I read with great interest the latest column by our esteemed Editor-In-Chief. There ought to be a theoretical neutrality, at least with regard to the government, and the potential regulation of speech. We would like to believe that the cure for bad speech is not less speech, but more and better speech. We would like to believe that in a theoretically pluralistic society, the true, the good, and the beautiful will eventually win out over the false, the bad, and the ugly. The most profound question is whether these things we would like to believe have ever been true.
The Chinese government, for example, are nearly textbook cartoon villains at this point. The tyranny of collectivist socialism has been so obviously discredited throughout the twentieth century and into this one that we need hardly waste time pointing it out, though, of course, its defenders never seem to stop trying to defend it. The Chief and I would largely agree with the likely futility of strong government regulation of speech, and of the flow of information. Mr. Butler also points out the danger— or at least the downside— of the policing of ideas by corporate firms animated by the profit motive. Values cannot be determined in any meaningful sense by the pursuit of the profit motive, no matter how salutary such a pursuit may be in a particular context.
Yet, I think my esteemed colleague seems to underestimate the extent to which the pursuit of private goods, including profit, undermines the holding of values. To what extent has individualism— enshrined in our Constitution, if anything is— undermined those values that our founders claimed to cherish? I leave the tasty details to Professor Deneen and his friends, but individualism begets individualism. We need look no further than Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for this principle in full fruition. I punctuate the point with this: is the individualism inherent in defining one’s purpose, especially in regard to sexuality, family, and autonomy, fundamentally different from an individualism defined by extreme material greed, selfishness, and a lack of concern for others?
What my friend Timothy seems to understand but not quite articulate is that technology has democratized the sharing of information, but it has also undermined individuals’ ability to ascertain the scope of their own ignorance. To put it crudely, if everyone with a keyboard is an expert in any field, then no one is an expert in any field. This is why you can’t convince your Aunt Karen that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about with respect to vaccines, and that maybe there isn’t a conspiracy involving the novel coronavirus.
This is how the radical inidividualism I am discussing intersects with something as basic as the question of whether Facebook should remove COVID conspiracy videos. It is fantastically hard to inculcate a regard for the political society in the proper sense, if everyone believes that his or her own rights are the only thing that matters. If I have come to a place where it is only my rights that matter, then I have no way to understand values that might necessitate interference with my “right” to extol everything I think wherever I wish, even while I am using someone else’s platform (such as Facebook) to do it and that someone else finds my thoughts abhorrent.
There is something both voluntary and involuntary about a value system which does not obliterate the individual, nor exalt him to the focal point of everything. Pope Francis was not the first to articulate that a “technocratic paradigm” is at work, and that an uncritical acceptance of what is new, “better,” and “liberating” has unacknowledged dangers. The Amish were among the first, and conservationist and agrarianism advocate Wendell Berry has been beating that drum for close to 60 years.
The non-neutrality of technological innovation is much like the non-neutrality of liberalism: it goes unnoticed, until you are the boiling frog. The exponential acceleration of “technological “progress” has left us little time to ponder whether new found abilities, such Aunt Karen’s ability to broadcast around the world everything that affirms her already set worldview, is really a part of the same value system our founders had in mind with their concerns about free speech.
Let us at least begin with a question of our purpose, before we celebrate our alleged freedom. It seems we have more to fear from our unhindered selves, than we do from Marx and his descendants.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business.