Every great political theorist from Aristotle to Madison to Martin Luther King, Jr., has understood the paradox that liberty requires rules and rules require governments. But Internet libertarians have assumed that the Net is a unique realm of benign, self-regulating anarchy. The problem with anarchy is less the inconvenience of chaos than the risk that someone will soon attempt to bring order, at the expense of someone else's liberty.
Today, so much money stands to be made from the control of choke points that the splendid freedom of the information economy is now at risk. The final resolution of the Justice Department's Microsoft case will signal how public policy responds, and antitrust is just one of several policy challenges. Microsoft has advertised itself as a disinterested enabler of consumer choice. But, as the antitrust case has revealed, Microsoft's real slogan might as well be: Where Do We Want You to Go Today? Microsoft wants users to go to the applications software that it sells--to the clunky and widely loathed Microsoft Word rather than, say, WordPerfect. It also wants you to use Internet Explorer rather than Netscape. And it has resorted to tricks that would be familiar to old-fashioned robber barons--in structuring Windows to resist or destroy foreign software as well as coercing computer manufacturers to stack the deck in favor of its often inferior software. Even worse, the need to build these not-so-subtle channeling mechanisms into Windows makes the operating system itself far more cumbersome than it has to be.
A second threat is the consolidation now occurring among cable companies, phone companies, and other Internet service providers. In their infancy, these access paths functioned as true common carriers, with no commercial stake in which destinations users chose. Now, however, the emerging model is one that packages the common carrier and the preferred destinations of its business partners.
One antidote to Microsoft's monopoly is the open-source movement, discussed in this special double issue of The American Prospect. Open-source software, unlike Microsoft Windows, gives competing programmers access to its code and requires that information to remain public so that the best refinements can win in the marketplace in a fair fight. But for the open-source movement to realize its promise, the structure of public rules needs to favor openness. Antitrust enforcement needs to rein in Microsoft. And other public policies need to make sure that those companies who connect users to Web sites continue to function like true common carriers. There are also security, privacy, and intellectual property concerns unlikely to be resolved by market forces without balkanizing the Net.
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The open-source ideal is a much broader metaphor for the true potential of the Internet and the need for policy choices. If public regulation can keep the Net from being feudalized by private commercial interests, the Net can remain a treasure trove of public information as well as an avenue of marketing.
This issue of the Prospect takes stock of both the threats and opportunities. Lawrence Lessig, who has emerged as the Madisonian theorist of the Internet society, frames the discussion with a dazzling article on the relationship between regulation and liberty on the Net. Co-editor Paul Starr explores the potential of the Internet to expand and enrich the public realm. Harvey Blume looks at the movement to create a universal repository of scientific research on the Net, and the effect on traditional scientific journals. Geoffrey Nunberg parses the paradoxical role of English on the Net, as both lingua franca and enabler of other languages and cultures. Nathan Newman extends the open-source metaphor to a general principle. And James Fallows offers a concise summary of which Internet policy dilemmas are likely to be resolved by private collective action and which ones require public rules. We will be publishing a special double issue every three months.
In 1905 George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Hall leader and sidewalk political philosopher, observed to journalist William L. Riordan, "The fact is that a reformer can't last in politics. He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business. You've got to be trained up to it, or you fail." Plunkitt famously explained to Riordan that the reformers he'd seen over the years "were morning glories--looked lovely in the mornin' and withered up after a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishing forever, like fine old oaks."
Not much has changed in a century. In the end, John McCain and Bill Bradley went down partly because of their own character flaws, but mainly because their parties' political establishments each had overwhelming power. Over the grueling months, the money and professional machinery just ground them down. When Gore baited Bradley into negative campaigning, Bradley's vaunted idealism began looking like wounded vanity. When Bush sucker-punched McCain by suddenly discovering and cheaply exploiting the breast cancer issue and having a surrogate run ads attacking McCain's environmental record, Senator McCain sounded whiny and self-pitying.
Character, as the ancient Greeks said, is fate. Had Bradley had a bit more of the common touch, had McCain kept his cool, things might have been different. But it takes a rare reformer indeed to beat the establishment. The most successful insurgents have been those whom Sidney Blumenthal once called "the outsider as insider." These are people who know politics well but play the role of reformer once in office. The brothers Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. Genuine outsiders who manage to squeak through to election, like Jimmy Carter, are often feckless leaders precisely because they are not adept at politics. Truly effective reformer/outsiders, like Lincoln, are rare indeed.
The shame of the fate of Bradley and McCain is that there's so much to reform. Both parties are captives of corporate funding. Both are playing to a relatively narrow electorate. The result, in the phrase of Walter Dean Burnham, is "a politics of excluded alternatives," in which voters don't find either major party appetizing, so they tune out.
But this phenomenon is more complicated than it seems. A lot of the protest vote is not particularly liberal. Though some Democrats were tempted by McCain, at the end of the day the man's record was pretty conventionally conservative, except on campaign finance. There are effective liberal outsiders like Paul Wellstone, but they are few and far between. Indeed, the protest candidacy of Ralph Nader could well end up understating the strength of the sympathy for his positions in the electorate. One of these days, a protest candidate may actually end up getting elected. But unless progressives do the difficult work of reconstructing politics from the ground up, the risk is that he will look more like John McCain or Ross Perot than Bill Bradley or Paul Wellstone.
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Richard Rorty is a famous leftish philosopher deeply committed to greater equality in our society. The other day, Rorty wrote an op-ed in The New York Times so politically innocent and self-defeating that one didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Rorty, who is 68 but still gainfully employed as a Stanford professor, was offended that an affluent fellow like himself would receive a Social Security check at all, and even more offended that Congress was now proposing to give him the full pension benefit notwithstanding his comfortable earnings. Rorty wrote that it would be better if Congress paid him and people like him no Social Security benefits and instead used "the Social Security taxes I've paid over the last 45 years to promote the general welfare."
This is a touching sentiment, but consider the implications. Social Security is widely supported politically because everyone who has worked and paid FICA taxes receives benefits as a retiree. It is understood to be an earned right, not an antipoverty program. Its formula, however, is highly redistributive. A minimum wage worker receives a much higher fraction of his lifetime earnings as a Social Security pension than a college professor or a bond trader does. Thanks to this redistributive formula, the net effect of Social Security is to relieve more poverty than all explicit antipoverty programs put together.
A side effect of the universal character of the program is that some benefits do "leak" to the non-poor. But a lot of what government does benefits the poor indirectly by benefiting everybody. Most general government outlay goes to the citizenry as a whole--building roads, operating schools, policing communities, controlling pollution, maintaining parks. Simply providing services collectively is inherently redistributive since in the absence of social provision individuals would have to buy these services or go without. The fact that some of these services go to the middle class and the rich as well as the poor is an inevitable by-product of providing such services to the general citizenry. Such is the paradox of redistribution via universal programs, but the overall effect remains redistributive. By Rorty's logic, we should deny public schools and public parks to the children of the affluent.
If we took Rorty's suggestion literally, the broad popular support for Social Security would simply evaporate. We would be left with a (typically underfunded) program targeted to the poor, which would raise other problems of means tests and poverty traps. The Social Security tax money paid by affluent people would not likely be "redirected to the general welfare" as Rorty urges. It would probably become part of a tax cut, leaving our most effective program of universal social insurance in shreds. Others have argued that affluent people should not collect Social Security, but the argument is usually made by conservative scourges of social outlay like Peter G. Peterson. When academic philosophers of equality descend from the rarified air of high theory to the mundane world of politics and policy, vertigo evidently sets in. ¤