Antipolicy is policy

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

A recurring trait of conservative or libertarian argument is presenting a policy as if it isn't. Representative example:

I find it disturbing that people have stopped supporting free speech when they stopped liking its content. Disturbing because either these people have caved to yet another mob thought or never believed in the concept at all. I don't agree with most of the content I see on my platforms. The content doesn't change me, however-- and I refuse the premise that we tech workers know best and therefore must protect the fragile little minds of everyone else.

The argument rests on the idea that "free speech" is an unmitigated public good. But what is free speech? Is it:

  1. The right of individual people to publish controversial ideas on their website, which mostly nobody reads?
  2. The right of platforms to moderate user-generated content according to their own partisan viewpoint?
  3. The right of persons to be protected against retaliation for their speech from the state? A platform? Their employer? The general public?
  4. The right of the employer, platform, or general public to express their own view of the person from 3?
  5. Some kind of fairness doctrine, where we give sense and nonsense equal airtime?

Inevitably, phrases like "free speech" or "free market" are actually some particular policy position like these, that favors one party at the direct expense of another. This is, of course, nothing more or less nefarious than any other policy proposal. But the genius of the phrase is it doesn't sound like taking a position. It sounds like an impartial referee that lets the chips fall where they may.

Of course, impartial referees are very important. But they are important within the context of operating a game that has rules. You can't have a referee as the rules, it isn't a game anymore. Nobody would play. Or perhaps everybody would play, but it's not a useful game.

For example, let's say we have no rules about what content is allowed on the Internet. Inevitably what happens is private platforms spring up that have rules. Moderators, social norms, EULAs, Terms of Service, and so on. So what you have accomplished with the deregulation is outsourcing the regulation to somebody else.

In fact, this same situation led to governments to start with. We started in a condition of human society without rules, and we wound up with federalism. So the whole topic of "internet governance" is just another member in the family of tribal, federal, state, international, corporate, etc., governance.

Now deregulating some subset of human life may be a perfectly legitimate accomplishment. In the internet context, we might imagine that various platforms arise with different rules, and consumers have some kind of choice of preferred regulatory regime, like the "laboratories of democracy" in federalism, and this is in itself a net social good. Of course, nothing about our deregulation specified that in particular would be what happens. It has not always happened in the case of actual governments, or of private corporations. And so it may also happen that all platforms which arise have quite similar rules and you have no effective choice between them. Or that all platforms consolidate and so you have no choice at all. To a first approximation, both US political parties level some degree of these criticisms against the major Internet platforms today.

If so, these outcomes would have much in common with what we wanted to avoid: all the advantages of a totalitarian regime, without the disadvantages of being able to influence it at the ballot box, since we abdicated that one. Our antipolicy had the effect of policy, and arguably created the thing we were afraid of.

Usually these sorts of antipolicy positions rest on the implicit assumption that such a consolidation cannot actually happen, either because of competitive pressure, the invisible hand is infallible, or just some general sense of superiority of not making decisions. If so, there would be no disadvantage to additionally preventing totalitarian outcomes by the means of regulation. However if you propose that, you will quickly discover that your regulation is in the superposition of both a) unduly restricting someone's freedom to form their own totalitarian regime, while simultaneously b) nobody would actually get away with that because of competitive pressure. In other words, the problem with regulation is that it is policy, and has all the drawbacks that policy can have, whereas implicitly deferring to somebody else's policy is immune to this sort of analysis.

In fact, antipolicy is policy. It is merely the policy that the thing ought to be decided at a lower level of abstraction, by the nation instead of an international body, the state instead of the nation, the corporation instead of the government, a middle manager instead of an employer, or an individual instead of their tribe. It presents itself in the clothing of abdication but is actually empowering whatever body takes up the matter instead, sharing some responsibility in their decisions and in the range of outcomes.

It may very well be that the lower level has better information or produces beneficial heterodoxies. It may also be the lower level has worse information and will produce unfair variation, a single totalitarian regime, a ogliarchal network, or any number of negative outcomes. Like any policy proposal, the thing requires examination on its merits.

What we cannot do is abdicate our responsibility by merely abdicating regulatory authority. Antipolicy is itself a policy. We cannot wash our invisible hands.