Net Neutrality and Internet Freedom

The Federal Communications Commission announced today that they are going to vote on December 14th to put an end to net neutrality rules next month. If passed this will be a disaster for both consumers and democracy. Conservatives and the Republican party have once again championed profits and private property rights in the name of “freedom.”

Despite their claims, the reality is that the end of net neutrality would be a direct path to corporate censorship and the end of the free flow of information online. The internet would be packaged just as propagandist cable television currently is- monopolistic, price gouging, speed throttling, swamp of customer service and frustration. The internet should be treated as a public utility and ought to be recognized as one, no different than electricity, gas or water.

While there are many valid arguments for market based ISP’s given the current costs, problems of infrastructure, access to information, and extremely limited competition- ending net neutrality is not a reasonable solution to the problem. Perhaps in the future when satellite and 5G networks become commonplace and these issues slowly dissipate there will be room to experiment here, but this terrain should be tread carefully.

So what can we do today? Tell the FCC why Net Neutrality is important to you. Speak with your relatives this Thanksgiving about Net Neutrality and why it’s important. Research more, and get informed. Stop taking the internet as we know it for granted.

The Division of Labor: Wealth and Ignorance

One of the main characteristics of a capitalist economy is the division of labor. The division of labor allows for greater efficiency in production by compartmentalizing tasks and having individual workers specialize in a single domain. Perhaps the best example that illustrates this was Henry Ford and his revolutionary advances for the automobile industry.

Prior to Ford, cars were primarily produced by skilled workmen. These workmen not only had to have strong mechanical skills, but also extensive knowledge in engineering, physics and material science. In many cases, these craftsmen were capable of building an entire car by themselves. Indeed, car making was an intellectual artform and each piece was a luxury reserved for the rich.

Then Ford came along and began building cars via assembly line. Ford hired large numbers of unskilled workers, many of whom had never even seen a car in their life, and gave each individual a few simple instructions. Suddenly, these workers had become “car makers.”

fordassemblyline

The division of labor allowed these workers to know just enough in order to do their job without ever needing to fully understand the process. Amazingly, not only was this method more efficient than the cars made by the skilled workmen, but it was cheaper and faster too. Thanks to Ford, car prices dropped dramatically and became so commonplace that even the unskilled workers he had hired could afford them.

Whether he recognized it or not, Ford had expanded on the knowledge and progress from the Enlightenment and Industrial revolution from the 17th and 18th centuries. The following excerpt from A Treatise of Human Nature highlights this:

“When every individual person labors a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labor being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability en creases: And by mutual succor we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.” – David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

150 years before Ford, David Hume recognized the exponential possibilities that human collaboration had for transforming societies. Today, these “conjunction of forces” are represented in the form of large corporations. This rapid advancement in efficiency is one of capitalism’s greatest qualities- creating vast amounts of wealth through expansive production.

Nevertheless, despite the enormous benefits that the division of labor can provide to society, it is not without its faults. Karl Marx most notably criticized the division of labor with his theory of alienation and how humans become a “cog in a system of machines.” Adam Smith also criticized the division of labor for its harmful effects to democracy in The Wealth of Nations:

“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” – Adam Smith, V.1.178

Smith pointed out that the division of labor breeds ignorance because it encourages citizens to a very narrow focus of awareness. Citizen’s need to know how to do their specialized jobs and that’s it. There’s no need in viewing the bigger picture- the inter-connectivity of society, politics and rational discourse. These compartmental underpinnings explain people like Ben Carson: someone who is a brilliant neurosurgeon, but also a young earth creationist with dozens of delusional and irrational beliefs. Or as Bill Maher describes them, “Smart-Stupid people.”

The truth is that democracy only works well with equally informed citizens- and capitalism, by its very nature of making production extremely efficient, undermines this by destroying the intellectual curiosity that democracy requires. In this way, America has been able to both excel and fall behind at the same time. We are a nation of wealth and ignorance.

Smith suggests that “unless government takes some pains to prevent it,” that this is the path we are doomed to follow. The election of Donald Trump would suggest that the government has failed in this regard and will continue to do so in the near future.

I am, however, optimistic. The Internet has made it easier than ever before to learn and explore ideas outside ones expertise. Automation has and will continue to take over jobs that are simplistic and repetitive. We are a nation of wealth and ignorance, but perhaps one day we can become a nation of wealth and reason.

Liberalism vs Socialism

Both liberals and socialists value equality and liberty, but their visions for the world can be vastly different from each other. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between liberalism and socialism can be clarified by a single question: Who should own the means of production?

American Liberals would say that private individuals should own the means of production. However, they would also argue that the State should invest in a strong social safety net in order to combat the inequalities created by capitalism. The political philosopher John Rawls gives credit to this view in his work A Theory of Justice. Rawls provides two principles to follow in order to obtain a just and fair society:

The First Principle of Justice

First comes the priority of liberty: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”

Basic liberties include the political liberty to vote and run for office, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest.

(Note: Rawls clarified in the revised version of A Theory of Justice that he did not consider private ownership of the means of production or the freedom of contract a “basic liberty,” although this point is the main source of contention by libertarians and conservatives)

The Second Principle of Justice

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that:

“(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle. (the difference principle)
(b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity(Rawls, 1971, p. 302; revised edition, p. 53-54)

Liberals can satisfy these principles by rationalizing that inequalities exist only insofar that they increase the net prosperity for society while still maximizing basic liberties for all people.

Perhaps the best examples of this are the Scandinavian social democracies. These countries rank high in both economic freedom through “free”-market practices and egalitarianism through supporting a giant welfare state. Given the means of production are owned by private individuals (billionaires) in these countries, they represent the tip of the iceberg of what is possible within liberal democracies.

Socialists, in contrast, would say that the workers should democratically own the means of production. They argue that this would naturally create a more egalitarian society because profit sharing would better reflect workers contribution and profits would no longer be concentrated to a small number of capitalists. Most would agree that this is a noble and ideal goal, but figuring out how this transition of power would occur has been socialism’s major shortcoming.

The other hurdle socialism faces is its perception in the public eye. It’s history in practice consists of failed states and staunch authoritarianism, but its theory is consistently misunderstood by those without a clear understanding of capitalism. Outside of intellectual circles, being a socialist in America is one of the worst things you can be.

The truth however is that one could be a socialist and believe in all of the same liberties laid out in Rawls First Principle of Justice. One could also be a socialist and have social conservative values (which are the values of the Amish). Indeed, socialism is not mutually exclusive with a single social ideology- it is an idea that contains a vast diversity of flavors.

One of the best critics of left wing liberalism came from the socialist G.A. Cohen in his book If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? Cohen elegantly points out that liberal rhetoric on equality doesn’t reflect what individuals do with their money. How is it that liberals demand our institutions to act altruistically, but on the other hand say individuals should act in their own self interest? The challenge for a liberal America is to convince 300 million individuals that an egalitarian society is in their self interest and to act on it.

The question remains: Can liberal democracies continue to evolve or will they succumb to socialism in the technological age?

I’ll leave you with this thought provoking video: Humans need not apply.