in their mutual interest to undertake coercive projects in the future.

    Finally, I think it’s important not to make everything about government regulation. Caring about liberty in the broad, Millian sense Wu alludes to here doesn’t necessarily entail supporting increases in state power. It might mean contributing to free software, becoming a feminist blogger, founding a startup, or home-schooling your kids. Again, I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if Wu is characterizing his own book accurately, but there’s nothing intrinsically unlibertarian about exploring whether some private orderings promote liberty more than others.

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    Would you care to be a little more specific about where in their work you find support for your seemingly exclusive focus on “positive liberty” (the freedom to…)? Perhaps in Mill’s later work we find some of that, but not really in “On Liberty.”

    From On Liberty:

    The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement. The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement; but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals. The progressive principle, however, in either shape, whether as the love of liberty or of improvement, is antagonistic to the sway of Custom, involving at least emancipation from that yoke; and the contest between the two constitutes the chief interest of the history of mankind.

  • Jim Harper

    Is this a response to my comment, Tim? Does not compute.

  • Jim Harper

    Next, you should rename the colors on the color wheel!

  • Ryan Radia

    Good point, Tim. But wouldn’t you agree that “incestuous relationships between private and state power” tend to occur most often in societies that tolerate massive, powerful regulatory regimes? The fundamental irony of Wu’s thesis (if I understand it correctly) is that he is on one hand rightly concerned about wealthy corporations using the state’s coercive power to stymie entry and competition, but on the other hand a vocal proponent of significant expansions in regulatory power.

    If Tim Wu truly wished to prevent “declining information monopolists” from finding “a lifeline of last resort in the form of Uncle Sam” then why isn’t he calling for the courts to return to the Lochner era? It seems to me that most enduring means of preventing government from growing overly entangled with big business is through strong constitutional protections. The erosion of freedom of contract in the United States paved the way for all kinds of state interventions obstructing market entry, entrepreneurship, and disruptive, bottom-up innovation.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Tedious topic, Tim. It’s unwise to walk into a room full of genuine libertarians schooled in the ways of Hayek and Mill and lecture them on where they went wrong. Best to stick to your book.

  • Tim Wu

    No shame felt! But thanks alot, I fixed the typos.

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    OK, then I guess I don’t understand how your comment is a response to Wu. I took Wu’s central point to be that Adam’s review(s) are “so fixated on my relatively mild recommendations of federal oversight at the end that the review is mostly blind to the deeper issues of human freedom that the book is really about.” And Wu says libertarians should be interested in these “deeper issues of human freedom” because we should be worried about threats to liberty from sources other than the state. You’ve responded by insisting on the distinction between private and state coercion. Like you I think this is an important distinction, but I don’t think it’s so important that it should be our sole focus as scholars of human freedom. And so I pointed out some reasons that libertarians in particular should be interested in the story Wu says he’s telling: of threats to liberty originating from the concentration of (nominally) private communications industries.

    I imagine that when I read Wu’s book I’ll find myself disagreeing with his policy conclusions. But I also expect that I’ll enjoy, and learn a lot from, the history told in those early sections. And I take Wu as expressing disappointment that Adam was so fixated on the former that he barely mentions the latter.

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    I agree.

    But just to play devil’s advocate, the counter-argument is that the current structure of the market is a result of past state intervention, and that Wu’s policy proposals are meant as remedial steps. Think, for example, of the AT&T breakup: libertarians may be antitrust skeptics in general but breaking up a government-created monopoly seems like an antitrust move we can all get behind. Similarly, one could view network neutrality regulation as an effort to remediate the anticompetitive effects of prior phone and cable regulations.

    Now to be clear I don’t find that argument for NN regs persuasive, for a variety of reasons I’ve written about before. But my point is that there’s more common ground here than Adam seems to acknowledge, and I think it would make more sense to acknowledge that common ground and point out the parts of Wu’s history that point toward libertarian policy conclusions, rather than Adam’s scorched-earth approach to book reviewing.

  • Jim Harper

    Of course I’m for maximal liberty — referring to the more general “doing whatever you want to do” — so I extol anonymity in my book not simply as a protection against government, for example, but to free people from social pressure.

    I’d strip all companies of regulatory advantages, of course, and deny them any in the future. Maybe the point has gone unspoken because it’s so obvious.

    But I came up alongside apoplectic when I read Wu’s suggestion above that libertarians forgive kidnapping because it’s private action and get all uppity about wrongful arrest just because it’s government. That’s just soaring error.

    A think it’s axiomatic that in our worldview rights don’t conflict. That means that you can’t answer social constraint with coercion. Wu’s theme is apparently, “I’ve discovered a good way to use coercion to solve some of these social constraint problems. I’m being really careful and thoughtful and modest about it.”

    The answer is: No, you don’t get to sip from the cup of coercive power. Nobody ever puts the glass down again.

    When you read him, look and see if he’s talking about contributing to free software, becoming a feminist blogger, founding a startup, or home-schooling kids. I think he’s soft-pedaling it, as one would because nobody wants to say they’ve just reinvented the wheel, but the prescriptions Adam identified in the book are coercive government regulation (but, this time, magically delicious!).

    If the claim is that we’re fixated on government power, the counterclaim is equally relevant. I was flabbergasted when Wu talked about corporate radio at the Open Video Conference and not once mentioned the FCC. My god – there’s no such thing without the FCC!

    So Professor Wu may be sounding modest, libertarian-friendly themes here, but he’s not speaking the same way before other audiences.

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

    Tim… I encourage you to sit down and read the book and then get back to me about “the parts of Wu’s history that point toward libertarian policy conclusions.” I’ve read the book twice and don’t find many such instances. And Prof. Wu has some very clear policy conclusions in the final chapter of the book that point in a decidedly different direction. Please re-read part 6 of my review for more details. I’d be very interested in hearing which parts of his conclusion you agree with or find to be “libertarian” in orientation.http://techliberation.com/2010/11/02/thoughts-on-wu%E2%80%99s-master-switch-part-6-his-audacious-information-industrial-policy

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    Here Wu says that “the FCC is terrible from the 1920s through the 1960s.” Does he also say that in the book? If so, isn’t that an example?

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    Fair enough. I will have to read the book.

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

    Tim… As I noted in the 4th installment in my series, Prof. Wu does discuss regulatory capture and bureaucratic bungling in various parts of the book but as soon as he raises it, he immediately walks away from it. There’s seemingly never any serious lesson drawn from it. Indeed, sometimes within a line or two of raising such concerns, Wu seem to dismiss them entirely and propose giving the State far more power to play games within the information sector. If Wu really believed in what he said about the dangers of regulatory capture, he wouldn’t also be so eager to empower the State to do even more meddling in these sectors.

    So, I give him credit for raising the issue, but because he immediately discounts the concern and even goes on to ignore it by recommending MORE state action, it’s hard for me to believe he really takes this issue seriously. In essence, we are forced to conclude that Prof. Wu believes he can create a better breed of bureaucrat who will be immune to such tendencies.


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JMIIKBPVIYUARG5JROYMBHJGIE S.

    How does one endeavor to stave off infringements by private concentrations of power without further concentrating power in the government?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JMIIKBPVIYUARG5JROYMBHJGIE S.

    How does one endeavor to stave off infringements by private concentrations of power without further concentrating power in the government?

  • Pingback: Bret Swanson – Maximum Entropy » Blog Archive

  • Jim Harper

    I don’t understand the question. Rephrase? Give a more concrete example?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p00d83451d3b369e2 tomslee

    If the commenters here are “genuine libertarians” then all I can say is that to this outsider they seem like a very impolite group of people. Wu did not “walk into a room”, he was “invited” in, and from what I can see all he got is snark (“Tedious Topic, Tim”), straw man attacks (“I’m sure the like-and-left-minded titter heartily as they beat straw-man caricatures of libertarians/Internet optimists up one side of the Faculty Lounge and down the other”) and lots more. Given the atmosphere, I don’t know why he bothered to post a response to the review.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Wu was invited to respond to the analysis of his book, not to call the TLFers a bunch of hypocrites.

  • Pingback: Daily Digest for November 24th

  • http://twitter.com/ezraklein Ezra Klein

    This thread seems to have gotten unfortunately tangled up in doctrinal disputes over libertarianism, but I think Adam’s presentation of Wu’s book is wrong, or at least arguable: I’m not a hardcore libertarian (in fact, I’m not any kind of libertarian), but my takeaway from the book was primarily about the way the government works with incumbent firms to entrench their power. As I read it, I thought it was a book as much about regulatory capture and failure as about corporate malfeasance, and I read Wu’s solutions as attempting to firewall markets from the sort of subjective interventions that tend to favor powerful firms. Whether those recommendations will work is not something I feel able to judge, but they seemed clearly about limiting government power, not enhancing it.

  • http://twitter.com/ezraklein Ezra Klein

    This thread seems to have gotten unfortunately tangled up in doctrinal disputes over libertarianism, but I think Adam’s presentation of Wu’s book is wrong, or at least arguable: I’m not a hardcore libertarian (in fact, I’m not any kind of libertarian), but my takeaway from the book was primarily about the way the government works with incumbent firms to entrench their power. As I read it, I thought it was a book as much about regulatory capture and failure as about corporate malfeasance, and I read Wu’s solutions as attempting to firewall markets from the sort of subjective interventions that tend to favor powerful firms. Whether those recommendations will work is not something I feel able to judge, but they seemed clearly about limiting government power, not enhancing it.

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

    Ezra… Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I must disagree with your reading of Wu’s book and specifically your claim that his recommendations “seemed clearly about limiting government power, not enhancing it.”

    Again, throughout the book, Wu makes assertions such as:

    • “Markets are born free, yet no sooner are they born than some would-be emperor is forging chains. Paradoxically, it sometimes happens that the only way to preserve freedom is through judicious controls on the exercise of private power.”

    • “the purely economic laissez-faire approach… is no longer feasible.”

    • “the disposition of firms and industries is, if anything, more critical than the actions of the state in controlling who gets heard”

    And so on. And I assume you have read Prof. Wu’s Wall St. Journal essay on all the “new monopolists” (including Twitter, Amazon and eBay) that he wants the government to deal with.

    Thus, we get to his regulatory agenda, which revolves around not just Net neutrality regulation and stepped-up antitrust but, more importantly, the so-called “Separations Principle,” which would go much further than those other regs. He says that the Federal Communications Commission will continue to have “day-to-day authority over the information industries” but that won’t be enough. He argues that “what is needed is not only an FCC institutionally committed to a Separations Principle but also a structural arrangement to guard against such deviations, including congressional oversight as well as attention and corrections from other branches of government.”

    Here the self-described “breadth and ambition in its application” associated with Wu’s Separations Principal becomes more apparent. We are talking about layers upon layers of regulation. The key attribute of his Separations Principle is that it is preemptive and prophylactic in character. He explicitly rejects the idea that marketplace experimentation should be allowed and that ex post administrative proceedings or antitrust enforcement will be a satisfactory regulatory enforcement solution. “[T]here is the problem of taking an after-the-fact approach to a commodity so vital to our basic liberties,” he says. Thus, Wu’s approach represents a return to the sort of anticipatory, “Mother, May I” regulatory regime America was supposed to be turning away from following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

    These and other clauses and recommendations in the book clearly illustrate Wu’s sympathy for an expansion of government power over information sectors and the high-tech economy.

  • Jim Harper

    Should a post titled “What is a Tech Libertarian?” do anything other than get tangled up in doctrinal disputes about libertarianism? ;-)

  • Pingback: How Should Libertarians Think about The Master Switch?

Previous post:

Next post: