Insidious Algorithms

Michael Anton inveighs against Big Tech and pseudo-libertarian collaborators in “Dear Avengers of the Free Market” (Law & Liberty, October 5, 2018):

Beyond the snarky attacks on me personally and insinuations of my “racism”—cut-and-paste obligatory for the “Right” these days—the responses by James Pethokoukis and (especially) John Tamny to my Liberty Forum essay on Silicon Valley are the usual sorts of press releases that are written to butter up the industry and its leaders in hopes of . . . what?…

… I am accused of having “a fundamental problem with capitalism itself.” Guilty, if by that is meant the reservations about mammon-worship first voiced by Plato and Aristotle and reinforced by the godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (the book that Smith himself indicates is the indispensable foundation for his praise of capitalism in the Wealth of Nations). Wealth is equipment, a means to higher ends. In the middle of the last century, the Right rightly focused on unjust impediments to the creation and acquisition of wealth. But conservatism, lacking a deeper understanding of the virtues and of human nature—of what wealth is for—eventually ossified into a defense of wealth as an end in itself. Many, including apparently Pethokoukis and Tamny, remain stuck in that rut to this day and mistake it for conservatism.

Both critics were especially appalled by my daring to criticize modern tech’s latest innovations. Who am I to judge what people want to sell or buy? From a libertarian standpoint, of course, no one may pass judgment. Under this view, commerce has no moral content…. To homo economicus any choice that does not inflict direct harm is ipso facto not subject to moral scrutiny, yet morality is defined as the efficient, non-coercive, undistorted operation of the market.

Naturally, then, Pethokoukis and Tamny scoff at my claim that Silicon Valley has not produced anything truly good or useful in a long time, but has instead turned to creating and selling things that are actively harmful to society and the soul. Not that they deny the claim, exactly. They simply rule it irrelevant. Capitalism has nothing to do with the soul (assuming the latter even exists). To which I again say: When you elevate a means into an end, that end—in not being the thing it ought to be—corrupts its intended beneficiaries.

There are morally neutral economic goods, like guns, which can be used for self-defense or murder. But there are economic goods that undermine morality (e.g., abortion, “entertainment” that glamorizes casual sex) and fray the bonds of mutual trust and respect that are necessary to civil society. (How does one trust a person who treats life and marriage as if they were unworthy of respect?)

There’s a particular aspect of Anton’s piece that I want to emphasize here: Big Tech’s alliance with the left in its skewing of information.

Continuing with Anton:

The modern tech information monopoly is a threat to self-government in at least three ways. First its … consolidation of monopoly power, which the techies are using to guarantee the outcome they want and to suppress dissent. It’s working….

Second, and related, is the way that social media digitizes pitchforked mobs. Aristocrats used to have to fear the masses; now they enable, weaponize, and deploy them…. The grandees of Professorville and Sand Hill Road and Outer Broadway can and routinely do use social justice warriors to their advantage. Come to that, hundreds of thousands of whom, like modern Red Guards, don’t have to be mobilized or even paid. They seek to stifle dissent and destroy lives and careers for the sheer joy of it.

Third and most important, tech-as-time-sucking-frivolity is infantilizing and enstupefying society—corroding the reason-based public discourse without which no republic can exist….

But all the dynamism and innovation Tamny and Pethokoukis praise only emerge from a bedrock of republican virtue. This is the core truth that libertarians seem unable to appreciate. Silicon Valley is undermining that virtue—with its products, with its tightening grip on power, and with its attempt to reengineer society, the economy, and human life.

I am especially concerned here with the practice of tinkering with AI algorithms to perpetuate bias in the name of  eliminating it (e.g., here). The bias to be perpetuated, in this case, is blank-slate bias: the mistaken belief that there are no inborn differences between blacks and whites or men and women. It is that belief which underpins affirmative action in employment, which penalizes the innocent and reduces the quality of products and services, and incurs heavy enforcement costs; “head start” programs, which waste taxpayers’ money; and “diversity” programs at universities, which penalize the innocent and set blacks up for failure. Those programs and many more of their ilk are generally responsible for heightening social discord rather than reducing it.

In the upside-down world of “social justice” an algorithm is considered biased if it is unbiased; that is, if it reflects the real correlations between race, sex, and ability in certain kinds of endeavors. Charles Murray’s Human Diversity demolishes the blank-slate theory with reams and reams of facts. Social-justice warriors will hate it, just as they hated The Bell Curve, even though they won’t read the later book, just as they didn’t read the earlier one.