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Big Tech and the Battle for Republican Liberty

Control of public deliberation and political action in America is quickly passing into the hands of an unelected oligarchy. To truly break the tyranny of Big Tech, Josh Hawley and his allies may need to drop the Jeffersonian fig leaf and forthrightly embrace a contemporary revival of Hamiltonian republicanism.

In the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol riots, already-reeling Americans were shocked by another brazen assault on a hallowed American institution: Big Tech’s coordinated crackdown on freedom of speech.

Depending on your politics, you might have been inclined to cheer rather than boo when Twitter and Facebook booted then-President Trump, and when Amazon, Google, and Apple joined forces to shut down Parler. To be sure, many of the instigators of the January 6 uprising might have morally forfeited their privilege of free speech. Some probably even deserved prosecution. Any thoughtful American, however, should be troubled by the realization that such retaliation no longer proceeded by due process of law, but by summary verdicts of hidden tribunals with zero legal authority but immense economic power. Effective control of public deliberation and political action in America is quickly passing into the hands of an unelected oligarchy to whom most of us have casually signed away our rights in return for the fleeting gratification of a Like button.

Senator Josh Hawley’s new book The Tyranny of Big Tech, itself cancelled by its original publisher in the massive post–January 6 backlash, is a passionate and powerful clarion call for conservatives to wake up to this new political reality. For too many decades, conservatives in America have casually assumed that the chief (or perhaps the only) threat to freedom lay in the state, and the federal government in particular. Concentrations of market power, if noticed at all, were celebrated as monuments to the great profit-generating capacity of free enterprise, and the internet was naïvely cheered as a new engine of individual empowerment. Conservatives of a former era knew better: that unchecked economic power can threaten liberty as surely as political power—indeed, more so, if the latter is responsible to representative institutions and the former is not. Senator Hawley is in the vanguard of an emerging group of conservatives seeking to recover the American people’s control over their own destiny.

 

Sounding the Alarm

Of course, Hawley is far from alone in sounding this alarm. Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 salvo, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and 2020’s breakout documentary, The Social Dilemma, have already exposed in detail what many of us had long suspected: that, blessed with massive regulatory subsidies and legal loopholes, and in pursuit of the surest path to profit—control of human behavior—the Big Tech firms have constructed a digital ecosystem designed primarily for data extraction and behavior modification in order to render users ever more susceptible to targeted advertising.

If that weren’t bad enough, The Social Dilemma also explored an unintended side effect of this regime of titillation: by rewarding the content that is best calculated to outrage us, appealing to our basest instincts, and herding us together into echo chambers, the new digital domain has fractured and polarized political discourse. Belatedly recognizing the dangers of this beast, Big Tech providers have tried to own up to their role as effective sovereigns of this domain and have exercised these sovereign powers to shape political discourse and social attitudes through deft use of algorithms and increasingly brazen censorship.

The baleful results of such pseudo-sovereignty should hardly surprise us. After all, as Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations, monopolistic businesses make poor sovereigns: “As sovereigns, their interest is exactly the same with that of the country which they govern. As merchants, their interest is directly opposite to that interest.”

 

Essential Reading

The central section of The Tyranny of Big Tech articulates these concerns with admirable clarity, concision, and restraint, generally allowing the facts to speak for themselves without undue indulgence of diatribes. Hawley chronicles the perverse incentives of data extraction that have increasingly come to govern the tech industry, with its systematic violations of privacy and ever more sophisticated mechanisms for addicting its users. He then surveys the pernicious social and political consequences of this addiction. The very tools that promise to liberate us lead instead to compulsive behavior, chronic anxiety, and skyrocketing rates of teen suicide, undermining the conditions for democratic deliberation.

Hawley details the systematic bias and lack of transparency in the way Facebook, Twitter, and Google decide what content to censor, quietly shifting millions of votes toward their preferred candidates. Like the robber barons of the late nineteenth century and the feudal barons of medieval England, the leaders of these companies are increasingly playing the role of kingmakers. Hawley carefully documents the ways these new monopolies have, like most monopolies throughout history, adopted anti-competitive practices to drive any potential rivals out of business. This, in turn, allows them to charge exorbitant rates to their captive customers.

In the chapter titled “Rigging Washington,” Hawley reveals the distorted legal regime that has facilitated this vast cession of sovereignty over the American people. Much of the discussion focuses on the now-infamous Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which meant that “Big Tech would have all the power to control information flow with none of the responsibility that the common law would demand of any corporate actor in a similar role of influence in the physical world.”

All of this should be essential reading for any concerned American. Although others have detailed many of these same concerns, no one else has collated them all so effectively in one place and articulated them in such clear and compelling prose. What really sets Hawley’s book apart, however, is the larger political frame in which he sets these new developments, revealing them as the natural fruition of a warped conception of freedom.

Freedom as Consumer Choice

In Hawley’s telling, our current problems are the natural result of the dangerous bargain that Americans made more than a century ago. The first four chapters of the book thus offer a history lesson, chronicling the deeds of the late-nineteenth-century robber barons and Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to bring them to heel. Then, as now, rapid technological innovation collided with lax and outdated legal structures. This enabled a handful of enterprising businessmen to rise quickly to positions of dominance in the American economy and society. Many used their positions to abuse and exploit consumers and to control lawmakers.

Then, as now, the titans argued that their monopolies were simply the natural result of market efficiency. They insisted that society should be grateful for the immense material benefits they provided.

Implicit in this corporate worldview, argues Hawley, was a new conception of freedom, one that has now become so pervasive that any other concept seems foreign to us. Freedom, in this view, consisted of the multiplication of private choices available to individual consumers, and the multiplying opportunities for self-realization and self-expression afforded by the new products, communication technologies, and modes of transportation. Even if only a handful of men were involved in making the decisions that determined the course of the economy, even if only a handful could buy the votes that steered political power, ordinary citizens could still feel “free” as long as there were more things to buy and more styles to try out.

 

Teddy Roosevelt vs. Woodrow Wilson

As Hawley recounts, Teddy Roosevelt fought back against this emergent oligarchy as “the Last Republican.” He became the champion of an older conception of freedom that had shaped the English and American political traditions. According to this older vision, “a man was only free if he had a voice in common affairs, if he was part of a free state . . . That was the whole idea of a republic. It was a state run by citizens who looked after their own interests, not a state run by an elite looking only after theirs.” Freedom was about self-government, not self-realization; it was about taking part, not being left alone; it was about sharing in public choices, not multiplying private ones.

On behalf of this republican concept of liberty, Roosevelt aggressively prosecuted the monopolies and sought to subject them to effective public control, viewing the federal government as the agent of the people’s own self-determination, of their liberty from domination by unaccountable economic actors. Needless to say, all of this is quite far from the concepts of liberty, government, and the marketplace that have dominated conservative thinking since 1980.

In Hawley’s telling, it was Woodrow Wilson who scuttled this project and ushered in the dominion of “corporate liberalism” under which we have been living since. According to this pact between big business, big government, and a largely quiescent citizenry,

The people didn’t need to run anything in order to enjoy liberty. They just needed to be properly provided for, to enjoy a basic standard of material comfort. That would be government’s job. The rest could be left to the experts.

Liberty was increasingly linked to material prosperity and identity-curation, while effective power became concentrated in a handful of elites passing through the revolving door between government and business. It is not hard to see the rise of Big Tech as the apotheosis of this trend, the opening act of a dystopian future in which Instagram is the opiate of the masses. A handful of oligarchs promise us ever-expanding frontiers for expressive individualism. In return, they ask only for the privilege of managing the world for us.

The Fig Leaf of Jeffersonianism

These opening chapters, and the crucial questions they raise, are surely the most thought-provoking section of the book, but they also invite a couple of quibbles. For one, despite his affection for Roosevelt, Hawley cannot resist framing his account in a neo-Jeffersonian garb, repeatedly invoking Jefferson’s ideal of the “the cultivators of the earth” as “the most valuable citizens,” the “ordinary laborers” who stand up against predatory businessmen and safeguard the virtue of the republic. In this Jeffersonian universe, the problem of big business is above all its bigness, and the economy ought to be restored to an eighteenth-century one of small producers.

The irony here is that few American presidents have so thoroughly and openly detested Jefferson, and so openly lionized his rival Hamilton, as Teddy Roosevelt did. And, as Michael Lind has repeatedly argued, most of the blessings Americans now enjoy are the product of the Hamiltonian tradition, despite our reflexive rhetorical reverence for Jefferson.

One gets the impression that Hawley is mostly just being a smart politician here, invoking the hallowed Jeffersonian rhetoric while actually championing a neo-Hamiltonianism—both in his account of Roosevelt and in his fine closing chapter, “A New Politics.” Hawley clearly has no hesitation about using the federal government as an instrument of the people’s agency in reasserting their control over corporations.

But Hawley’s Jeffersonian inflection of Roosevelt does have potentially important policy implications. Hawley paints Roosevelt primarily as trust-buster and Wilson as a friend of the monopolists. This vastly oversimplifies the history of that period. In fact, Wilson’s allies in the courts showed more hostility to bigness in business than the mature Roosevelt, who had come to see consolidation as inevitable in many industries. The solution, Roosevelt was arguing by 1912, was not to break up monopolies, but to ensure they were run in the public interest. Yet this approach can easily shade over into the very “corporate liberalism” Hawley decries.

The problem of consolidated economic power cannot be solved with a nostalgic gesture toward “cultivators of the soil.” It requires an honest acknowledgment that the scale of modern industry and the network effects of many modern technologies naturally lend themselves to cartelization or monopoly. Several domains of Big Tech probably fall under this heading. If this analysis is correct, a renewed zeal for trust-busting may have limited utility, and truly effective regulation may require a willingness to wield public power on an appropriately large scale.

To be fair, Hawley does seem to tacitly acknowledge this, and he shows much less squeamishness on the subject than most of today’s conservatives. However, he cannot bring himself to quite say this out loud, or to speak the name of Hamilton once in his book. This is a shame. Hamilton too was an heir to the old tradition of republican liberty that Hawley champions—one who keenly understood that an energetic and innovative economy requires an energetic and innovative government. To truly break the tyranny of Big Tech, Hawley and his allies may need to drop the Jeffersonian fig leaf and forthrightly embrace a contemporary revival of Hamiltonian republicanism.

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