Posted: August 30, 2001
A review of republic.com, by Cass R. Sunstein
he liberal love affair with the Internet appears to be on the rocks. The Information Superhighway promised to set us free—or make us more liberal anyway. But it appears that liberalism's love was unrequited. Perhaps that's because the liberal assumptions were all wrong. Information alone does not lead to liberation or liberalism. The truth will set you free, but mere information has no such power. Some years ago, billboards urged citizens to "fight fear with the facts: call the AIDS hotline." Anyone who called, of course, was likely to be scared to death by the facts of the AIDS epidemic. The promise of liberation from fear is good only insofar as there are no fearful facts—an utterly absurd proposition. Although liberalism's affair with the Internet may prove to be illicit, its long-term commitment to the unquestioned assumptions of enlightenment rationalism remains strong.
Cass Sunstein's republic.com, the epitome of liberal chic, chronicles the unhappy decline of the Internet as an object of liberal ardor. In the beginning, the Internet was dominated by .edu, .org, and .gov domains. This provided a convenient meeting place for the diverse and multicultural. Gradually, however, the dot-coms took over, producing "consumer treadmills" in which "we buy more and better goods not because they make us happier or better off but because they help us keep up with others." Consumerism—individual and unregulated choice—poses a grave danger to "deliberative democracy" because it fractures the universe of public discourse.
Sunstein concludes that the Internet is in need of regulation because free choice does not always produce genuine freedom. Nothing characterizes Sunstein's concept of freedom more than Rousseau's injunction that men must be forced to be free. In fact, Sunstein seems to believe (with apologies to Socrates) that the unregulated life is not worth living.
For example, Sunstein misses the good old days of the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine, of course, was anything but fair. It did, however, give a virtual on-air monopoly to liberalism. (Note that the demise of the Fairness Doctrine led to the ascendancy of conservative talk radio.) Although liberalism parades under the banner of fairness and diversity, it is in fact stubbornly intolerant. Campaign finance reform—enthusiastically promoted by Sunstein—is another good example. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt remarked not long ago that "freedom of speech" is incompatible with "our desire for healthy campaigns in a healthy democracy." Sunstein adds an interesting fillip: "The Supreme Court has held that financial expenditures on behalf of political candidates are protected by the free speech principle—and in an act of considerable hubris, the Court has also held that it is illegitimate for government to try to promote political equality by imposing ceilings on permissible expenditures. The inequality that comes from divergences in wealth is not, on the Court's view, a proper subject for political control. Here too an idea of consumer sovereignty seems to be at work."
Sunstein relies heavily on a quotation from James Madison, that freedom of speech is "the only effectual guardian of every other right" because it is a "right of freely examining public characters and measures." But apparently unknown to Sunstein, Madison also insisted that there was an essential connection between property rights and speech rights. Madison wrote in 1792 that the right to property includes "property of every sort," especially "opinions and the free communication of them." "In a word," Madison concluded, "as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights."
No tension existed in Madison's mind between the right to property and freedom of speech; indeed, the right to property is seen by Madison as the comprehensive right. As the proponents of campaign-finance reform realize, the most effective way to regulate speech is to regulate property. Madison's precise warning was that any assault on freedom of speech would likely be disguised as a regulation of property.
Sunstein, however, argues that we should forthrightly recognize the necessity of regulating both property and speech. The model would be the New Deal revolution, which used the regulation of property rights as a way of redistributing wealth. No one should be surprised about this, Sunstein insists. After all, property rights existed only because of government regulations—the enforcement of contract and trespass laws among a host of others. Since government creates the right to property (it is not a natural right as Madison naively believed), government should regard property rights as a public, rather than a private, good. Once we accept the necessity of regulating property, it is a short step to the realization that "consumer sovereignty" should not be the model for free speech, either in the public square or on the Internet. Free speech can be regulated for the common good as much as property.
There are two major problems with the Internet that need correction. Individuals can be highly selective in choosing what they will encounter. Sunstein calls this "filtering." It allows the complete personalization of the Internet experience. Thus individuals will not encounter "unanticipated, unchosen interactions" as they would in a public forum where they would be members of a captive audience. Filtering is harmful to diversity because it allows the user to avoid opposing points of view. On the Internet, each person can become an island. And on this island, democratic deliberation about the public interest and its problems is impossible—and most importantly, this island is the breeding ground of the heterodoxy that liberalism fears.
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A related problem is that, on the Internet, like-minded people can get together too easily. And we know that when like-minded people talk only to one another, extremism is the probable result. Indeed, "the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism." Perhaps the most troubling extremism to appear on the Internet (and on talk radio) is opposition to big government and intrusive regulation. But, Sunstein assures us, "opposition to government regulation is incoherent." Both individual filtering and group polarization detract from the "shared experiences" that are the core of community and deliberative democracy.
This problem, which is endemic to democratic life (because it is endemic to freedom), is greatly exacerbated by the Internet. This problem was once handled by general interest intermediaries that "filtered" information in a way to create common experiences. It was a great benefit to deliberative democracy, Sunstein argues, when there were only a few major news networks. The network monopoly allowed the media elite to filter from a welter of diversity the common experiences required of democracy—it was only incidental that the filtering was dominated by liberalism.
Sunstein disclaims any intention to reestablish the network monopoly, however, mainly because it is impossible (short of outright tyranny) in the age of 500-plus channels. Instead, Sunstein is more modest, calling on government to require political web sites to post links to sites with opposing points of view. Thus freerepublic.com would be required to make available an icon pointing to aclu.org. This would be government's attempt to create a public forum in which individuals encounter unexpected and unwelcome points of view.
Of course, the use of icons would be voluntary; but if not enough people used them, there might be pop-up screens directing citizens to opposing points of view or interests. And if too many people closed the pop-up screens, perhaps there could be methods of disabling the computers of those who steadfastly refuse to share common experiences? Sunstein clearly finds it more difficult to force people to be free in a democracy than in a tyranny.
Sunstein is correct in his remarkable insight that the Framers established a republic rather than a democracy. He is also correct in pointing out that the heart of this republic was deliberation. Madison spoke of the "reason of the public" as the proper foundation of government. The Congress was charged with the specific task of deliberating about the public good and the people were charged with judging the results of congressional deliberation. It is doubtful, however, that Madison expected the public to deliberate, as opposed to judging the deliberation of others.
The Internet poses a danger not so much to the deliberative republic as to liberalism. That's why the liberal love affair with the Internet seems to have been nothing more than a casual dalliance with an intern that turned sour.