Tomorrow come join the George Washington Liberty Society at 11:00 in University Yard while we host a Barbeque as the Student Association elections go on. Also, Thursday night we will be hosting a talk at 8:00 in the Marvin Center Fedex Room with Institute For Humane Studies’ Isaac Morehouse to give a talk on Public Choice Theory!
At the beginning of college I was sure I was going to be a life long democrat. My dad had always looked up to individuals like Bill Clinton, and tried to instill in me a strong sense of social justice. Hoping that good policy would promote a society that has a strong welfare state in order to enable an opportunity society.
However, at the same time I was going through my first economics class with a professor named Jason Hockenberry. I remember his missing teeth, and the way he presented some of the material- especially through creating a prisoners dilemma by accusing students of cheating on the midterm. It was with his class that I began to think about economics more. Though, even as my interest in economics grew, I was adamant in campaigning and exuding the merits of then senator Obama. Naturally the year ended with hate groups for me forming on Facebook calling for a stop to the “Obamanazi.”
My sophomore year had me taking classes on labor politics with a socialist professor, macroeconomics with a professor from Zimbabwe, and the financial crisis in full swing while I watched the investment club’s portfolio plummet week after week. I started to champion free trade after taking a class on Economics of China and India, and wanted to move the direction of College Democrats, which I was then president of, away from campaigning and towards talking about policy and why it matters.
When I transferred to George Washington University I started taking the blunt of my economics courses, and came to disagree with some of the basic foundations the theory I was learning. During this time that I became disenfranchised with the College Democrats and initially joined the GW Liberty Society as a means of talking more academically about policy and it’s effects. I came to see the vast amount of policies- from both sides- as counter productive, or like using a sledge hammer to put together a model airplane, in which sweeping reform often missed the targets that actually needed to be adjusted
During the summer I read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, and to date the most influential book on my development, Eric Beinhocker’s Origin of Wealth, which opened me up to a method of analysis that stressed the complex system of interdependent individuals whose interactions leads to emergent, spontaneous order. It was from this point that I started to understand the limitations of institutions to affect the economy, which was predominately driven by the individual decisions of billions of people acting independently- and perhaps most humorously counterproductively.
It was around then that I finally started seeing myself as a liberaltarian rather than as a liberal Democrat. It was a slow progression, starting out as a hardcore democrat, a campaigner for Barack Obama- during which I got to be a media placement and talk to him briefly- to a member of the executive board of a nationally recognized libertarian organization.
My progress has not been brought out through political philosophy nor moral philosophy, but a quest for what sort of policies I think will be best to bring about a prosperous society. A society that will enable the poor to become rich, and provide for the common well being of all, just like the morals my dad years ago instilled in me. And it has, after nearly four years of soul searching, paper reading, and vivid and sometimes livid debate, made me settle quite comfortably as a liberaltarian.
Much has been said on the topic of economic development. For the most part, we know a few things, like institutions matter. There is a strong divide between a lot of economists though, some promote ideas of poverty traps, like economist Paul Collier, while another group focuses on issues relating to incentive alignment, in making people care about improving their standard of living from the bottom up through all of society. These include economists such as William Easterly. I tend to side with people like Easterly, and see a small improvement through removing the rent seeking power of government agents in developing countries.
Despite this, I still pull some of my inspiration from the other side. The world is converging, for most of us. At least, that’s what Paul Collier claims in his book the Bottom Billion. It is hard given his data to dispute this fact, though I may disagree with his context of a poverty trap (especially since he claims roughly 78% of those countries suffer from a bad governance “trap”). In his book Collier argues for the vast majority of countries, long run growth shows us moving together. For the poorest 58 countries, however, they are actually moving away from the pack- diverging in fact. What is interesting is to compare this pack of 58 countries to the World Bank’s Doing Business Index. For the most part, the bottom 58 lie at the bottom of the index, and probably for good reason.
China, which is now growing at a breakneck speed, ranks in at a measly 79th- but that still puts it ahead of 104 other countries, making one of the more business friendly countries in the world! This is of course coming from a country who had to start arming market regulators with bullet proof vests after one got stabbed when commandeering someone’s bicycle cart. This is also the same country where almost no indigenous entrepreneurship has taken place, and when it has the Communist Party has tried to squash in favor of party insiders and foreign investors.
If this is the state of the world, then I am not surprised that many supposedly “capitalist” countries are squandering so much. After all, the Doing Business Index covers issues like, ease
to start a business, obtaining a building permit, registering property, getting credit, paying taxes, international trade, enforcing contracts, and closing a business. Even the United States, often heralded as a free market, ranks below most of “socialist” Europe in many categories. A self-proclaimed communist country, which routinely tries to take property rights from people, and when those individuals don’t move they either build around, or try to claim land as unused, is somehow better than most of the world.
What then is the issue? Well, signficant work has been done on government agencies and rent seeking. Government agents will often either look out for themselves, especially with cronyism and corruption are heavily imbedded in the system, or for specific groups that benefit the ruling government often at the cost of others. The result is regimes that will tax and regulate for their own benefit, rather than the promotion of economic growth, often to an excessive extent. It is hard for me to side with Mugabe of Zimbabwe, when he lives in opulent wealth and his people starve.
Here is a good example on the issue of starvation in North Korea, which is excluded from the Doing Business Index. All grain production done by farmers have to be sold to the state at an official price, not onto the open market. The state then can turn around and decide to sell it at a higher rate, and pocket the left over money for it’s own interests. This is a massive disincentive to farmers to expand production to meet societal demand and stop starvation in ravaging the country further. There is clearly a higher price to be gained from the market, given the historical precedents, but they are cut off from it by government agents.
Furthermore, Easterly in his book The Elusive Quest for Growth points out the failure of foreign aid to promote economic growth by itself, since much of it is lost in the bureaucratic apparatuses. He notes that many economists, politicians, and humanitarians have wished to believe simply by lobbing money at failing countries would go into investment and end up promoting growth, rather than held by rent seeking individuals and never seen by the society at large. unfortunately the models and ideas fell far short of the incentives to simply pocket cash, or buy food instead of save, invest, or start businesses.
Lets face it, incentives are what matter. Institutions set up externally that people have no control over will often get in the way of those incentives. Government institutions in general can be imposed on developing economies with no oversight or put in place by governments whose sole purpose is to extract the mineral resources of the country with no care for agriculture or industrial development. There is no reason for people to go out and start businesses if there is no profit to be made, just like educational attainment is likewise wasted if there are no jobs for individuals with engineering and new technical degrees.
As we’ve seen, through the large body of literature provided by the World Bank, Collier, and other economists, the poorest countries have some of the worst institutions available when it comes to enabling market access, consensual exchange, and enabling incentives to take hold and promote growth. No longer is international trade alone a sufficient clause for development in these countries, and substantial reorganization, shrinking, and shearing of government agencies needs to take place in order to enable people caring for the future to come.
By Jason Kwasnicki
The clock had just struck twelve, and as Friday morning classes let out they release unsuspecting students into Kogan Plaza where shear insanity awaited…well at least purposeful insanity. Students would stroll upon a curious little setup: a large tarp hanging behind a small wooden frame. We came that day to smash windows. And smash we would.
As we scrambled about with the weapon of choice in hand, a tennis ball, students were enticed with the ability to create a job by throwing the small green sphere through a frame. Break a window, the window maker has a job. Makes sense, no?
Eventually, after several bouts of rage and frustrating near-hits, panes began shattering. The sound rang like a gun-shot across Kogan. Crowds came to see what was going on. However, while the tension before had been undeniable, the excitement faded after the window lay broken. Where was the fabled job?
This is the Broken Window Fallacy, put on display by GWU’s Liberty Society. We attracted would-be window smasher’s with the common misconception that destruction can create, and the most satisfying part was seeing their minds click when they realized the disconnect in that belief. Someone might say that a war creates jobs and reduces unemployment, but no one ever accounts for the costs associated with wars destructive nature. It’s a net loss, not gain.
An even more relevant example we used is the economic stimulus packages so popular in modern legislation. Government is not looking at the hidden costs which will turn out to yield a net loss rather than a net gain for the US economy.
This event shows that, in addition to being academics and furthering the ideas of liberty, perhaps every now and again we should take a moment to break down the big concepts for those who haven’t studied it as deeply. From this event, I definitely learned there are more people ruled by common sense than one might think.
Perhaps one of the greatest issues of our time is poverty reduction. As of the early 2000’s urban poverty was significantly higher than non-urban poverty, this is true among all demographics and family make up. As a result, tackling urban poverty rates would do a lot to bring down the total number of people living in poverty. Policy makers must think then both what causes this higher level of poverty, and secondly how to solve it.
I’m going to propose a thesis; Urban regulation relating to starting business is a deterrent for growth. The land use policies relating to zoning and licensing have become barriers to entry so that those who are already disenfranchised from the system are unable to start businesses that might move them out of poverty. Zoning laws have made it harder for businesses to open in markets in urban areas where there is real demand, and licensing laws continue to be barriers of entry for poorer individuals who are staved off by quotas and latent regulation.
The first case is a classic issue firm placement, in the coming example of grocery store location in urban areas. Since I live in Washington, DC, most of my examples will stem from DC licensing and zoning laws. Grocery stores should typically be near residential districts, this enables shorter walking time between people and their food carrier. In contract, fast food places, and other secondary delivery markets, can be closer to business centers, work places, and more dispersed in location. The aim of a food market is to be convenient to families who need to buy daily and weekly consumption, meats, bread, milk, etc. The aim of fast food places is to take advantage of people on the go.
However, according to DC law, both grocery stores and fast food places are zoned commercially. Specifically, grocery stores are zoned C-1 only (out of 5 commercial zoning possibilities), making them ineligible to be in all other forms of commercial real-estate, and removed from mixed commercial-residential districts! In contrast, fast food locations are zoned for three commercial areas and mixed commercial-residential zoning, making them by far more plentiful, and easier for consumers to come across.
Why then is this a contributor towards poverty? The vast majority of US firms are quite small, and are more often based on small shops providing local needs. This is especially true in urban areas, where local cafes, bookstores, and shops can be quite profitable. Furthermore, local individuals are more perceptive to local needs. Several groups on my campus have illustrated the lack of markets in poor areas issue, and tried to find ways to create farmers markets which deal with less stringent regulation. By removing or lightening these laws, local people will have greater ability to start businesses that provide goods and services to their communities.
As is, zoning laws create a premium on land values and raise costs in general. This has been studied quite extensively. The first way has dealt with whether or not housing regulation has raised housing costs (pg 57 for graph), and the second has been whether or not zoning specifically has increased home premiums (the paper I’m using is not public). In both cases the answer has been yes, regulation has raised home values through increasing construction costs, while zoning has created a consumption premium that has raised prices. Furthermore, as I have illustrated above, they lower the ability for businesses to be near local demand.
A policy program that either liberalized or removed zoning laws would go a long way in promoting economic vibrancy among potential entrepreneurs in urban areas. The same policy would do this in two ways, first it would lower start-up costs, and make it easier for poor individuals to get loans and register businesses. The second way is that it would enable businesses to be closer to target demographics, which will have a positive societal welfare benefit as well. A policy that continues a heavily structures and differentiated zoning regime makes it harder for poorer families to start local businesses, and ensures that certain firm types are more prevalent than might have been otherwise ideal.
Licensing is perhaps even more visible a deterrent to starting working in a small-scale mode. Taxi cabs for example are a basic job that most immigrants can usually easily break into. In New York City though the number of Taxi Cabs is lower today than it was at the turn of the century, with the number almost stagnant since the middle of the 20th century. Even within that market, most are created into professionally coordinated fleets run in long-term lease contracts, rather than individual owners. Food trucks in DC have become popular, but came under fire for new regulatory interference and the creation of new “provisions governing vending licensure, vendor operations, the designation of sidewalk and roadway vending locations, public markets, vending development zones.” Much of this is covered in the Small Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Council’s Small Business Survival Index, and work done by the Institute for Justice, who note;
Street vending is a quick, convenient and cheap way to get food to consumers on the go. And, because a food cart can have much lower startup costs than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, opening a food cart can often be someone’s first foray into business. But outside of a narrow geographic area, the District enforces draconian regulations that stifle entrepreneurial drive and restrict consumers’ food choices.
Even in activities that span the city, outside of location issues such as zoning, licensing and regulations are a major deterrent to indigenous business. Again and again these practices favor established businesses that have more disposable income to deal with regulation, employ lawyers, and gain benefits from the system for bringing in a hire expected job base than small businesses. In the process though, poor families that might otherwise be able to take out loans or get outside financing to start a small business are strangled out of the market. Taxi cabs, food carts, DC tours, and even home based businesses are regulated by the DCRA.
Zoning laws and heavily regulated licensing makes it harder for people to see markets that they can enter with their own ideas, and contingent upon outside entities to create jobs and employment opportunities. These same laws though make it harder for demand for services to meet the supply, as shown under the grocery store issue through zoning restrictions, and deter companies from opening up in less than ideal areas. As a result, poverty resists in urban areas higher than it does in rural areas, where there are typically less stringent regulations both on businesses and land use.
By liberty society member Andrew Hirsch.
A point that I didn’t address in my last post was Open Source. Open Source software is a subject that is dear to me in many ways, and a point I’d like to make in coming up with at liberal theory of computing.
First, for anyone who doesn’t know, open source software (sometimes known by the acronym OSS) is simply software where the source code – that is, the part of the program that programmers read and write – is distributed freely. Of particular interest – and not differentiated for the rest of this post – is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS, or FLOSS for Free Libre Open Source Software), where the user is permitted to do almost anything with the software. He may not be allowed to sell it for money without letting people know about the free version, or to make a closed-source modification, and is almost never able to claim it as his own, but besides that, usage is free game – including redistributing it at any price they choose.
The question this post will attempt to address is the intuitive one: what should liberals think of FOSS?
As a bit of a disclaimer, I got into Open Source and liberty at the same time. In my sophomore year of high school, I was on a trip to Austin for a JSA convention – the same one where I heard then-Executive Director of the Texas LP Wes Benedict talk and heard the word “Libertarian” for the first time – a friend of mine gave me his laptop running Ubuntu Linux to play around with. At this moment, I don’t believe my computer is running any software that is not FOSS.
To some of the free market persuasion – mostly conservatives rather than libertarians – Open Source seems like communism. And indeed, some communists have claimed that open source is proof that their ideas work. However, I will dispute that claim, and claim that in a liberal society, open source would have a strong place in society.
First, a note. One, that even the most free-market among us doesn’t want us to get rid of at least one type of commune: the family. Families often have many things that are considered to be communally owned. And indeed, it’s rare, if not impossible, to find one that has nothing that is not communally owned. Not only this, but in a liberal society, freedom of association would demand that communes be allowed. For some, they may even be the best way of existing. That is for the individual to decide. So, even if the apparent relation to communism were to be accepted on face value, this does not contradict a free society, as long as software is made free voluntarily.
However, this also means that, unlike what some of the FOSS community would have us do (notably Richard Stallman, often considered the father of the open source movement), we should not have completely open source programs. And I say that as somebody who has no closed-source programs running on my computer. However, I also have a tab open to Facebook (which is horribly insecure, but oh well) and Pandora radio. Having the ability to do so is important in a free society to create incentives for entrepreneurs.
It is also important to note that, to contradict Eben Moglen, having closed-source code is not analogous to having closed-source math. Unlike mathematics, computing is an engineering discipline. What is being hidden is a build formula, not universal truths.
And even if it was, it’s not like there is no collection of “closed-source” mathematics. Companies and people have long kept mathematical and statistical truths hidden in order to use them to greater personal effect. This gives incentives for people to discover mathematical truths, even if we’re not all motivated by the greater good.
Then comes the debate about intellectual property. This is an area where many sincere liberals disagree. For instance, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman both believed in intellectual property. However, the Austrians (who I more or less get my libertarian philosophy from) make a good case against intellectual property, as it creates a government-granted monopoly, which can cause “market” failure. For more, see mises.org. This is a point that Friedman agrees with to some degree in a Cato interview.
If one does not believe in intellectual property, than closed-source code is the only way that money could be made off of programs, as the entrepreneur has no control over what he has sold after selling it. However, open source seems to be the natural child of this point of view. From a liberal perspective, this means allowing competition between open-source and closed-source programs.
So, now that we’ve recognized a place for open-source software in a liberal society, is there a particular reason why liberals should use open source? While a commune may be allowable in a liberal societies, most liberals would not want to live in one (discounting of course, the liberal’s family – which may be less communistic than most).
There are several reasons why liberals should use open source. First, naturally, the price is right. There is no popular open source project – indeed none I have ever heard of – that you must pay to get. But, more deeply, the programs that are produced in an open source manner tend to be better programs. This is because of a Software Engineering rule known as Linus’ Law, named after Linux inventor Linus Torvalds. It tells us thatgiven enough eyes, all bugs are shallow. That is, the more people look at source code, the more likely they are to find a place where the program is wrong and fix it.
Also, open source programs are also good for the same reason “open-source” math is good: research. New programming techniques have been pioneered in open source (such as distributed source control in git ( if you don’t understand what that means, don’t worry it’s a technical matter – if you’re an interested techie gohere)) and may do so again. Also, many programmers, myself included, use open source to hone our skills and learn new techniques while also creating a usable product.
Then, there is the security argument. With Facebook, I have no idea where there are any security flaws, as I do not work for Facebook, and so have no access to it’s source code. Not only that, but I can’t find a version of Facebook where any built-in weaknesses are taken out. I once had one of the leads on Google Chrome jokingly tell me “don’t worry, all the code that steals your bank info is open-source”. But, because I’m using the open-source version of Chrome, Chromium, I know that if there was any code that steals my bank info, I could find a version of Chromium without that code. This is important for groups in countries hostile to the ideas of freedom – I don’t want any backdoors in my code. And the more people I have looking over it, the better.
By Liberty Society member Nicole Scro, from her blog Orcselocin.
I do not stand with Planned Parenthood (in their attempt to get federal funding at least).
…and I assure you it is because I want to condemn countless women in this country to undiagnosed cancer, unintended pregnancies, and untreated illnesses. (No, not because of that – just kidding!)
Though really, I do not stand with Planned Parenthood…and I do not think it means condemnation. I want every woman (and man too I guess) no matter what income to be able to receive the best quality of care possible and for each person to achieve his or her optimal potential of health. Condoms for everyone!
Seriously though, I have this goal in mind and yet I do not stand with Planned Parenthood in their petition against the current bill.
Let’s think about this:
1. Republicans believe it is their God-given duty to end abortion.
See link just in case you have any skepticism (…but really just because its fun to laugh at how silly Republicans can be – and by silly I mean stupid.)
What does this really mean though? They are redefining “rape”, “victim”, etc all in this wild crusade to end abortions and they are only gaining ground with their take over of the House.This crusade is not going to end any time soon. If they are not able to cut Planned Parenthood’s funding, then they will likely try to control it.
Planned Parenthood is playing into this perfectly by playing victim and highlighting how absolutely dire it is for them to get funding from the government.
2. Do you really want the government to control this service anyway? Because in effect, providing funding that will apparently destroy the company is essentially controlling it. (If the government provides no funding for Planned Parenthood, it won’t destroy it by the way.)
All of these funds will eventually be so wrapped up in the Republican religious crusade that they won’t most effectively be helping those that need it most. In January of 2009, Obama lifted restrictions that stated that, “no U.S. government funding for family planning services could be given to clinics or groups that offer abortion services or counseling in other countries.”(1) Controls such as these are likely to be implemented again in the future. Think about the women in Africa – all liberals will unite under women’s rights in Africa, yes? And think about how they tried to change the definition of “rape”? Really Republicans?
Anyway, what I am saying is that Planned Parenthood and other “family planning services” should be able to give their services to whomever they want. And you know ironically how they would be able to do this? … by not accepting government funding!
I say this is the perfect time for Planned Parenthood to literally say, “Screw this!” and abort the government from its belly. It can’t afford it! Planned Parenthood would be able to freely operate as the “trusted health care provider, informed educator, passionate advocate, and global partner”(2) that it claims to be!
3. No government funding does not mean no Planned Parenthood.
This is an important misconception. Planned Parenthood may take a loss, of course, they are losing approximately $80 million (3) (a quarter of the $370 million Title X money) in federal aid (4) – (which is only a third of their budget). However, according to Facebook at 2:44 AM February 23rd, 2011: 536,426 people (and the number is only growing) shared the link to Planned Parenthood’s “Stand with Planned Parenthood” petition. If each of these people simply donated $150 to Planned Parenthood, it would have more than enough money to compensate for the lost government revenues!
Think about it guys – it is only $150 – what else are you going to spend it on? A new purse or maybe shoes? How about alcohol this weekend? Who needs grocery money for the next week or so? – “countless women are being condemned to undiagnosed cancer, unintended pregnancies, and untreated illnesses!” (5)
Really though, how can you condemn these “countless women” who rely on Planned Parenthood for basic care! As Rep. Jackie Speier (D) of California put it, ”Planned Parenthood has a right to operate. Planned Parenthood has a right to provide family planning services. Planned parenthood has a right to perform abortions. Last time you checked, abortions were legal in this country.” (6) You heard her – Planned Parenthood has a right to operate! Better start writing the check.
Written by Liberty Society member Andrew Hirsch, from his own blog Technology of Liberty.
When starting a new endeavor, whether it is a new business, a new area of research, or even a new blog, it is customary to state why such an endeavor is necessary. It is my intention in this post to address this question for the (Classical) Liberal theory of Computing, and, implicatively, this blog.
First, as a matter of terminology, I will refer to Libertarians, or Classical Liberals as either of those names, or by Liberal. Modern Liberals, I will refer to as Progressives or Modern Liberals. More specific names may be used as is appropriate.
So, then, the question is posed: why should there be a liberal theory of computing? This question, it turns out, is really two: why should liberals be interested in computing; and why should there be a theory of computing that is specifically liberal?
There is an obvious answer to the first: everybody should be interested in computing. These days, it is difficult to think of an area of our lives in which computing hasn’t had an effect. It has freed our time, made us more productive, and has put more of us in communication with each other than ever before. However, the simple answer does not seem significant to answer the spirit of the question.
There are several reasons why specifically liberals should be interested in computing. Computing, especially with the advent of the internet, is a great source for communication. I have, sitting to next to me, a DVD given to me yesterday by Liberty Fund, Inc. that contains 1000 full texts of the liberal tradition; and that doesn’t even require the internet. With the internet, I can not only publish this blog and make it available to anyone who wishes to read it, but I can go over to facebook and speak with my friends, discussing these ideas before even posting them.
The first point to be made for liberals paying attention to computing, is so-called “citizen journalism;” a point that is rightly stressed in the liberal community. Liberals (not to contrast with progressives and conservatives) have found the blogosphere to be one of their refuges; for a group without much of a traditional media backup, this can only be a good thing. Many is the libertarian who has had his ideas refined and rethought because of blogs (such as the mises.org blogs, which have opened me to the works of Mises, Hayek and Rothbard, coming originally to Liberty from a more Randian prospective). It also gives the liberal a way to communicate his ideas in a way that he hasn’t before; no longer are we forced to meet only in prescribed meetings or small groups of friends, and no longer have to try to convince are non-libertarian close friends that it’s okay to listen to us rant about liberty all the time, it’s completely normal.
Besides the benefits for existing and seeking liberals above, blogs and other citizen journalism formats also fill a role in a recurring theme explored in this paper: openness in government. The recent outrage about busts in the drug war (common though they have been for a long while, perhaps my whole life) are driven at least partially by concerned bloggers. These are not only liberals, they are neighbors and friends, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, concerned only for those close to them. And yet, they have helped liberals advance a dear issue to them.
At this point, it seems clear to most that technology can help to undermine the government. The spread of a video depicting a gentleman on a motorcycle who had a gun pulled on him by a man which only later identified himself as a state officer, and other such sunshine activism (including many government-exposing websites that show us, for instance, how our congresspeople have voted), there is right now in the world a growing recognition of social media as a use for social change. First of all, awareness of issues and sunshine spread even faster through social media. But, there is a bigger issue.
At the time of this writing, the people of Egypt have overthrown a dictator in a long, peaceful rally in Cairo. While there are many trepidations in the circle of liberty about what the people of Egypt will chose to do now with their politics, it is interesting to note how this happened. It started as a youth group on facebook, with many more opposition forces joining in. These uses of social media to start peaceful revolutions have been predicted by futurists and technologists, but now they are happening and changing the world, and will likely continue to do so.
One of the technological challenges that should be of particular interest to liberals is in secure social networks. We want groups in places like China, Iran and North Korea to be able to work together, to blog and to act, especially if they share our ideals. And while that’s no different than with any other country in the world, they do face some of the biggest challenges to doing so, more so if they don’t want to be subjected to cruel punishment.
Leaving that for the moment brings us to the next question: why should their be a specific liberal theory of computing?
There are many areas of research interest in computing and the related mathematics that are very interesting. A mathematical understanding of the systems that people tend to form, as has been studied in the social sciences by Mises, among others, is just being formed. For instance, a Swedish Mathematician named Oskar Sandberg recently completed his Ph.D. studying small networks and what he calls the “small world phenomenon.”
Sandberg’s main claim to fame is actually in computing itself, though. He has used his mathematical models to contribute to the Freenet Project, which allows for people to communicate in a completely secure and anonymous way. The applications for this are staggering. Theoretically, even in the most abusive and oppresive regime, freedom advocates can continue to learn and organize, and there’s nothing that any government organization can do about it.
Besides that, the most liberal area in computing is probably security, specifically cryptography. In his great book Crypto, Stephen Levy describes how Cryptography was illegal in the United States, and indeed, much of the world, until the late 70′s. The theory, has been set back greatly for this spate of illegality, has made a great comeback, and is considered to be one of the greatest dangers from the citizens by most nations. The use of cryptography is designed to do one thing, which is of particular interest to liberals: preserve privacy. In cryptography we are interested in making it so that if Alice and Bob are talking, Eve can listen to everything being said without understanding anything.
Distributiveness is another big research area in Computing Science right now that could easily have a liberal focus. Right now, much of the World Wide Web is based on a couple of servers located in the United States. This means that a single directive by the American government could stop potentially large portions of the web. This is something that any liberal would presumably be against, and having more distributed systems would seem to avoid this situation, and make it technically, even if it is not legally, difficult for a government to shut down portions of the communication network, even for its own citizens, not to mention the whole world.
However, there is another good reason to look into distributiveness. As the insidious PATRIOT act taught us, technology, like a gun, is just a tool, which can be used for good, but can also be used for evil. Overreaching governments are very interested in collecting information on their citizens, including information that citizens may not be so inclined to share with the state. Distributed, anonymous databases are a potential solution to fighting this without losing services.
It is important to note that all of these technologies that have been discussed have an aspect of security in them. There is an important reason for this: liberals need to understand that, especially in the developing world, where liberty is so desperately needed, it is difficult to use technology to our advantage (or to use anything else to our advantage, for that matter), without potentially having dire consequences. Even here in the United States, there is the possibility that any of us could be stopped on a plane because we said something online that the government thought might mean terrorism. That means that we must put computer security into the hands of the people, and it is in our interest as liberals to develop it.
This post, however, will focus on the positives. In that spirit, I would like to end with a small discussion of three important liberal computing projects.
The first, which all should be familiar with, is Wikipedia. Founded by Objectivist Jim Wales, Wikipedia was founded partially on the principles of Friedrich Hayek, who believed in distributed knowledge that may be brought out with markets. Between Wikipedia and John Stossel’s beloved Intrade, Hayek’s theories of knowledge have much more weight.
The next is right now very “in” in liberal and some progressive circles. (I am sure there are some conservative groups where it is also popular. I just don’t know of any.) Wikileaks was founded by self-identified libertarian Julian Assange, with the express purpose of exposing government activity. It has released videos of the consequences of the never-ending war in the middle east, and has released diplomatic wires that seem to show that the US government has been conspiring with other governments behind the American people’s collective back. Wikileaks is the current poster child for sunshine via the internet.
The third, the Freenet Project, was already mentioned in this post. Freenet is a distributed, secure, and anonymous alternative to the world wide web. The mathematics of the small world phenomenon have made it into a “darknet,” whereby the only direct connections a person should have are to others that they already trust. While the technical details can be a bit sticky, (interested technical people should go tofreenetproject.org) in layman’s terms the project achieves this by using a distributed model for servers, rather than the monolithic model that we now have.
Having now done what I hope is an adequate job answering why there should be a Liberal Theory of Computing, I hope that we can start exploring the areas outlined here, and exploring the spirit I have presented here to expand these arguments to other areas. Developing such a theory would give another area of Liberal philosophical superiority, and would also support production in a way that liberals should appreciate.
I look forward to reading your comments.
Last Friday Liberty Society attended a debate at the Cato Institute between Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at Cato, Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, and Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University Law School. Each of the three speakers had their own opinions, though a common theme shared the evening.
The three panelists largely agreed that the most important issues to care about in order to help minimize poverty were education, work, and the family. Tanner later would also posit helping families save is important, which Sawhill agreed with, commenting that it turned her “three legged stool into a four legged chair.”
Peter Edelman started off the debate by saying many modern poverty statistics. Roughly 44 million people are poor, though federal poverty statistics are often lower than they should be. The two main groups that are poor are African Americans and Latino’s, both with a 24% poverty rate, and unmarried women have a 30% poverty rate.
To Edelman many of the solutions were in helping people find good jobs and wage supplements like the Earned Income Tax credit, aiding in income equivalences like healthcare, childcare, and housing, and finally providing a safety net through increased unemployment benefits.
Isabel Sawhill stressed an opportunity society. Challenging that we should care about the process of success, and why people are poor. She stressed that there was actually less income mobility in America than often believed, and that individuals who have a high school education, work full time, and delay child bearing only have a 2% poverty rate.
Her solutions were in more pre-kindergarten programs, better teachers and charter schools, and better college counseling. She, like Edelman, also supported wage supplements and greater career and technical education. Finally, while Sawhill stressed the importance of holding off having children, she saw it as a role for civil society.
The last of the debaters, Michael Tanner, wanted to highlight the unintended consequences of welfare programs to encourage out of wedlock birth and discourage finding work. Tanner believed that if the benefits were greater than the effort and value of work, people would stay on welfare.
Tanner’s solutions included increasing the amount of private schools, deregulating and lowering taxes on businesses, and remove laws that take people out of the marriage pool like drug laws. Finally, and most importantly, was Tanners suggestion that current welfare programs punish savings, and need to be changed to allow individuals more free use of welfare money.
Video of the debate can be found here.