Cato Unbound Debate: Lessig’s Code at Ten (Part 4: Lessig’s response)

by on May 11, 2009 · 10 comments

The week-long Cato Unbound online debate about the 10th anniversary of Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace continues today with Prof. Lessig’s response to Declan McCullagh’s opening essay, “What Larry Didn’t Get,” Jonathan Zittrain’s follow-up essay, and my essay on, “Code, Pessimism, and the Illusion of ‘Perfect Control.’”  Needless to say, Prof. Lessig isn’t too happy with my response. You should jump over to the Cato site to read the entire thing, but here are a couple of excerpts and my response.

To my suggestion that there is a qualitative difference between law and code, Prof. Lessig says:

I’ve argued that things aren’t quite a simple as some libertarians would suggest. That there’s not just bad law. There’s bad code. That we don’t need to worry just about Mussolini. We also need to worry about DRM or the code AT&T deploys to help the government spy upon users. That public threats to liberty can be complemented by private threats to liberty. And that the libertarian must be focused on both.  […]

Of course, law is law. Who could be oblivious to that? And who would need a book to explain it?  But the fact that “law is law” does not imply that it has a “much greater impact in shaping markets and human behavior.” Sometimes it does — especially when that “law” is delivered by a B1 bomber. But ask the RIAA whether it is law or code that is having a “greater impact in shaping markets” for music. Or ask the makers of Second Life whether the citizens of that space find themselves more constrained by the commercial code of their geo-jurisdiction or by the fact that the software code of Second Life doesn’t permit you simply to walk away (so to speak) with another person’s scepter. Whether and when law is more effective than code is an empirical matter — something to be studied, and considered, not dismissed by banalities spruced up with italics.

Well, I beg the professor’s pardon for excessive use of italics.  [I won’t ask for an apology for misspelling my last name in his piece!] Regardless, it’s obvious that we’ll just never see eye-to-eye on the crucial distinction between law and code. Again, as I stated in my essay: “With code, escape is possible. Law, by contrast, tends to lock in and limit; spontaneous evolution is supplanted by the stagnation of top-down, one-size-fits-all regulatory schemes.”

Lessig largely dismisses much of this with that last line above, suggesting that we just need to keep studying the matter to determine the right mix of what works best.  To be clear, while I’m all for studying the impact of law vs. code as “an empirical matter,” that in turn begs the question of how we define effectiveness or success. I suspect that the professor and I would have a “values clash” over some rather important first principles in that regard.  This is, of course, a conflict of visions that we see throughout the history of philosophy; a conflict between those who put the individual and the individual’s rights at the core of any ethical political system versus those who would place the rights of “the community,” “the public” or some other amorphous grouping(s) at the center of everything.  It’s a classic libertarian vs. communitarian / collectivist debate.

Lessig, however, makes it clear in his response that he doesn’t take kindly to being called a cyber-collectivist, even accusing me of “red-baiting” by using the term.  But the collectivism of which I speak is a more generic type; not the hard-edged Marxist brand of collectivism of modern times.   What separates Lessig’s brand of cyber-collectivism from the cyber-libertarianism that I espouse is a general preference for who calls the shots most of the time.  Quite obviously, I place an enormous amount of faith in largely unfettered markets in code to generally advance the values of individual liberty, freedom of speech, and economic innovation more often than rule by politics and public officials will.  Prof. Lessig is obviously far more enamored with the potential of the state and politics to play a beneficial role in shaping things.

Thus, even though Prof. Lessig rejects the association, Declan McCullagh was right to point to the distant influence of Plato on Code and much of Lessig’s other work.  (And there’s a bit of Rousseauian influence there, too.)  In any event, if Prof. Lessig takes offense at this label and wants to call his approach something other than cyber-collectivism, than by all means be my guest; invent a new term and I’ll use it.  But to me, as a student of political philosophy, I see his philosophy as just another variant of collectivism and just don’t know what else to call it.  This isn’t “red-baiting;” it’s simply an exercise in philosophical classification.

To some extent, Prof.  Lessig undercuts my arguments here in concluding his essay by asking that we “focus on a large number of difficult questions that remain… about how to preserve the liberty of society and the Net against the ever-expanding harm caused by the captured corruption that we call democratic government.”  Hey, now that sounds like something a true libertarian might say! (Except that we would have likely used the phrase “preserve the liberty of the individual” instead of “society”!) Regardless, Lessig is at least willing to admit that there may be some problems in paradise for Platonist thinking or Rousseauian romanticism.

Alas, for reasons articulated quite nicely here by Tim Lee in the past, “Lessig clearly understands what it takes to catch the interest of conservative- and libertarian-minded readers, and he’s not above spinning his arguments to maximize their appeal to the people he’s addressing.” For the libertarian, there is only one fool-proof solution to the problem of government corruption: You shrink the Leviathan. From what I’ve seen of Lessig’s proposals so far to address corruption, however, he’s not really willing to have that conversation. It’s all about the old “getting money out of politics” and “kill all the lobbyists” approach. Unfortunately, as Tim notes:

The problem isn’t that there’s a discrete list of corrupt practices that we can identify and prohibit. The problem is that if politicians are willing to be corrupted, and special interests are willing to spend resources to corrupt them, they’ll find ways to get it done. You can certainly reduce the effect on the margin — by banning overt bribery, for example — but once you’ve banned the really obvious categories of back-scratching, it becomes more and more difficult to make any further progress. What’s going on in Washington is disgusting, to be sure, but it’s not new or unique to the United States. And I think fixing it is going to be a lot more challenging than Lessig imagines.

I couldn’t agree more.  Nonetheless, I eagerly await more details from Prof. Lessig regarding his new effort to address corruption in our political system, however he defines it.  He may set forth some reform proposals that we libertarians find quite sensible and ultimately endorse.  But if “reform” instead comes in the form of layers of additional campaign finance regulations, well then, I think we’ll find ourselves disagreeing once again. Because many of those so-called reforms are simply free-speech violating restrictions on the rights of both individuals to petition their government.

But to conclude this exchange on a good note, let me just say that — at least in theory — I wholeheartedly endorse Lawrence Lessig’s call to protect “the Net against the ever-expanding harm caused by the captured corruption that we call democratic government.”   And I hope someday he will be more open to the notion that limits on the power of the state are the ultimate key to accomplishing that goal.

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