If You Must Compromise Your Values to Gain Political Power…

Jesse Walker, over at The Perpetual Three-Dot Column, discusses the dilemma that radical critics of government have when coming up with strategies. Without political power, how can you hope for results? But to get political power means to compromise and in some sense become the enemy you’re trying to defeat.

I prefer a different approach. Albert Jay Nock distinguished social power, rooted in the voluntary institutions of society, from state power, rooted in coercion. Both coexist in our culture, each one waxing as the other wanes; the libertarian’s goal is to maximize the former at the expense of the latter. Washington is not always the best place to do this. The most promising transformations in America over the last few decades have taken place not when state officials voluntarily relinquished some of their authority, but when social institutions either seized new ground or (more often) crept onto it while no one was watching. Examples range from the homeschooling revolution, which achieved tremendous victories while school choice legislation was at best sputtering forward, to the various DIY alternatives eating away at licensed professions from building to broadcasting. Useful libertarian activism is a matter of defending the zones of free action that exist and assisting the people who are trying to push them further.

To his list, I’d add the internet, which has allowed people to reach mass audiences — independent of government licensing (unlike television and radio, for instance), and also much less dependent on large hunks of money (unlike television, radio, and print publishing).

This really has changed things for the better. People are much more able now to choose their own information filters, or indeed to be their own information filterers — there is less reason to rely on sanitized versions of reality, since non-sanitized versions are more up-to-date, less-biased, more-informative, and more easily-verified.

Imagine trying to implement such an important and beneficial social change through legislation, or to force it in any way by means of the government? Imagine the internet as designed by a “Democratization of Media Act” or a “Department of Public Information Access.”

It would never have survived as a free public space if politicians had designed it to be one. It’s only because of the lucky accident that the society that makes up the internet arose on its own and chose its own paths that it’s stayed free and stolen the talking stick from the official news speakers.

At this point I’ll put in a plug for the Electronic Frontier Foundation which is doing great work “defending the zones of free action that exist and assisting the people who are trying to push them further” on-line.

I don’t mean to gush in this oh-so- way about the Internet, but I’m so impressed with the way getting news has changed. It used to be that you’d hear about some event or policy debate through the newspaper or on television news. Maybe the next day there’d be an op-ed or two from somebody with specialized knowledge. The next week, the newsweeklies might publish a more in-depth article, or some TV interviewer or 60 Minutes-style show would give some more background.

Today, you get the news first on-line. Along with it, you’ve got Google to follow-up or clarify things you don’t understand, and you’ve got links to people with specialized knowledge and to relevant data. People with expertise in or first-hand knowledge about the issue are on-line instantly, sharing their views.

The news media, in contrast, is late on the scene, does a sloppy job with overworked reporters who don’t know enough about what they’re covering, and fails to provide links to sources that can verify or refute the story they’re telling. They’ve always been like this, but only now that this new internet journalism is here do they suffer from the contrast.

Now someone could have looked around in and complained that the news media was shallow, misinformed, manipulative, and shoddy — and then hoped that some top-down program of legislation, education, or BBC-style subsidy could be used to encourage better journalism. Instead, the internet came along, and through no organized, centrally-directed program, became the cure we needed for the disease we barely knew we had.

I use the decentralized internet communications medium as my model when I look at problems like this now — instead of asking, as I did in my liberal days, “why doesn’t the government do something about this?” I ask instead, “what would it look like if we solved this ourselves?”