“Democracy,” H.L. Mencken wrote, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Every new legislative session offers abundant evidence of the famed Baltimore journalist’s pithy words, but new Democratic Big Tech legislation is about to give conservatives what they say they want … good and hard.
As an advocate for limited government and private enterprise, I’ve been stunned by the degree to which Republicans have called for giving the federal and state governments incredible new powers to regulate private technology firms — mainly because they’re annoyed at the biases that these (mostly) Silicon Valley based companies show in their social-media moderating decisions.
Many of these arguments echo ones that leftists have long made as they seek to place bureaucrats in control over expanding sectors of the economy. There are the repeated conservative calls to treat private companies into “common carriers,” which would expand regulatory control over them. That assumes they are monopolies, but they are not — anyone (including the former president) can come up with a competitive alternative.
These days, conservatives are happy letting the feds break up or control private firms — provided they don’t like the leadership of those firms, or the way they conduct their business. Such regulation by grievance, however, is woefully unprincipled and shortsighted. It certainly ignores one of the basic rules of political regulation: Consider what your enemies will do with the newfound government powers.
I’ve even read conservative calls for a return to the leftist “Fairness Doctrine,” which would make federal bean-counters the arbiter of balanced broadcast news coverage. Fortunately, the Reagan administration eliminated that rule in 1987.
“This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment,” President Ronald Reagan said in his veto message. “In any other medium besides broadcasting, such federal policing of the editorial judgment of journalists would be unthinkable.”
As usual, the Gipper had it right. It’s unlikely that Fox News or Rush Limbaugh would have ever gotten their start in a world of government-refereed “fairness” and “balance,” but why worry about unintended consequences?
Likewise, conservative efforts to eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social-media companies from defamation lawsuits stemming from the comments made by individual posters, will have a number of totally foreseen consequences (not the least of which are more lawsuits against private firms, which conservatives typically have abhorred).
These social-media companies will either have to moderate posts in a more heavy-handed manner (since they’ll be liable for anything posted) or open their forums to all comers, and allow their sites to turn into the equivalent of your spam email file. Guess which approach is more likely — and guess how conservatives will fare in the end?
At the state level, legislatures and a bipartisan group of attorneys general are pushing bills and lawsuits that would undermine Apple’s business model for distributing and purchasing its apps. The company created its App Store in 2008, which provides a safe manner for customers to download apps that its tech folks have vetted (for viruses, security, etc.).
These state officials would force the company to allow apps from other platforms and permit the use of third-party payment systems — an effort to use the government to force one company to change its business model in the name of helping other businesses. In the past, conservatives would understand why it’s a bad idea to let the government make such business decisions and undermine voluntary business agreements.
These days, Republicans often are sponsors of the bills. By jumping on the anti-tech bandwagon and encouraging the GOP grassroots to give up their opposition to big-government regulation, conservatives are making it more likely that some noxious Democratic-sponsored legislation will ultimately pass. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., for instance, has co-sponsored a bill by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called the Competition and Opportunity Act.
It seeks to stop private companies from consolidating, although for some reason — gee, I can’t figure out why — Arkansas-based Walmart and Minnesota-based Target are exempt. “Technology companies are not inherently evil or malicious, and it is natural for successful businesses to continue to expand,” he wrote. “However, when any set of corporations reach this level of power and engage in such pervasive anti-competitive behavior, it poses a threat to the free-market system.” (Well, thanks for admitting that private companies aren’t evil per se.)
Actually, letting government decide which companies are too big and letting them make basic business decisions is, on its face, a threat to the free-market system — but Cotton and others aren’t going to let a good populist issue fall by the wayside. If conservatives think that Democrats are going to stop with tech firms, they’re going to learn a lesson — and it will be a good and hard one.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.