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Big Government to the Rescue?

The dangerous allure of “wartime conservatism.”
June 12, 2019
Big Government to the Rescue?
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock / Library of Congress)

A cadre of Republican leaders and right-wing activists have come to believe that big government is the answer for our modern grievances. Or at least their pet grievances.

On his nightly Fox News program, Tucker Carlson argues that Washington must mobilize to stop the coastal and global elitists scheming to transform America. Last Wednesday, Carlson endorsed major aspects of Elizabeth Warren’s economic plan. “She sounds like Donald Trump at his best,” the former Cato Institute fellow told viewers.

In April, freshman GOP senators Rick Scott and Josh Hawley introduced a bill to impose price controls on prescription drugs that, as described by Axios, “could have been written by Bernie Sanders.”

Erstwhile defenders of free trade now support taxes on imported goods to protect popular industries. And when those tariffs harm a favored constituency, like soybean farmers or lobster fishermen, Republicans scramble to make them whole.

But it’s in Silicon Valley where some of today’s conservatives have most clearly adopted the tactics of the progressive nanny state. In a USA Today op-ed last month, Hawley compared social media companies like Facebook to an addictive drug that “hurts its users” and suggested “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”

Proving that no problem is too small for heavy-handed federal regulation, Hawley has also joined Democratic senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to propose a ban on video game “loot boxes,” which are essentially in-game raffle tickets players purchase to have a chance at getting power-ups so that they can avoid grinding, repetitive gameplay. This one, naturally, is framed around “the children.” It’s literally called “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act.”

Apparently, Washington knows better than the hardworking parent who, at the end of a busy day, might find a moment’s peace in handing her phone to an anxious child.

But the lion’s share of vitriol involving Silicon Valley has been reserved for the debate on political censorship and “deplatforming.” Popular right-wing provocateurs, by posting hateful content and fanning reckless conspiracy theories, have seen their accounts suspended and their content “demonetized.” Others, seeking notoriety as dangerous “truth-tellers,” have put forth dodgy claims of censorship and advanced paranoid theories that their posts are being “shadow-banned.”

All of this feeds a compelling narrative of injustice and oppression, one that legislators are all too eager to indulge. Pro-Trump social media stars such as Diamond and Silk are invited to testify before Congress to share dubious tales of being silenced by tech elites. Comedian Steven Crowder, no longer allowed to profit from YouTube advertising because of a pattern of anti-gay insults, enjoys high-profile support from Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

It would be one thing if these politicians were just using their bully pulpits to help ideological allies. But some are willing to take this much further by outlining an aggressive federal policy agenda to rein in Silicon Valley.

Currently, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are shielded from costly litigation when they moderate content and suspend user accounts by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law gives companies broad discretion to enforce their site rules as they see fit, and protects them from being held accountable for their users’ posts.

This has the dual benefit of making running a social media platform less risky while improving the user experience. It turns out very few people actually want to participate in an “anything goes” website like Gab. (Google it yourself if you’re curious.)

But that’s exactly where Hawley, an advocate of Section 230 reform, would take Facebook and Twitter. In an interview with The Verge, he suggested that in order to protect online political speech, the companies’ terms of service should be essentially replaced by the First Amendment.

People say, “Well, where would you draw the line?” Well, First Amendment law has drawn this line for a long time. We’ve thought through this for literally more than a century now. So, the line-drawing problems are not as difficult as folks make it sound. The law has developed clearly what’s the difference between speech that is illegal, and therefore protected, and then viewpoint speech.

Attorney Ken White, perhaps better known as @Popehat, articulated a few practical problems with relying on minimal First Amendment standards for social media moderation. Would every platform be forced to surrender its ability to control content, or only the largest ones? Where would the line be drawn?

Others on the right are echoing the language of the civil rights movement to restore the accounts of their banned brethren. “Platform Access Is A Civil Right,” Will Chamberlain declares on the reanimated Human Events website.

Conservatives should focus on passing legislation – at BOTH the state and federal levels – that protects all citizens’ access to large social media platforms on civil rights grounds. Access should be forfeitable only if one engages in unlawful speech on a platform.

If a large social media company wrongfully denies you access to or removes you from their platform or, you should be able to walk into court, get an injunction against the company that forces them to restore your account, and be awarded substantial statutory damages.

What might a “First Amendment rules-only” Facebook or Twitter look like? Imagine a wild and paranoid dystopia of hateful memes, pornography, and the sharing of personal information to enable harassment. Harassment is illegal of course, but it’s every American’s right to share public information about Sandy Hook families. What other people do with it is their business.

This doesn’t seem like a place you’d want to spend much time, let alone allow your children to do so.

Maybe that’s the point: make these “addictive” spaces unlivable, leading to demands for the government to get into the content moderation business. Americans who value their liberties should be careful of the siren’s call to have government force companies to broadcast anything that isn’t illegal.

And consider what progressives could do with these new regulatory powers over social media. They might determine that proprietary algorithms should be tossed aside for discriminating against marginalized groups and replaced with affirmative action for accounts run by racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. Yes, “racist” algorithms are a thing.

“Promoted” content could be banned for drowning out the speech of the economically disadvantaged. A “fairness doctrine” could be applied in a partisan and tendentious manner to force progressive content onto conservative timelines.

And then what? If you listen to some voices on the right, the answer is simply to fight harder. Those who worry about what the left might do with expanded government powers are “peacetime conservatives.”

Peacetime conservatives complain that their colleagues have abandoned their principles. Wartime conservatives refuse to adhere to self-defeating principles.

Peacetime conservatives worry about setting precedents that Democrats could exploit in the future. Wartime conservatives recognize that Democrats do unprecedented things all the time.

In other words, if you think more than one step ahead, you’re Tom Hagen. Forget “self-defeating principles” like respect for the free market, skepticism of government power, or even conducting yourself honorably. Those are for suckers.

The New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari strikes a similar martial pose. In criticizing “libertarian conservatism,” he demands a politics that will “reorient society to the moral law.” But in the absence of a godly king, his “commitment is to the liberty of Mother Church… and I will pick the pagan emperor who won’t feed our pastors and my fellow believers to the lions.

This sounds like a good deal for Ahmari and his fellow believers, but what about everyone else? The libertarian, at least, opposes feeding anyone to the lions.

Here’s an idea for those who insist on conducting politics like a war. Think of principles as a force multiplier. If you’re right, the commanding heights of truth and justice impart an advantage. They can be used to discredit the opposition and persuade fence-sitters.

Let’s return to the civil rights analogy. What worked better: Martin Luther King’s non-violent advocacy—rooted in the timeless principles of the American founding—or Malcolm X’s “wartime” approach?

The fanatic will never be satisfied by liberal democracy. The easily triggered aesthete will feel uncomfortable from time to time. But radical attempts to subjugate civil society to a particular moral vision will fail as surely as previous efforts to immanentize the eschaton have ended in history’s dustbin.

The current regime is far from perfect. Tech companies have immense power over our lives, and there is a strong case for improving statutory protections to help consumers control how their personal data is used and exploited. And Silicon Valley is certainly dominated by elites who share similar progressive values. However, dramatically expanding the powers of government to wage a culture war against it is short-sighted and dangerous.

Conservatives tempted to betray their principles for political advantage should instead heed the wisdom of Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons: “Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” Or as Jane Coaston put it: “imagine every single government regulation you could contemplate putting in place being used against you by your most fevered political opponent.”

Christian Vanderbrouk

Christian Vanderbrouk is a writer in New York City. He previously served eight years in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: .