TCS Daily

Government and the Fear Factor

By Arnold Kling - September 7, 2004 12:00 AM

"Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect"

-- Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

My theory is that the political process preys on fear. A politician identifies something that constituents might perceive as a threat. Next, the politician "markets" the threat, playing up its importance. Then, the politician says, "If you are afraid of this threat, then vote for me." The politician's proposal for addressing the threat typically involves expanded government activity, which often does more harm than good. Rinse, soak, repeat.

People who share my preference for less government believe that politicians habitually overstate the seriousness of these threats. For libertarians, the challenge is to "drive out fear," to borrow a phrase from Management guru W. Edwards Deming. If people would think through issues rationally, their fears would diminish, and their susceptibility to "solutions" that involve regulation and taxes would be lessened.

Much of my writing at TCS can be viewed as an attempt to drive out fear. At the bottom of this article is a list of a dozen of my previous essays, and the fears that they were intended to assuage.

Barlow Caves in to Fear

Reason Magazine's recent interview with John Perry Barlow illustrates what happens when an erstwhile libertarian caves in to fear. In the interview, Barlow says,

"Any time you engage with information, the reality that you extract from that information is shaped by the tools that deliver it. Microsoft's information presentation is such a monoculture that it edits out a lot of other realities. So you have a new kind of monopoly that affects the way people think in ways that are invisible to them. It's a very dangerous form of monopoly, especially now that they are talking about the 'trusted computing' model, where it will be very difficult for you to save and then pass on documents on systems without identifying yourself.

"That system is supposed to be designed to help control digital rights management. By its nature it will be great for political rights management, because it's an enormously penetrative surveillance tool, and it makes it hard to do anything anonymously involving a computer.

"...We have a deeply symbiotic relationship with large corporations. I wouldn't want to eliminate them, because they are the engines of our economic well being at the moment. But we need something -- and I think it's governmental -- to reregulate the market and make it free, because the multinationals have taken it away."

The specific technical issue to which Barlow refers is too complex to be explained well here. What I believe that he is saying, sort of, is that Microsoft has the power to re-architect the Internet so that the traditional presumption of personal anonymity will be replaced by a presumption of exposure, using what could be called identity-authentication.

If that is what Barlow is saying, then I believe he is wrong. Even if we grant that Windows™ has an overwhelming share of the market for "client" personal computers, that is not enough to dominate the Internet. The Internet also includes servers, many of which run some form of Unix. Even more important, many Internet clients, particularly in other countries, are not personal computers at all. Cell phones, personal digital assistants, and other small portable devices are claiming an ever-increasing market share. Looking at the Internet as a whole, Microsoft's share of "nodes" is far from dominant and indeed is rapidly declining.

Furthermore, any new Microsoft software must contend with the huge installed base of old Microsoft software, which creates in effect a competition between Microsoft and itself. With each fundamentally new release, Microsoft starts out with a market share of zero and must rebuild its share by convincing users to upgrade. Admittedly, this is easier for Microsoft than for an unknown, cash-strapped start-up, but the process is still very slow and painful.

If Barlow and others think that the next version of Windows is just too creepy, they can stick with XP. Or Windows 98, for that matter, which still has a huge installed base. If identity-authentication is enough of a show-stopper for enough people, then Bill will have to leave it out in order to get people to buy the next upgrade.

Of all the organizations you could look to because you fear identity-authentication, it is ironic that Barlow would choose government. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which Barlow founded, has spent considerable effort in fending off government attempts to make the Internet wiretap friendly, efforts which date back to the infamous Clipper Chip. Turning to government to help maintain anonymity on the Internet is like going to the Pope for help in keeping abortion safe and legal.

Government and Corporate Power

One of the differences between Sweetwater and Saltwater economists concerns monopoly. On the left, saltwater economists tend to share Barlow's view that government is the logical check on corporate power. On the right, sweetwater economists believe that government naturally allies with large interests, so that more government involvement tends to strengthen the hand of the corporate giants and weaken the position of consumers and small businesses.

My own reading of history is that it supports the Sweetwater point of view. Once an industry becomes regulated, economic competition dries up, to be replaced by lobbyist infighting. The profit center moves from the market to Washington, and resources shift accordingly.

Corporate power is a bad thing. I like to see big corporations humbled by innovation and competition.

But fear of corporate power can be a worse thing. Politicians play up that fear, because they are eager to intervene. However, it seems to me that government interventions do not wind up reining in corporations, and the net result is to leave ordinary individuals less powerful than in a less-regulated environment.


One of the issues that fits my model of political fear-mongering is terrorism. Barlow and others would argue that politicians exaggerate the threat of terrorism and use it as a cover to enhance government power.

I share their concern. However, fear-mongering takes many forms. The conspiracy suggestions of Michael Moore and Paul Krugman are no more helpful than the Nixon-McCarthy accusations about "losing China" in the 1950's or the xenophobic immigration-bashing on the far right today.

I think that terrorism is a real problem, but we should not let it become an excuse for generic expansion of government power. I do not want to make the mistake of doing too little about terrorism, but we also should try to avoid the mistake of doing too much -- or at least too much of the wrong things. Using Patriot-Act provisions to fight the drug war, as Barlow seems to have experienced first hand, is exactly one of those wrong things. I seek a middle ground. My idea for a Constitution of Surveillance was intended to try to balance the various risks.

Stay Cool on Politics

I believe in casting a meaningful vote (which generally precludes third-party candidates), but I think Barlow has gone too far. When you cave into your fears and become a rabid partisan, you set yourself up for an expansion of government power. It was Franklin Roosevelt, despite saying that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," who presided over a fear-driven increase in paternalistic policies, which in retrospect failed to cure the Great Depression.

I believe that the best way to "drive out fear" is to stay cool on politics. Do not encourage any party or politicians to believe that they represent your salvation. Don't buy into the notion that the election of the other guy would mean the end of civilization as we know it. Hold your nose, and do your best to choose the lesser evil.

Earlier Essays

Fear Addressed

Oil Econ 101

Fear of having to import oil

America is Crazy

Fear of personal responsibility for health care

How Much Worse Off Are We?

Fear that our living standards have declined

Taking Advantage

Fear that trade with low-wage countries harms us

Privatization: The Ultimate "Lockbox" for Social Security

Fear that Social Security cannot be changed safely

The Technology Edge

Fear of research and development in other countries

Manufacturing a Crisis

Fear of losing manufacturing jobs

Mandatory Libertarianism

Fear that school vouchers will harm education

Please Outsource to My Daughter

Fear of outsourcing

Quack Economic Prescription

Fear of pharmaceutical companies

Common Sense and Sensibility

Fear that we are "running out" of resources and the environment will not sustain growth

Progress and Displacement

Fear of economic change

Zero-Sum Bioethics

Fear of improvements brought about by biotechnology


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