Monday, September 24, 2007

Persuasion, force and the possibilities of private censorship 

I was wandering through Minnesota blogs a few nights ago and stopped by Charlie Quimby's site to see a post titled "Free Market Censorship." I considered that an oxymoron (this is currently Littlest Scholar's favorite word -- a 13-year-old's life apparently gives many opportunities for its use) and said so in his comments. He has responded with a second post that contains a little derision for my view. Allow me to explain this to my readership a little better.

Charlie first complained that when he forwarded email that was "anti-war, pro-environment progressive" to a group of his friends, some did not receive them because "AOL subscribers and users of "free" email services such as Microsoft-Hotmail and Yahoo" were having that email filtered out by those providers. I suggested it was not for him to complain. Those services do not have a duty to him as a sender but have some duty to the recipient, since they are the ones who sign a contract with the service providers. Charlie checked out the AOL contract and thought AOL had a great deal of rights retained to deliver or not deliver mail.

So what? Subscribers have the right to not subscribe. They can go to other sites or buy their own ISP services. The filter on email to this domain is set by me, for example, and the cost of this site is less than the cost of an AOL subscription. People buy AOL, or use Hotmail and Yahoo, because they require less work and knowledge of the internet than buying your own domain. You're free to make that trade or not. And if you are a subscriber, you can choose as well to complain to AOL or Microsoft about their policies. This is an example of Hirschman's concepts of exit and voice to describe dysfunction in a relationship.

But as long as exit is possible, in what sense are you censored?

A little sidetrack: Yesterday in the St. Cloud Times, editorial page editor Randy Krebs announced a new policy on letters to the editor regarding candidates for political office. The new rule:
For submissions that cite an incumbent�s vote on specific legislation, the author must provide documentation from a reputable source that verifies the vote. That documentation can be a newspaper article, minutes from a meeting or even a link from a credible Web site that tracks such votes. (Examples include links to the appropriate files on The Library of Congress or the Minnesota Legislature�s Web sites.)
Who's Krebs to decide what's a "credible web site" or "reputable source"? Well, he's the person designated by the paper's owners to decide what's on the editorial page, that's who. When he sends back a letter and says "I don't think your source on this is reputable", you have no right to demand your letter be published. You may complain, and you may publish it on a blog, and you may denounce the policy. But you don't get to tell a private newspaper what is to be published on its pages. You can't, and because of the First Amendment neither can the government.

(Note: With this policy the Times can no longer really say it publishes all letters, and it has opened itself up to criticism of applying the standard unequally to conservative or liberal letters, to Republican and Democratic letters. That's their problem, though, and I think we can assume they've evaluated that problem versus the problem of unfounded claims in letters and the barrage of responding letters that ensue, and decided this was how to handle that problem. Again, they're a private entity, and that's their right.)

Many years ago I read an essay by Mark Skousen in which he highlighted a passage from Alfred North Whitehead's Adventures of Ideas. In one essay in that book Whitehead argues that persuasion, the respecting of a human's right to choose, is the most fundamental sign of the advancement of society. Using Skousen's excerpt:
The creation of the world -- said Plato -- is the victory of persuasion over force... Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals...

Now the intercourse between individuals and between social groups takes one of these two forms: force or persuasion. Commerce is the great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force.

Charlie's second post is little more than a diatribe against commerce, at least when one of the parties to commerce takes the form of a corporation. Yet the examples of force in his story are not found. You are not forced to accept Hotmail as your email service. You are not forced to take a job with a company that refuses to pay you for overtime. You may do so because you are ill-informed or ill-prepared to explore alternatives, but last time I looked your right was only the right to pursue happiness, not have it delivered to you with a bow on top.

The penultimate paragraph tries to attach to my view something I do not believe:
But I find it extremely comical that an economist can overlook how corporations enjoy the protections of government � particularly through lobbying, political back scratching and the courts.
Good heavens, no. I don't overlook it. I call it "rent-seeking" and I abhor it. Economists have long recognized its existence and the inefficiency of it. Where Charlie and I might disagree is how to cure it. He would argue that there are not enough government restrictions on economic activity and seek political solutions to put more on. I would argue instead that as long as government has the power to place these restrictions on economic activity businesses will seek to control it, so the only solution is a constitution that reduces government's power to write the restrictions in the first place. The original U.S. Constitution was closer to that ideal than the one that we have now with direct taxation; the pre-New Deal executive and legislative branches understood this better than the post-World War II ones, with the notable exception of Reagan (at least in the first term.) This blog is chock full of examples of rent-seeking, and I hold no brief for corporate power.

But a contract for email services is a poor choice for an example of government protection of corporate power because government does not restrict your choices for email service. Government is the source of all coercion; corporations can only bend it to their will if we first allow government to do it. The conservative or libertarian argument is to get government to stop using force, not to use it "in the name of the people." If you fail to understand why, look up the countries whose official names begin "People's Democratic Republic of..."

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