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.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXVI)

“Not-So-Random Thoughts” is an occasional series in which I highlight writings by other commentators on varied subjects that I have addressed in the past. Other entries in the series can be found at these links: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXIV, and XXV. For more in the same style, see “The Tenor of the Times” and “Roundup: Civil War, Solitude, Transgenderism, Academic Enemies, and Immigration“.

CONTENTS

Free Trade Rethought

The Death Penalty

State Actors in Action

Red vs. Blue

Serfdom in Our Future?


FREE TRADE RETHOUGHT

My position on so-called free trade:

  • Estimate the amount by which the price of a foreign product or service is reduced by the actions of foreign governments or their proxies.
  • Add that amount to the price as a tariff.
  • Regularly review and adjust the schedule of tariffs.

All other trade would be unencumbered, excepting:

  • the importation of products and services otherwise restricted by U.S. law (e.g., tanks, artillery pieces)
  • the exportation of products and services that are used directly in the development, manufacture, and operation of sensitive military systems (e.g., fighter aircraft, anti-missile defenses).

Selective tariffs, based on actual costs of production, would encourage the efficient use of resources and protect American workers who would otherwise be victimized by unfair trade. But that’s it. Sweeping tariffs on imports — just to “protect” American workers — do more than protect them. They also penalize American consumers, most of whom are also workers.

William Upton, writing in light of current events (“Make America Autarkic Again“, The American Mind, March 13, 2020), would go a lot further:

In our over-globalized world, a policy of total autarky is infeasible. But a degree of autarky should be recognized as self-evidently in America’s national interest.

Autarky, for those unfamiliar, was an economic and industrial policy of self-reliance wherein a nation need not rely on international trade for its economic survival. This is not to say that said nation rejected international trade or isolated itself from the global economic order, rather that it merely could survive on its own if necessary….

[Oren] Cass notes that sound industrial policy has allowed nations like Germany and Japan to retain strong manufacturing sectors. Cass also emphasizes the pivotal importance of manufacturing, not just for the economy, but for American communities:

[M]anufacturing is unique for the complexity of its supply chains and the interaction between innovation and production. One of the most infuriating face-palms of modern economics is the two-step that goes like this: First, wave away concern as other countries with aggressive industrial policies … attract our critical supply chains overseas, explaining that it doesn’t matter where things get made. Second, wait for people to ask “why can’t we make this or that here,” and explain that of course we can’t because all of the supply chains and expertise are entrenched elsewhere. It’s enough to make one slam one’s head into the podium.

There may be something to it.


THE DEATH PENALTY

I was surprised to read the assessment by Theodore Dalrymple, a former prison doctor, of the death penalty (“The Death Penalty’s Demise and the Withering of Authority“, Law & Liberty, February 11, 2020). On the one hand:

If I had been a prison doctor while the death penalty was still imposed in Britain, I should have had the somewhat awkward task of certifying murderers fit for execution….  It was not permitted to execute madmen even if they had been sane at the time of their crime; but with the ever-widening and loosening of psychiatric diagnosis, I should no doubt have been tempted always to find a medical reason to postpone the execution sine die. I would have found it hard to sign what would have amounted to a medical death warrant, all the more so with the man before my very eyes. Nor would I have much relished attending the execution itself, to certify that the execution had worked….

But while I should not have wanted to participate in an execution, I was nevertheless viscerally in favour of the death penalty because it seemed to me that there were crimes (though by no means all of them murder) so heinous, so despicable, that no other penalty was adequate to express society’s outrage at, or repudiation of, them. Moreover — though quite late in my career — I discovered evidence that suggested that the death penalty did in fact act as a deterrent to murder, something which has long been contested or outright denied by abolitionists.

But on the other hand:

Does its deterrent effect, then, establish the case for the death penalty, at least in Britain? No, for two reasons. First, effectiveness of a punishment is not a sufficient justification for it. For example, it might well be that the death penalty would deter people from parking in the wrong place, but we would not therefore advocate it. Second, the fact is that in all jurisdictions, no matter how scrupulously fair they try to be, errors are sometime made, and innocent people have been put to death. This seems to me the strongest, and perhaps decisive, argument against the death penalty.

And on the third hand:

Although, on balance, I am against the death penalty, I do not assume that those who are in favour of it are necessarily moral primitives, which abolitionists often give the impression of believing. For most of our history, the rightness of the death penalty has been taken for granted, and it cannot be that we are the first decent, reflective people ever to have existed. The self-righteousness of the Europeans in this respect disgusts me when they set themselves up to judge others. France, for example, abolished the death penalty only in 1981 – AD 1981, that is, not 1981 BC. When the death penalty in Britain was abolished in 1965 after many decades of campaigning by abolitionists, more than 90 per cent of the population was still in favour of it. Almost certainly it believed, if not necessarily in a fully coherent way, that to abolish the death penalty was to weaken the authority of society and to lessen the majesty of the law. It was also to weaken the prohibition against killing and, though involving the taking of a life (the murderer’s), also lessened the sanctity of life….

In Britain, one of the effects of the abolition of the death penalty, the downward pressure on all prison sentences, has been little remarked. Punishment has to be roughly proportional to the gravity of the crime (exact proportionality cannot be achieved), but if murder attracts only 15 years’ imprisonment de facto, what sentences can be meted out to those who commit lesser, but still serious, crimes? Moreover, the charge of murder is often reduced to the lesser crime of manslaughter, in which sentences – as a consequence – are often derisory….

It is scarcely any wonder that in the years since the abolition of the death sentence, Britain has gone from being a well-ordered, non-violent, law-abiding society to being a society with the highest rate of violent crime in Western Europe. Of course, the abolition of the death penalty was not the only cause, for crime was rising in any case, but it brought its contribution to the festival of disorder that followed.

It seems to me that Dalrymple ends up arguing in favor of the death penalty. He is correct about its deterrent effect (same post). He is wrong to give heavy weight to the possibility of error. And he overlooks a conclusive argument in its favor: there is one less criminal who might be let loose to commit more crimes. All of those points and more are covered in these posts:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
A Crime Is a Crime
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Crime Revisited


STATE ACTORS IN ACTION

Once upon a time I made a case for rescuing the First Amendment from its enemies in

the telecommunications, news, entertainment, and education industries [which] have exerted their power to suppress speech because of its content….  The collective actions of these entities — many of them government- licensed and government-funded — effectively constitute a governmental violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech (See Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) and Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946).)

Leo Goldstein (“Google and YouTube Are State Actors“, American Thinker, March 9, 2020) finds a smoking gun

in the FCC Obamanet orders of 2010 and 2015. The 2015 Obamanet Order, officially called Open Internet Order, has explicitly obligated all internet users to pay a tax to Google and YouTube in their ISP and wireless data fees. The Order even mentions Google and YouTube by name. The tax incurs tens of billions of dollars per year. More specifically, the Order said that by paying ISP fees (including mobile wireless), each user also pays for the services that ISP gives to platforms and content providers like YouTube, even if the user doesn’t use them….

Platforms and content providers are misleadingly called “edge providers” here. Thus, every ISP customer in the US is obligated to pay for the traffic generated by Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter, even if he used none of them!

Off with their heads.


RED VS. BLUE

The prolific Joel Kotkin weighs in on the Red States’ economic and electoral advantages:

Even in a state as deeply blue as [California}, Democrats’ disdain for the basic values and interests of their own base could unravel their now seemingly unbridgeable majority. At some point, parents, artists, minorities, small businesspeople and even sex workers will not be mollified sufficiently by a fulsome expression of good intentions. If more voters begin to realize that many of the policies being adopted are injurious, they may even begin to look again at the Republicans, particularly once the toxic President Trump is no longer on the ballot scaring the masses to toe the line. [“Democrats Risk Blowback with Leftward Turn“, newgeography, March 1, 2020]

* * *

The political and cultural war between red and blue America may not be settled in our lifetimes, but it’s clear which side is gaining ground in economic and demographic terms. In everything from new jobs—including new technology employment—fertility rates, population growth, and migration, it’s the red states that increasingly hold the advantage.

Perhaps the most surprising development is on the economic front. Over the past decade, the national media, and much of academia, have embraced the notion that the future belonged to the high-tax, high-regulation economies clustered on the East and West Coasts. The red states have been widely dismissed, in the words of the New York Times, as the land of the “left behind.”

Yet the left-behind are catching up, as economic momentum shifts away from coastal redoubts toward traditionally GOP-leaning states. Just a few years ago, states like California, Massachusetts, and New York held their own, and then some, in measurements of income growth from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Now the fastest growth is concentrated in the Sunbelt and Great Plains. Texans’ income in the latest 2019 BEA estimates was up 4.2 percent, well above California’s 3.6 percent and twice New York’s 2.1 percent. The largest jumps—and this may matter a lot in 2020—took place in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa. [“Red v. Blue“, City Journal, February 7, 2020]

But:

[S]ocialism is gaining adherents even in the upper middle-class and among the oligarchy. One critical component lies in detestation of all things Trump even among CEOs, most of whom, according to a recent Chief Executive survey, want him impeached. Corporate America is increasingly embracing the notion of a guaranteed income and is adopting politically correct positions on such things as immigration, particularly in tech and on Wall Street.

But the most important driver for socialism comes from the burgeoning green movement. Long dominated by the elite classes, environmentalists are openly showing themselves as watermelons — green on the outside, red on the inside. For example, the so called “Green New Deal” — embraced by Sanders, Warren and numerous oligarchs — represents, its author Saikat Chakrabarti suggests, not so much a climate as “a how-do-you-change-the entire-economy thing”. Increasingly greens look at powerful government not to grow the economy, but to slow it down, eliminating highly paid blue-collar jobs in fields like manufacturing and energy. The call to provide subsidies and make work jobs appeals to greens worried about blowback from displaced workers and communities.

Combined with the confused and vacillating nature of our business elites, and the economic stagnation felt by many Americans, socialism in the West is on the rise. An ideology that history would seem to have consigned to Leon Trotsky’s “dustbin of history”, could turn the land that once embraced Adam Smith closer to the vision of Karl Marx. [“The West Turns Red?“, newgeography, February 25, 2020]

I have shown the economic superiority of the Red State model. But that isn’t enough to rescue the country from the perpetual allure of socialism. As I say here,

… States and municipalities governed by Democrats will ever more boldly pursue policies that undermine traditional American culture (e.g., unabated encouragement of illegal immigration, accelerated favoritism toward “identity groups”) and which are broadly destructive of the economic and social fabric; for example: persisting in costly, money-losing recycling and composting programs that do nothing for the environment (taking into account the environmental effects of the vehicles and equipment involved); the replacement of fossil-fuel sources of electricity by unreliable and expensive “renewable” sources; encouragement of homelessness by subsidizing it and making it socially acceptable; discouragement of family formation and stability through the continuation and expansion of long-discredited vote-buying welfare programs; openly persecuting conservatives and conservative institutions.

All of that will intensify the divisions between Red and Blue States, and the divisions between Red State governments and the Blue cities within them. But that is a first-order effect.

The second-order effect is to make living in Blue States and cities more onerous for middle-to-low-income earners (and even some among the affluent), who will seek greener (Redder) pastures outside Blue cities and Blue States. But many (most?) of those refugees will not flee because they have come to believe that big government is the cause of their problems. Rather, they (especially the younger, more mobile, and more “socialistic” ones) will flee because they don’t want to suffer the consequences of big government (high taxes, high housing costs, etc.). But, being addicted to the idea that big government is good, and ignorant of the connection between big government and their woes, they will continue to vote for big-government politicians and policies. Thus will Blue States and Blue cites gradually turn Purple and, in many cases, Blue.

You read it here.


SERFDOM IN OUR FUTURE?

I recently mused about Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler. Kotkin addresses the thesis of that book in “Who Will Prosper After the Plague?” (Tablet, April 13, 2020):

[T]he wreckage [caused by the Black Plague of the 14th century] created new opportunities for those left standing. Abandoned tracts of land could be consolidated by rich nobles, or, in some cases, enterprising peasants, who took advantage of sudden opportunities to buy property or use chronic labor shortages to demand higher wages. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” historian Barbara Tuchman has suggested, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.”

What might such “revolutionary” changes look like in our post-plague society? In the immediate future the monied classes in America will take a big hit, as their stock portfolios shrink, both acquisitions and new IPOs get sidetracked and the value of their properties drop. But vast opportunities for tremendous profit available to those with the financial wherewithal to absorb the initial shocks and capitalize on the disruption they cause….

Over time, the crisis is likely to further bolster the global oligarchal class. The wealthiest 1% already own as much as 50% of the world’s assets, and according to a recent British parliamentary study, by 2030, will expand their share to two-thirds of the world’s wealth with the biggest gains overwhelmingly concentrated at the top 0.01%….

The biggest long-term winner of the stay-at-home trend may well be Amazon, which is hiring 100,000 new workers. But other digital industries will profit as well, including food delivery services, streaming entertainment services, telemedicine, biomedicine, cloud computing, and online education. The shift to remote work has created an enormous market for applications, which facilitate video conferencing and digital collaboration like Slack—the fastest growing business application on record—as well as Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. Other tech firms, such as Facebook, game makers like Activision Blizzard and online retailers like Chewy, suggests Morgan Stanley, also can expect to see their stock prices soar as the pandemic fades and public acceptance of online commerce and at-home entertainment grows with enforced familiarity.

Growing corporate concentration in the technology sector, both in the United States and Europe, will enhance the power of these companies to dominate commerce and information flows….

The modern-day clerisy consisting of academics, media, scientists, nonprofit activists, and other members of the country’s credentialed bureaucracy also stand to benefit from the pandemic. The clerisy operate as what the great German sociologist Max Weber called “the new legitimizers,” bestowing an air of moral and technocratic authority on the enterprises of their choosing….

Members of the clerisy are likely to be part of the one-quarter of workers in the United States who can largely work at home. Barely 3% of low-wage workers can telecommute but nearly 50% of those in the upper middle class can. While workers at most restaurants and retail outlets face hard times, professors and teachers will continue their work online, as will senior bureaucrats….

The biggest winners in the fallout from the coronavirus are likely to be large corporations, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and government institutions with strong lobbies. The experience from recent recessions indicates that big banks, whose prosperity is largely asset-based, will do well along with major corporations, while Main Street businesses and ordinary homeowners will fare poorly….

In the Middle Ages, many former citizens, facing a series of disasters from plagues to barbarian invasions, willingly became serfs. Today, the class of permanently propertyless citizens seems likely to grow as the traditional middle class shrinks, and the role of labor is further diminished relative to that of technology and capital.

In contrast to the old unionized workers, many people today, whether their employment is full-time or part-time, have descended into the precariat, a group of laborers with limited control over how long they can work, who often live on barely subsistence wages. Nearly half of gig workers in California live under the poverty line.

Now comes the payoff:

Historically, pandemics have tended to spark class conflict. The plague-ravaged landscape of medieval Europe opened the door to numerous “peasant rebellions.” This in turn led the aristocracy and the church to restrict the movements of peasants to limit their ability to use the new depopulated countryside to their own advantage. Attempts to constrain the ambitions of the commoners often led to open revolts—including against the church and the aristocracy.

… As steady and well-paying jobs disappear, the demands for an ever more extensive welfare state, funded by the upper classes, will multiply.

Like their counterparts in the late 19th century, the lower-class workforce will demand changes. We already see this in the protests by workers at Instacart delivery service, and in Amazon warehouse workers concerned about limited health insurance, low wages, and exposure to the virus.

As the virus threatens to concentrate wealth and power even more, there’s likely to be some sort of reckoning, including from the increasingly hard-pressed yeomanry.

In the years before the great working-class rebellions of the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the ruling orders were “sleeping on a volcano.” The same might be seen now as well, with contagion pushing the lava into the streets, and causing new disruptions on a scale of which we can’t predict.

Something like socialism (for non-elites) may emerge for the rubble. It will be the 21th century equivalent of bread and circuses: share just enough of the wealth to keep the proletariat in line.

Why Is Capitalism Under Attack from the Right?

Many conservatives, this one included, have been or are becoming critical of capitalism. Near the end of a recent post, for example, I say that

capitalism is an amoral means to material ends. It is not the servant of society, properly understood. Nor is it the servant of conservative principles, which include (inter alia) the preservation of traditional morality, both as an end and as a binding and civilizing force.

One aspect of capitalism is that it enables the accumulation of great wealth and power. The “robber barons” of the late 19th century and early 20th century accumulated great wealth by making possible the production of things (e.g., oil and steel) that made life materially better for Americans rich and poor.

Though the “robber barons” undoubtedly wielded political power, they did so in an age when mass media consisted of printed periodicals (newspapers and magazines). But newspapers and magazines never dominated the attention of the public in the way that radio, movies, television, and electronically transmitted “social media” do today. Moreover, there were far more printed periodicals then than now, and they offered competing political views (unlike today’s periodicals, which are mainly left of center, when not merely frivolous.)

Which is to say that the “robber barons” may have “bought and sold” politicians, but they weren’t in the business of — or very effective at — shaping public opinion. (f they had been, they wouldn’t have been targets of incessant attacks by populist politicians, and anti-trust legislation wouldn’t have been enacted to great huzzahs from the public.

Today’s “robber barons”, by contrast, have accumulated their wealth by providing products and services that enable them to shape public opinion. Joel Kotkin puts it this way:

In the past, the oligarchy tended to be associated with either Wall Street or industrial corporate executives. But today the predominant and most influential group consists of those atop a handful of mega-technology firms. Six firms—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix—have achieved a combined net worth equal to one-quarter of the nasdaq, more than the next 282 firms combined and equal to the GDP of France. Seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies come from this sector. Tech giants have produced eight of the twenty wealthiest people on the planet. Among the na­tion’s billionaires, all those under forty live in the state of California, with twelve in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry pro­duced eleven new billionaires, mostly in California….

Initially many Americans, even on the left, saw the rise of the tech oligarchy as both transformative and positive. Observing the rise of the technology industry, the futurist Alvin Toffler prophesied “the dawn of a new civilization,”2 with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But today we confront a reality more reminiscent of the feudal past—with ever greater concentrations of wealth, along with less social mobility and material progress.

Rather than Toffler’s tech paradise, we increasingly confront what the Japanese futurist Taichi Sakaiya, writing three decades ago, saw as the dawn of “a high-tech middle ages.”3 Rather than epitomizing American ingenuity and competition, the tech oligarchy increasingly resembles the feudal lords of the Middle Ages. With the alacrity of the barbarian warriors who took control of territory after the fall of the Roman Empire, they have seized the strategic digital territory, and they ruthlessly defend their stake.

Such concentrations of wealth naturally seek to concentrate power. In the Middle Ages, this involved the control of land and the instruments of violence. In our time, the ascendant tech oligarchy has exploited the “natural monopolies” of web-based business. Their “super-platforms” depress competition, squeeze suppliers, and reduce opportunities for potential rivals, much as the monopolists of the late nineteenth century did. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft control 80 to 90 percent of their key markets and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

Once exemplars of entrepreneurial risk-taking, today’s tech elites are now entrenched monopolists. Increasingly, these firms reflect the worst of American capitalism—squashing competitors, using inden­tured servants from abroad for upwards of 40 percent of their Silicon Valley workforce, fixing wages, and avoiding taxes—while creating ever more social anomie and alienation.

The tech oligarchs are forging a post-democratic future, where opportunity is restricted only to themselves and their chosen few. As technology investor Peter Thiel has suggested, democracy—based on the fundamental principles of individual responsibility and agency—does not fit comfortably with a technocratic mindset that believes superior software can address and modulate every problem. [“America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“, American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019]

I can’t deny that rise of the tech oligarchs and their willingness and ability to move public opinion leftward probably influenced my view of capitalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is evidence that, contra Keynes, I am not the slave of some defunct economist.

Will public opinion shift enough to cause the containment of today’s “robber barons”? I doubt it. Most Republican politicians are trapped by their pro-capitalist rhetoric. Most Democrat politicians are trapped by their ideological alignment with the the “barons” and the affluent classes that are dependent on and allied with them.

The Age of Memes

Memes have always been with us, though they weren’t called that until 1976. According to Wikipedia, a meme

is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

There’s really nothing new in all of that, except for the “scientific” name that has been applied to it.

No, what’s really new is the rapidity with which particular ideas (i.e., unbaked hypotheses, lies, rumors, and propaganda) spread and seem to take hold without having been examined carefully. Consider, for example, the ridiculous idea that the Betsy Ross flag is a “hurtful” symbol of slavery: from Colin Kapernick’s addled brain to myriad media outlets (including the “social” variety) and thence to the mouths of some presidential candidates in a matter of days. (I would say “to the brains of some presidential candidates”, but their ready acceptance of the meme suggests a dire shortage of gray matter, if not brains that have been conditioned to serve nefarious ends.)

I return to “Peak Civilization“:

In the West, rational inquiry seems to have peaked in the early 1960s. I needn’t remind you of the subsequent descent: mobs, riots, the din of “entertainment”, quasi-religious movements from hippiedom to “climate change”, and on and on into the night.

(In the same vein there is neo-Malthusianism-cum-environmental extremism, which in its mildest form wants some kind of population control and in its most virulent form wants the extinction of human beings.)

Not that rational inquiry has always (or ever) ruled the day, but the decline since the 1960s is striking to me.

What happened in and since the 1960s? Take the idea that humankind is doomed to extinction by “climate change” — a fringe idea, perhaps, but not an uncommonly held one.  Take the shrill and many-fold “social justice” movement, which encompasses so many “wrongs” and “victims” that it would be easier to describe it by listing its exceptions (mainly straight, white, conservative males of British and northwestern European descent whose sexuality has always been tightly controlled).

The meme that “change” (always beneficial, of course) can be accomplished by often-hysterical shrillness and mob action (now virtual as well as actual) got its start with the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s. Adults in responsible positions (e.g. Walter Cronkite, LBJ, and Clark Kerr) encouraged the hysteria directly or by giving in to it. Rare was the person in a powerful position who tried to squelch it; Mayor Daley (Sr.) of Chicago was one such person, and for his sins he became a hated figure in his own (Democrat) party.

And so it came to pass that hysteria in the service of “social justice” became the norm. And then it came to pass that the instruments for spreading and amplifying hysteria were invented and widely adopted (personal computing, the internet, blogs, “social media”). The existing tools of mass communication (radio, movies, television) were swept along in the rising tide of hysteria, the owners and operators of such tools being no less anxious than stoned collegians to prove their “social consciousness”. In fact, the hysteria has spread to the owners and operators of major industrial firms, who swim in the same “elite” circles as their peers in the information-technology complex.

All of this was built on foundations laid insidiously by the public-education monopoly and the professoriate. Their time has finally arrived. And so “public” opinion (where “public” means overt) is dominated if not ruled by what I have elsewhere called the internet-media-academic complex.

The thing about memes, since long before they were called that, is their staying power. A long-standing meme (or constellation of them) — such as obeisance to Judeo-Christian norms in America — can’t be conquered by mere reason. It takes a new meme (or constellation of them) — such as “hope” and “change” and “social justice” — to overrun them. The human animal needs memes to occupy his mind when he has attained a degree of physical security that gives him the luxury conjuring six impossible things before breakfast, instead of having to concentrate his energy on catching or growing his breakfast. (One of the Democrat presidential candidates, albeit one on the far fringe, epitomizes the zaniness that flourishes among the spoiled children of capitalism.)

Do I mean to say that it would take a cataclysm of some kind, a catastrophe so dire that people would abandon political memes in their need to cooperate for subsistence, if not survival? Perhaps, but I am not a full-blown pessimist. Despite decades of brainwashing by the internet-media-academic complex, there is a healthy conservative movement in the country — healthier, in fact, than at any time since the country was essentially conservative (i.e., until 1963). Human nature, in other words, is a powerful force that no amount of brainwashing (or coercion) can eradicate (though it may channel it in undesirable directions for a time).

My hope, and I must call it that, is for the essential neighborliness of the vast majority of Americans to reassert itself among “ordinary” people, who will tire of the hysteria pouring forth from the internet-media-academic complex. Does half of America really want to be on the “other side” (a term that has been applied to the political divide only in this brief century)? I think not.

Though the uniting force need not be a cataclysm (e.g., a devastating EMP attack, a missile strike on U.S. territory), it must be a dramatic event of some kind. Perhaps it’s as simple as replacing Donald Trump in 2021 or 2025 with a less polarizing figure (but a conservative one nonetheless).

A final thought: Though the internet-media-academic complex is mainly responsible for the the present state of political polarization (and leftist aggression), I don’t want to cast aspersions on information technology itself.  Polarization is no more caused by information technology than are traffic deaths caused by automobiles, gun deaths caused by guns, or war caused by weapons. People drive cars, shoot guns, and fight wars. The problem is, as it always is, a small minority of the people — a minority that is striving for power and dominance by using words instead of weapons.

What Ike Also Said

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address on January, 17, 1961, warned famously that

we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

Later in the same speech he also issued a warning that has been largely forgotten:

[I]n holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

The scientific-technological “elite” insidiously regulates almost every aspect of our lives — if not directly, then through the choices we are allowed to make in our purchases of items ranging from homes to can-openers, from travel to medications, from schooling options to vacation choices, and on and on and on. The same “elite” is responsible for foisting upon Americans and much of the Western world the immensely costly fraud known as “climate change”. The same “elite”, operating under the unwarranted protection of the First Amendment, is responsible for stifling facts and ideas that are inimical to its agenda.

Given that America is slipping toward second-class status as a military power, Ike’s first warning — to the extent that it was heeded — proved counterproductive. Sadly, his second warning was ignored until recently — and it may be too late to stem the tide against the scientific-technological “elite”.

Namby-Pamby Conservatism

That’s what’s on display in a post by Rich Logis at The Federalist; for example:

[T]ens of thousands of political content creators live in fear that what they produce, whether on a commercial or personal level, will be subject to Big Tech’s arbitrary and baffling speech standards.

I am not looking to put tech companies out of business. What I am looking to do, and what I hope CMIC personalities will consider, is to leverage the free market principles our side claims to hold so dear. There is an untapped opportunity for those who have built immensely visible and influential brands within the CMIC to operate as their own YouTube, where freedom of speech and opinions will thrive, rather than be subjugated to authoritarian-minded arbitration.

I have tried several of the “conservative”* alternatives to Facebook, etc., and they are laughably amateurish. But putting that aside, the possibility that “conservative”* alternatives might eventually become widely known and used doesn’t excuse what amounts to state-sponsored censorship by Big Tech. It is a grave mistake to condone such censorship by erroneously invoking the First Amendment.

Big Tech must be brought to heel before, like public schooling, it becomes an ineradicable instrument of leftist indoctrination.
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* “Sneer quotes” because the sites that I’ve tried are intellectually incoherent.

Power Is Power

Most libertarians and conservatives have a reflexive — and negative — reaction to proposals for government intervention to “fix” private-sector problems. The attitude is well-founded, in that many serious private-sector problems (e.g., soaring medical costs, dependency on tax-funded subsidies) are the result of government intervention.

But there are times when government intervention –were it politically feasible — could alleviate serious private-sector problems. Consider two such problems: (1) suppression of conservatives and their views on campuses and in public fora owned by private companies (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter); (2) soaring prescription-drug prices caused by Big Pharmacy (not the drug makers of Big Pharma, but the middlemen like CVS who manage prescription-drug plans for the insurance companies with which they are often entangled).

The academic-information and prescription-drug complexes — to name just two — are already exerting government-like power. In fact, it is far more power than was actually exercised by the “trusts” wrongly targeted for government intervention (“trust-busting”) during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s. (They were providing new and invaluable products at low prices, thanks to economies of scale.) Contemporary trusts, unlike the ones of yore, are in fact the products of government interventions on behalf of powerful private interests, which is why it will be hard to bring the academic-information and prescription-drug complexes (and others) to heel.

It won’t be easy, but it is possible. And badly needed.