In rejecting “free-market fundamentalism,” a new breed of populist conservatives has pitched a variety of political ideas that certainly stray from long-running Republican fundamentals. Apparently, the threat from Big Tech and “the Left” is so perilous and unprecedented that we need to cast aside everything we’ve ever believed about the proper role of the federal government and let it take aim at private companies however it chooses.
We just need to stop worrying about unintended consequences and get with the program. To paraphrase the full title of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Government.”
Examples of conservatives taking absurdly statist positions — and even allying with Democrats on far-reaching and intrusive bills — are ridiculously easy to find. I oppose efforts to give the feds more power as a matter of principle, but even as a “stick it to the Left” strategy such ideas fall glaringly short. These populist pot stirrers ignore one of the least-followed maxims in politics: First think about how your enemies will wield any new powers you create.
Enter author and U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance. Speaking recently to Fox News’ TV host Tucker Carlson, Vance asked this bizarre question: “Why don’t we seize the assets of the Ford Foundation, tax their assets, and give it to the people who’ve had their lives destroyed by their radical open borders agenda?” Granted, this probably was just bluster to energize Ohio’s base voters, but we ought not give candidates a pass for crazy talk.
Whether or not one agrees with the Ford Foundation’s priorities, one should have a problem with federal agents seizing private assets because politicians don’t like the policy positions owners of those assets take. Even if you have no principled problem with government takings (and shame on you if that’s the case), you might think this one through. Any government empowered to take your enemies’ assets has the power to take your assets.
Vance had better hope that his side is always in power — a concept that isn’t going that well for Republicans these days. If one wants to adjust the tax laws to force all foundations to be more politically neutral, that’s problematic enough — but calling for property seizures is outrageous.
“In the past, conservatives and libertarians have freaked out — with very good reason — at the idea of the IRS or any other government agency targeting tax-exempt groups based on these groups’ beliefs,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown responded in Reason. She notes that Republicans “would surely be horrified if the Biden administration started taking any action against conservative nonprofits, let alone seizing their assets and handing it over to causes liberals support.” You think?
Along these “be careful what you wish for” lines, a group of conservative activists sent a letter to Congress demanding that it take “an all-of-the-above approach” toward regulating private technology companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. They signed on to six bipartisan bills that, among other things, would let the feds treat these firms as regulated “common carriers” and strip them of their Section 230 liability protections.
Turning private companies into de facto utilities is not exactly a freedom-friendly idea, which probably explains Democratic support for some of these ideas. Regulated utilities — thanks to their protected monopoly status — are among the least-efficient and least-innovative industries. Such industries are most prone to government political meddling.
I’m really not sure why populists don’t understand what it would mean to strip Section 230 out of the federal Communications Decency Act. Making these companies liable for anything anyone posts on their sites will not only upend the internet as we know it, but will force them to make a stark choice.
They can open up their pages without moderation and turn their sites into the equivalent of your spam file (Nigerian princes giving away billions of dollars, Russian beauties looking for a hot time, low-price toner cartridges and extended car warranties) or they can became much more diligent in moderating posts. Note that progressives increasingly are warming to the Section 230 removal idea, given the likelihood of the second choice.
I got started in the media in the days before talk radio, the social media, and internet publications. Those were not the good old days, despite the poor recollections of many modern-day conservative media critics. Readers were dependent on the local (usually liberal) daily newspaper — and the talking heads on the nightly news rarely provided out-of-the-mainstream views. Conservatives controlled only a few niche publications.
Conservatives have come a long way and often dominate the rankings on those social-media sites they seem to abhor. They’re willing to risk going backwards by letting the federal government take control over freewheeling private social-media platforms or even re-impose the Fairness Doctrine. They ought to be more appreciative of how far they have come before asking the government to fix things.
“Every year, Facebook, Google and other technology companies receive hundreds of thousands of orders from law enforcement agencies seeking data people stash online,” according to a recent investigation by the Washington Post. “Often, those requests are accompanied by secrecy orders … that require the tech companies to keep their customers in the dark, potentially for years.”
The tech firms are trying to keep government agencies “from secretly snooping on private accounts.” Do you think such abuses will get better or worse if the feds gain control over these networks? Conservatives used to know that government always is the real danger, but now I’m sounding like a market fundamentalist.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.