Conservatives and libertarians face a common problem: our principles. Once you catch the passion for liberty and understand how the freedom of billions of humans can coalesce to make a world undreamable by any individual person, it is increasingly difficult to take seriously complicated schemes of regulation and legislation that purport to know better than the market. But why is this really a problem?
I have long been searching for a way to reframe libertarian issues as human interest stories for two reasons: 1) that’s what they are; 2) that’s what people really care about and connect with. To that end, I have been thinking about Jim Pethoukoukis’s “Generation Katniss” post, which walks through exactly the problem i’ve been trying to sort out. I think a lot of the comments on that post missed the point. It is not that libertarian-conservatives need to change what they talk about, it is that we need to change how we talk about it.
Jim cites Arthur Brooks who, in discussing a book by Jonathan Haidt, sums up the quandary perfectly:
Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak … Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.
I cannot highly enough recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion – I found it wonderfully eye-opening in a number of ways. If you would like to hear from the author himself, he had a very interesting discussion with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. The book does a lot of things, but its central focus is to understand the moral dynamics between the left and right.
As noted above, Mr. Haidt’s research shows that “care for the vulnerable” is cited as the most important concern for people across the left-right divide, while pure economic arguments that focus on money and spending barely register with any beyond a minority. Mr. Haidt’s research gives empirical support to Hume’s contention that “reason is the slave of the passions.” Indeed, much of the wisdom of our political system—and the core of the conservative-libertarian political philosophy—is the idea that even very smart people cannot be fully trusted because of their internal biases.
I don’t believe that Mr. Haidt would narrow the scope of his work to merely the passions—love, lust, hate, hunger, and so forth. Instead, our cognition begins with intuitions, sometimes emotional, sometimes perhaps genetically determined, and our reason attempts to frame the facts to fit those intuitions. Overcoming this framing behavior is very difficult, if it’s possible at all. Thus, it behooves us to simply assume that, even among the most reasonable of our species, there is quite a lot more going on than mere reasoning. To speak to people, you need to speak to their intuitions. And, as Mr Haidt’s research reveals, numbers just don’t connect to intuition.
The divide between the left and right’s approach is stark. According to Brooks and Haidt, the Left has captured the field by framing every discussion of public policy as one in which only their solution will actually tend to the vulnerable. Those of us on the right, who typically feel comfortable connecting the economic issues to the underlying human interest concerns, can’t understand how we are described as monstrously abstract and disconnected from the concerns of those who suffer the most.
In the world of tech policy the problem is particularly acute. Our species’ truce with technology has always been slightly uneasy. Within every age there is an impulse to cast off our technological shackles and return to a simpler time, despite the well-being that machines and tools deliver. Today, the problems are even worse. The landscape is dotted with either giant corporations or start-ups doing weird things with our private data. Many of the things that contribute to my daily life come from people and companies distributed across the country and the world. It is easy to understand how a person can lose sight of just how it is that the Internet and software actually enhances the lives of the common person. It is easy to see how (potentially) four million people’s intuitions could impel them to contact the FCC and demand that these alien actors be called to heel.
Buried in the arcane policy aspects of the Internet are things like zero-rating. Without boring you on all of the implementation details, when a service is “zero-rated” that essentially means that the ISP who is providing the bandwidth to access the Internet won’t charge you for using that service (more here). The practice of zero-rating is something that especially raises the hackles of left-flavored Net Neutrality supporters.
In 2011, MetroPCS offered zero-rating for users of YouTube, both in an effort to compete with the top four cell providers, and also, in part, to expand Internet access in inner-cities and to minorities. The Net Neutrality activists stirred the pot and essentially forced MetroPCS to discontinue the program. Ultimately, MetroPCS—a company that attempted to innovate in a way that would disrupt the market leaders and also provide services to low income people—found it easier to merge with T-Mobile than to carry on competing.
In the developing world, there is a strong effort to push zero-rating of services like Wikipedia and Facebook as well. I am pretty sure that Wikipedia’s motives are more or less selfless, just as I am pretty sure that Facebook is looking to grow mindshare. However, whatever Facebook wants, providing zero-rating of Facebook to members of the developing world is one fantastic way to connect people who are mired in poverty to the rest of the world and, by virtue of the connection, give them access to opportunities that can lift them out of poverty.
Even something as seemingly insignificant as providing Netflix or YouTube on a zero-rated basis to poor people across the world would have benefits. It would expose them to the larger dialogue taking place in the world, give them exposure to commonly-spoken languages, and give them access to resources like MOOCs and educational programming.
The core of the zero-rating policy, and my general support for companies that try to offer it, is that it can make peoples’ lives better. My cell phone bills are a fixed cost. However, lower-income people need help getting access to the same level of service that I get. If Facebook or Google want to cut a deal with AT&T or Comcast to make sure their services are provisioned with different kinds of priority and for different costs, who am I to stop them in the name of some ideal of “network neutrality?” And this is the core of my point. All of the arguments about monopoly, consumer protection, or economic efficiencies ultimately boil down to the premise that markets make our lives better. Everyone’s lives—the poor and rich alike —are improved when individuals are free to innovate.
So, my skepticism regarding the push for Net Neutrality rules is not ultimately an economic one. Some weird fixation with the concept that there shouldn’t be ‘fast lanes’ on the Internet totally misses the human element of the story. Letting some data travel faster, or for free, helps an awful lot of people. It makes sure that medical services can be prioritized. It gives lower-income folks a shot at accessing the same level playing field that the wealthier members of the world’s society enjoy. To advocate a highly regulated Internet, where companies are not free to innovate with different levels of offerings harms people in their daily lives. It keeps them poorer. It gives them less opportunity.
The libertarian-conservative worldview is most emphatically an empathic, human-centric worldview. There is quite a lot of interesting discussion to be had on the economic issues that underly policy enactments, but we need to remember the real message that resonates. Arthur brooks captures this sentiment well:
[T]he answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.
I believe we can make this argument on Net Neutrality and zero-rating, just as I believe we can make this argument on nearly every other plank in the libertarian-conservative platform. What we need is a paradigm shift in how we discuss our beliefs and policy proposals.