TCS Daily

The Real Internet Candidate

By Arnold Kling - August 15, 2003 12:00 AM

"The Internet isn't a thing. It's an agreement...If you want to put a computer - or a cell phone or a refrigerator--- on the network, you have to agree to the agreement that is the Internet."
--Doc Searls and David Weinberger,
World of Ends


"The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it."
--John Locke,
The Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter 8


David Weinberger recently announced that he is a Senior Internet Advisor to the Howard Dean campaign. However, if the architecture of the Internet were a political metaphor, then the real Internet candidate is not Howard Dean. It is John Locke, the Enlightenment-era philosopher who influenced America's founders. Locke would have appreciated the concept of the Internet as a consensual agreement to live within a system of individual autonomy and equality with limited central authority.


The Internet as a Political Metaphor


The Internet architecture is designed to maximize the freedom of individuals to act without interference. Searls and Weinberger argue that the Internet is best viewed as a passive conduit for information packets, and that "having a system that transports all bits equally, without government or industry censorship, is the single most powerful force for democracy and open markets in history."


The Internet's minimalist approach to central regulation allows the participants on the Internet to apply their creativity and develop innovation. However, it is not surprising that this architecture is constantly under attack by those who would seek to "improve" the Internet -- by regulating spam, for example.


John Stuart Mill anticipated the tendency for regulatory interference when he wrote,


"The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase."


Searls and Weinberger are trying to raise our "moral conviction" in defense of the decentralized Internet. In my view, seeing the Internet as a political metaphor should enable us to better raise our "moral conviction" in favor of Mill's libertarianism.


(Incidentally, it is beside the point to argue that the Internet began as a government research project, as if this somehow demonstrates that libertarianism is unworkable. America began as a colony under the English monarchy -- does this prove that democracy is unworkable? As another aside, it is important to remember to distinguish libertarianism from anarchy. Locke and libertarians who followed him believed that people would not enjoy liberty and protection of property in the absence of government and the rule of law.)


Modern Politics


Modern politics is far removed from the ideals articulated by Locke and Mill. Modern politics is well described by Berkeley professor of cognitive sciences George Lakoff as being built on the metaphor of the nation as a family. Lakoff argues that modern conservatism speaks to people in terms of strict-father morality.


"...the father's primary duty is tell his children what is right and wrong, punish them when they do wrong, and to bring them up to be self-disciplined and self-reliant. Through self-denial, the children can build strength against internal evils. In this way, he teaches his children to be self-disciplined, industrious, polite, trustworthy, and respectful of authority."


On the other hand, according to Lakoff, contemporary liberalism speaks to people in terms of a nurturant-parent morality.


"Children are taught self-discipline in the service of nurturance: to take care of themselves, to deal with existing hardships, to be responsible to others, and to realize their potential. Children are also taught self-nurturance: the intrinsic value of emotional connection with others, of health, of education, of art, of communion with the natural world, and of being able to take care of oneself."


The important point is that both modern conservatives and modern liberals have a model of government that treats citizens as children and government as parents. Conservatives want government to fit a parental model in which citizens are regarded as children likely to go astray unless threatened with punishment (think of drug laws or sodomy laws). Liberals want government to fit a parental model in which, as Lakoff puts it, "The government, as nurturant parent, is responsible for providing for the basic needs of its citizens: food, shelter, education, and health care."


President Clinton and President Bush have attempted to appeal to both metaphors. President Clinton appropriated the conservative strict-father morality in his denunciation of Sister Souljah and in signing welfare reform legislation. Similarly, President Bush appropriated nurturant-parent morality with his adoption of the phrase "compassionate conservatism," his championing of the No Child Left Behind Act to boost education spending, and his support for a prescription drug benefit.


Locke Gets It


In contrast with modern politicians, John Locke took pains to distinguish government from paternalism.


"Paternal or parental power is nothing but that which parents have over their children, to govern them for the children's good, till they come to the use of reason, or a state of knowledge, wherein they may be supposed capable as freemen under that law. The affection and tenderness which God hath planted in the breast of parents towards their children, makes it evident, that this is not intended to be a severe arbitrary government, but only for the help, instruction, and preservation of their offspring...And thus, 'tis true, the paternal is a natural government, but not at all extending itself to the ends and jurisdictions of that which is political."


For Locke, political power is a contract among consenting adults. We want to live in a society in which we have rights to life and property. We consent to form a government that enforces those rights. We are not children, and government is not a parent.


Locke's philosophy of government influenced our Constitution, which was designed to keep central authority down to minimum functions. Over time, the Constitution's limitations on government powers have been eviscerated, and most people have become accustomed to the nanny state.


The Internet architecture reminds me of the Constitution. It is designed as an agreement among responsible, consenting adults rather than as a paternalistic regulatory regime. In my opinion, the political figure who best "gets" the Internet is John Locke.


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