Political Romance in the Internet Age
By Arnold Kling
“My memory goes back farther than Mele’s by nearly two decades, and I do not recall the era of civic-minded leaders and wise policies to which he refers.”
Since the Internet burst into popular consciousness in the 1990s, many commentators have written prophesies proclaiming the empowerment of individuals and networks at the expense of large, hierarchical organizations. This raises questions about the role of politics and government, and these questions continue to be debated in recent books. For example, political consultant and entrepreneur Nicco Mele has written The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath.1 Mele combines a sophisticated understanding of what he calls “radical connectivity” and its applications with what strikes me as a romantic view of history and politics.
One theme in many of the recent books is that the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by a revolution in human organization, with bureaucracies emerging to facilitate planning and coordination. I should note that this view of bureaucracy has been championed by a distinguished list of social thinkers, such as Max Weber and John Kenneth Galbraith. Mele writes:
Andrei Cherny, a leading economic policy maker and former senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, relates that at the turn of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of workers—75%—were farmers working on their own, and many others worked in their own shops. The word “boss” didn’t even enter the popular lexicon until the 1830s. “But with the rise of steam and steel, America began to creep toward industrialization and its larger, more complex economic organizations. By 1860, 40 percent of Americans worked for someone else and the economic discussion began to change… By 1920, fully 87 percent of all wage earners were not only working for someone else but for a corporation.” (Mele, page 218)
However, the Internet seems to be reversing some of this centralization. Mele continues:
… today the Industrial Age has given way to a service economy and to what Cherny calls the Individual Age, in which the skills, talents, and labors of people matter most and people can sell their services themselves in the free market without having to work for large corporations.
Extrapolating further, Mele foresees:
Within the next twenty years, when you wake up and get ready for work, you will don clothes designed and sewn not by large subcontractors for fashion brands, but by self-employed artisans from around the United States. You will have found your attire… not at a large suburban shopping mall owned by a major real estate company but through a site like Etsy. (Mele, page 219)
Mele makes clear that he looks with favor on the prospects for the demise of large corporations. He writes:
I’ve greeted the End of Big with considerable trepidation and even outright fear. By comparison, I regard the End of Big in business as, on the whole, an extremely promising development. (Mele, page 243)
Mele’s trepidation concerns the demise of traditional journalism and politics. He sees this demise as inevitable, but problematic:
When you couple the end of big in business with the end of big in journalism and government, you realize we’re headed for a serious accountability gap. In this respect, we might even return to the nineteenth century, when any quack could make bizarre advertising claims… (Mele, page 242)
On his concerns regarding the loss of traditional journalism:
Who if not our objective empowered journalists will help us bring a measure of order and understanding to the chaos? Who will ask the tough and elucidating questions on which all democratic governance in the end, depends? (Mele, page 60)
To me, this reflects a romantic conception of traditional journalism. I would argue that in the early days of the Vietnam War, for example, the press viewed the war mostly through the prism of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.
Mele also expresses what strikes me as a romantic view of political parties. He writes:
… we need to invent new political institutions that do what Big Parties used to do before the culture of money took hold: identify civic-minded leaders and wise policies that broadly serve the public interest. (Mele, page 64)
My memory goes back farther than Mele’s by nearly two decades, and I do not recall the era of civic-minded leaders and wise policies to which he refers. Over the course of his public career, Lyndon Johnson amassed a fortune by trading political favors. As President, he escalated the Vietnam War and launched numerous unsound domestic policy initiatives. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter subjected the economy to a decade of stagflation. This period should not be confused with a golden age.
Taking into account the capabilities of today’s communication networks, Mele sees some opportunities for civic groups to take on traditional government functions. He writes:
Whether it’s roads or school improvements (or budget issues), frustrated citizens are mobilizing connective technologies to organize ad hoc projects, sometimes to supplement government activity, but frequently to replace or preempt it. (Mele, page 122)
But he continues:
Such grassroots activity is exciting, yet we have reason to feel uneasy. The sheer speed and volume of disconnected online movements and initiatives threaten to overwhelm our elected leaders and turn government into a chaotic soupy mess… the risk is that they might lead to a country of gated communities and citizens with little sense of connection to one another…
The phrase “chaotic soupy mess” offers a clue that helps explain why Mele’s world view is difficult to reconcile with mine. Nowhere in this book does Mele indicate any appreciation for spontaneous order arising from decentralized decisions. Instead, his concept of order appears to be what Thomas Sowell has described as The Vision of the Anointed.2 According to this vision, which Sowell views as misguided and dangerous, there are some people who are endowed with wisdom and moral truth, and when such people have power, society will flourish.
Mele’s apparent susceptibility to this vision is reflected, for example, when he writes,
We need… thoughtful, ethical decision makers who consider the impact of their policies on future generations; inspirational leaders who can rally our best efforts as a society; deft diplomats who can navigate the complicated, interrelated global world in which we live. (Mele, page 94)
He then writes,
I believe self-government is possible in a radically new way, thanks to radical connectivity, but it’s up to us to make sure that our new, small institutions are relevant, robust, and effective enough to provide the structure and order we need. The solution isn’t to jettison government… Rather, we must design and build new processes for government, inviting participation from across the network provided by radical connectivity while giving leaders the right mix of accountability and room to lead. (Mele, page 122)
Later, he writes,
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign offered an impressive example of how to harness the energy of empowered individuals while still providing clear leadership and direction. Obama expressed a vision and provided details around the vision….
Unfortunately, this impressive fusion of top-down leadership and distributed individual action across the network seemed to wilt once Obama actually came to occupy the White House. The reason for that is clear: The institutions of Washington, D.C.—namely the executive branch and the Democratic National Committee—are not nearly as flexible and malleable as political campaigns are. (Mele, page 256)
As the preceding paragraph shows, when Mele sees certain political actors as inherently good, he finds external reasons for their failings, rather than question his own vision. Thus, he ascribes California’s fiscal problems to “partisan gridlock” (page 140), with no mention of, say, public employee unions. He attributes the disappointment of the Arab Spring to “the complicated realities of governing” rather than to the possibility that it is strong civil society, rather than democracy, that is the true foundation of liberty and human rights.
I found this paragraph chilling:
A sixth and final way we can proceed in our new dialogue about institutions is to take control of the Even Bigger platforms—Facebook, Google, and Twitter—that today constitute our digital commons. These private companies have only the faintest realization of their civic role in providing a public space and see themselves as tools for individuals rather than as a digital town square… we must collectively consider what steps we should take to bring that self-realization about and, if all else fails, to enforce civic responsibility. (Mele, page 260)
I picture a demagogic politician proclaiming that “we” must “take control” of “these private companies,” and I think of a Soviet style government. To think otherwise, one must have great confidence in benevolent wisdom of the anointed.
Mele says that one of the dangers of “radical connectivity” is that we can get caught inside a “filter bubble” and lose our ability to understand one another. Ironically, he strikes me as someone whose understanding of conservatives and libertarians is limited to how they are caricatured by his fellow progressives. He seems to know nothing of public choice theory or Hayek’s views of the knowledge problem and spontaneous order. In my view, these are serious and frightening gaps in his knowledge. My own romantic view of the Internet is that eventually more politically-engaged intellectuals will become aware of these important concepts and will come to share Sowell’s skepticism of the vision of the anointed.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.