In American politics, few words have a more positive ring than freedom. We bill ourselves as “the land of the free“. We send troops to bring freedom to other countries. (Our invasion of Afghanistan, for example, was Operation Enduring Freedom.) In the Cold War, our side was the Free World. When France opposed our invasion of Iraq, congressional cafeterias renamed french fries as freedom fries.
Our economic system also claims freedom as one of its top virtues. Milton Friedman’s defense of unfettered capitalism was Free to Choose. The low-tax, small-government, regulation-cutting group in the House calls itself the Freedom Caucus.
The word is so popular that it’s hard to challenge. (Try to imagine someone running as the anti-freedom candidate.) But it needs to be challenged, because often what gets justified by the prestige of freedom are policies that favor the strong over the weak. In particular, certain kinds of freedom have to be restricted in order to establish another good thing, rights.
I first started talking about this more than year ago in a historical context: During Reconstruction, the rights of the newly freed slaves only existed as long as the Army was nearby to restrain their former masters from re-enslaving them. When the Army was withdrawn from the South in 1877, black rights began to vanish until by the turn of the century Jim Crow was fully established. In the rhetoric of that era’s Southern whites, this was a freedom issue: The oppressive federal troops had to leave so that the Southern states could be free to govern themselves as they saw fit.
I drew this conclusion:
Your freedom just needs the government to get out of your way, but your rights require government involvement.
This week we got a more topical example: Senate Joint Resolution 34, “Disapproving the Federal Communications Commission’s Rule on Privacy of Customers of Broadband Services”, which recently passed the Senate on a straight party-line vote and the House with a few Republican defections. The Electronic Frontier Foundation summarizes:
Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways. They will watch your every action online and create highly personalized and sensitive profiles for the highest bidder. All without your consent. This breaks with the decades long legal tradition that your communications provider is never allowed to monetize your personal information without asking for your permission first.
There has been absolutely no public clamor for this. Nobody has been writing their senators to say, “I wish Comcast could spy on everything I do on the internet, so that they could sell whatever they figure out to people I know nothing about.”
Now that Republicans have a majority of FCC commissioners, similar things have been happening on that level: Last month, the FCC stopped a new data-security rule from taking effect. The rule
would have required ISPs and phone companies to take “reasonable” steps to protect customers’ information—such as Social Security numbers, financial and health information, and Web browsing data—from theft and data breaches.
Again, how many Americans want ISPs to be careless with their personal data? Or to shrug and say, “shit happens” if it gets stolen by hackers? And again, this was a partisan thing: The rule came from the old Obama-dominated FCC and it was blocked by the new Trump-dominated FCC.
Why? Two things are going on here: First and most obvious, special-interest politics: The big ISPs spend way more on lobbying and campaign contributions than you do, so their desire for profit wins out over your desire for privacy.
But what makes this a partisan issue? Democrats can be bought too, so why isn’t corporate money swaying them as well? The answer is that philosophically proposals like this fit a Republican freedom agenda, but not Democratic rights agenda. Freedom is about getting government out of the way. In essence it restores what Founding-era philosophers used to call “the State of Nature“. The State of Nature includes all kinds of wonderful freedoms, but one of less wonderful ones is that the strong are free to push the weak around.
Rights, on the other hand, are airy-fairy things until there is some institutional mechanism to enforce them, and the State of Nature knows nothing of such institutions. In the State of Nature, for example, you may claim a God-given right to criticize the local strongman. But if he is also free to burn your house down, your right doesn’t amount to much. In practice, the weak have no rights until some institution like government restricts the freedom of the strong.
That’s the issue here: Without meddlesome FCC regulations, your right to privacy on the internet is an airy-fairy thing that the ISPs are free to ignore.
In short, freedom is not always your friend. The more freedom big corporations have, the more you will be under their thumb.