Liberals Conflicted on Net Regulation

A week ago I wrote about how conservatives face internal conflicts over political issues raised by the Internet. Fair is fair, so today I’ll look at similar problems confronting liberals.

Like conservatives, of course, liberals can’t simply be lumped together and dismissed. Just as conservatives are divided by causes and priorities, so are liberals. Within America’s Democratic Party there are those who identify with and focus on labor issues, environmental concerns, consumer rights, social issues, and so on. The Internet brings political quandaries that can make all these people squirm.

Let’s start with the Net’s obvious economic impact. It’s Robin Hood in reverse, taking from everyone and giving (more and more) to the very few. Maybe that will change (a bit), but the gap between Internet “haves” and “have-nots” is real, and growing.

By leveling markets, the Internet makes exploitation of people and resources easier than ever. The Internet makes Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” a mailed fist inside that velvet glove. The market can get the best price now for teak and ivory, and quickly place it in the most avaricious hands. The market demands the lowest price for labor, whether it’s for weavers or (soon) for computer programmers.

The Internet also enables the work of criminals against whom liberals have fought hard – and some they had thought were dead. Social conservatives may fret over pornographers, but look what the Internet does for Nazis, for ethnic terrorists, and for all sorts of conspirators. Yes, you can keep them off the web, but what about encrypted email? As the killing fields of Juarez prove, the new Mafias are wired.

Liberal politicians have fought to tame disputes within the movement, just as conservatives have, and with enough success that America hasn’t riven itself into splinter parties like most democracies. But how long can they succeed with the Internet? Civil libertarians demand encryption and privacy, which drug dealers and terrorists then use against us. Ethnic and economic interests demand the protection of national laws, laws the Internet makes moot.

Michael Malone’s piece on “Technofascism” in the June 28, 1998, Upside sums up Internet fears that unite all liberals. The Internet-savvy gain absolute power, which corrupts absolutely and resists the efforts of any government to put it in bounds. Technology is seen by its adherents as perfecting humankind, but such dreams always leave masses of people behind, and just as often lead to tyranny – whether of the left or the right hardly matters.

American liberals tend to be skeptics, not absolutists. Men like the late Isaiah Berlin are their secular saints. Berlin, in the words of his New York Times obituary, “considered the very notion that there could be one final answer to organizing human society a dangerous illusion.” Technology and the Internet, to the extent that they stand as the final answer to the problems of the world, are the sworn enemies of liberalism.

In the end the Internet is no one’s political friend. It offers challenges to everyone and every view. Whatever your views on life and politics, you should do some hard thinking next year about how the Internet changes and challenges you. Don’t let your knee jerk for anyone.

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