Yochai Benkler and the Libertarian Center

If you haven’t been reading Cato Unbound this month, you should be. Brink Lindsey defends his notion of libertarian centrism from left, right, and, um, Julian.

I found Jonah Goldberg’s follow-up contribution particularly interesting. He points out that much of what was wrong with the progressive movement of the early 20th century was due to its infatuation with centralizing institutions that were ascendant at the time: the army, heavy industry, and later, large-scale scientific endeavors like the Manhattan Project. Bigness and centralization were in, and intellectuals believed that the entire country should be governed in a similarly hierarchical fashion.

Goldberg thinks liberals will just discard the economic argument for central planning and move on to another one: public health, the environment, whatever. But I wanted to point out that there are also some liberals who are adopting a more appropriately skeptical attitude toward central planning itself.

One reason to think the 21st century is going to be more libertarian than the 20th is that the defining technology of our generation, the Internet, is radically decentralizing. After a century in which our cultural and economic lives were dominated by large, vertically-integrated corporations, we’re entering an era in which decentralization and disintermediation are the dominant trends. Instead of producing components in house, they develop networks of independent suppliers, knit together by sophisticated supply chains. And instead of vertically-integrated media companies like the New York Times and NBC, we’re increasingly moving toward a world in which writers, musicians, and other creators can reach their audiences directly.

The left, which has always fancied itself the party of modernity, is already beginning to be affected by these cultural currents. No work typifies the shift better than Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, a book about how the emergence of the Internet is reshaping the cultural landscape. What’s striking about the book is how much Benkler draws on the thought of libertarian thinkers like Smith, Hayek, and Coase in explaining how he envisions the media landscape of the 21st century. Indeed, on page 16 Benkler, who is not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, concedes:

My approach heavily emphasizes individual action in nonmarket relations. Much of the discussion revolves around the choice between markets and nonmarket social behavior. In much of it, the state plays no role, or is perceived as playing primarily a negative role, in a way that is alien to the progressive branches of liberal political thought. In this, it seems more of a libertarian or an anarchistic thesis than a liberal one. I do not completely discount the state, as I will explain. But I do suggest that what is special about our moment is the rising efficacy of individuals and loose, nonmarket affiliations as agents of political economy.

Benkler’s argument is too long to summarize in a blog post. You can get a taste for it in my review of Wikinomics, a book that draws heavily from Benkler’s insights. But I’ll just note the possibility that just as the technological developments of the early 20th century pushed progressive intellectuals in a socialist direction, so the emergence of decentralizing technologies like the Internet will push liberal intellectuals like Benkler in a libertarian direction.

An even more extreme example is Eben Moglen, the free software movement’s leading lawyer. He’s definitely a left-winger, and he has a lot of opinions that libertarians would not find congenial. But I find it striking how often he finds himself coming to libertarian conclusions almost despite himself. For example, check out this excerpt from a speech about the success of the free software movement:

People out there who had money to burn said: “Wait a minute. This software is good. We won’t have to burn money over it. And not only is this software good as software, these rules are good. Because they’re not about ambulance chasing. They’re not about a quick score. They’re not about holding up deep pockets. They’re about a real cooperation between people who have a lot and the people who have an idea. Why don’t we go in for that?” And within a very short period of time they had gone in for that. And that’s where we live now. In a world in which the resources of the wealthy came to us, not because we coerced them, not because we demanded, not because we taxed, but because we shared. Even with them, sharing worked better than suing or coercing. We were not afraid. We did not put up barbed wire, and so when they came to scoff, they remained to pray.

You may not share Moglen’s belief that proprietary software is inherently evil. I don’t. But as libertarians, we do have to respect the fact that he’s advanced his beliefs, and produced some great software, using entirely non-coercive means. In another era, Moglen might have been calling for the nationalization of the steel industry or the creation of a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Instead, his policy agenda, to the extent he has one at all, is deregulatory. He believes that copyright and patent law are infringing on the freedom of programmers to do as they please with their computers, and so he wants to repeal the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and software patents. Not all libertarians would agree with those goals, but they’re a far cry from nationalizing the software industry.