Feature 03.04.2020 5 minutes

Don’t Panic on Tech


Overregulating digital technology will backfire in the end.

Donald Trump ran and won by opposing many traditional Republican candidates and ideas. However, for two years or more, his administration seemed rather a lot like a traditional Republican administration. Now, leading young intellectuals on the Right are trying to define the Trumpian moment whether the President knows it or not. One of their manifestos—“For Real American Greatness, A Tech New Deal”—bears attention.

This manifesto strikes me as a response to conservative political failure. There has been exactly one presidential election since 1988 that Republicans have won by more than a slim margin. That victory, in 2004, changed little and soon slid into the electoral disasters of 2006 (in Congress) and 2008 (with the presidency). True, Republicans have controlled enough of Congress for two decades to prevent terrible policy outcomes. But they seem politically exhausted. And these successes have done little if anything to stop the Left’s dominance of culture.

Some may hope (and others fear) that it is the “Reagan Revolution” itself that is exhausted. The core hallmarks of that revolution are a return to founding principles (first and foremost individual liberty), and a love of country, combined with profound skepticism about the federal government. Reagan won twice running on those ideals, but he governed more as a modest reformer than as a revolutionary.

Trump’s victory suggested Republican voters rejected limited government, even if GOP elites held firm. But voters seem to prefer American Greatness and shoring up Medicare. However, the preferred policy articulated by the signatories of the ‘Tech New Deal’ is not redistributive. The essay fits well in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, both of whom advocated for an energetic government putatively on behalf of national development.

Our authors certainly believe in government: “America’s innovative power and technological leadership are vital strategic assets. They must be safeguarded and leveraged with a new framework of policy and politics by the people, for the people, and of the people.” Concretely, the talents and property of individuals are to be “leveraged and safeguarded” for collective ends. Indeed, our authors note that “like all corporations, tech firms exist at the sufferance of US law.” That would indeed imply a certain leverage for those who make law, at least. That does have a New Deal sound to it.

Yet the problem here concerns capacity as well as desire. Congress has indeed delegated its legislative power to the administrative state, and Republicans scored the own goal of term limiting committee chairs who thus lack experience in controlling the bureaucracy. Perhaps executive orders would realize the Tech New Deal? But they ultimately are implemented by agencies that are, shall we say, not exactly filled with conservatives. The Tech New Deal spearheaded by the Claremont Institute is likely to turn out to be the Tech New Deal of the JFK School.

The implicit politics of the essay trouble me. The left has indeed completed a “long march” through American institutions: the universities and education generally, Hollywood, most media, and the federal bureaucracy. Those losses notwithstanding, business remains a conservative force. And that is important. Business creates wealth and jobs, the ends everyone wants. And doing what everyone wants tends to constrain the politics of plunder.

Our authors seem ready to throw business off, if not under, the bus, at least if by “business” we understand American commercial greatness and innovation offered by companies like Facebook and Google. Tech people are said to be against the Constitution, against America itself, against Western civilization, and against humanity while helping the Chinese develop their military.

Consider only the “anti-constitutional” charge against the companies. A lot of history and Supreme Court doctrine says the First Amendment does not constrain tech platforms. In line with their expansive view of government, our authors seem to think the private property of shareholders in Facebook and other companies are “our public square.” That seems implausible, and within the American framework, deeply anti-constitutional.

Fears about the future of content moderation should not obscure what has been achieved with the help of social media. Our authors were not yet born when Walter Cronkite and the editorial board of the New York Times curated the national conversation. Now Dennis Prager reveals his university’s videos get “a billion views a year, the majority of which come from viewers under 35.” Joe Rogan gives conservatives access to an audience far larger than that which they were denied by broadcast television, while Steve Crowder makes the Right entertaining and combative. And of course, there’s also Andrew Bosworth’s recent reflection:

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.

Bosworth is a liberal, a Hillary voter, and a confidante of Mark Zuckerberg. The founder of Facebook himself has lately said freedom of speech will remain his company’s “paramount value.” Why not hold him to that promise instead of trying to create an FCC for the internet?

We have been down this road before and not too long ago. The neo-conservatives touted an active federal government as early as 1997. George W. Bush’s hope to revive civil society through public subsidies went nowhere politically while foreign misadventures brought the nation Barack Obama.

Almost four years ago, a prominent conservative philosopher remarked to me: “I don’t like where the demos are” apropos of the rise of the current president and of Bernie Sanders. Indeed, our plight has persisted. But Conservatives, and other critics of Progressivism, will not find a way out of the wilderness by becoming better technocrats than the Left. We may reach our modest promised land by being conservative and sticking with the proven wisdom of Adam Smith and James Madison. Our time will come again.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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