All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1996

Virtual Liberty

The Internet Allows Ordinary Citizens to Subvert Long-Existing Power Structures

Mr. Estabrook is Manager for Education and Training at the Center for Market Processes in Fairfax, Virginia.

Free-market advocates often argue that individual liberty is necessary to ensure technological progress. Following the lead of such economists as F. A. Hayek, they contend that only a market system enables each of us to act on our own unique knowledge and to seek and find new ways of meeting society’s needs. The freedom to compete, succeed, and fail yields constant discovery, improvement, and progress.

But while the importance of liberty to technological progress is well documented, the way in which such progress advances freedom is seldom noted. Yet technology is increasingly giving each of us more power—to make more choices and control more aspects of our lives. The Internet, in particular, provides a compelling example of how liberty and technology foster and reinforce each other.

About the Internet

Development of the Internet began in the 1960s as a project of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which envisioned a decentralized computer network capable of functioning even if parts of it were damaged by a nuclear attack. By the end of the 1970s, links developed between ARPANet and counterparts in other countries. The network expanded rapidly throughout the 1980s, when universities, research companies, and government agencies began to connect their computers to this worldwide net.

Today, what we call the Internet is a vast “meta-network” of 50,000 computer networks in 90 different countries. Thirty million people access the Internet through telephone lines and personal computers, send electronic mail, download computer software, buy products, and gather news and information. This number has been increasing by about 10 percent each month.

Although the Internet began as a government project, it has evolved far beyond its original design. In so doing, it has bolstered one of Hayek’s principal arguments for freedom: complex orders may emerge without coercive central planning. No one planned the Internet as it is today, and no single body governs it. Yet there is order within the Internet’s “consensual anarchy.” In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek suggests that “society can only exist if . . . rules have evolved which lead individuals to behave in a manner that makes social life possible.” No different are cyberspace societies. Certain rules of just conduct (“Netiquette”) have evolved and become universally accepted—and are even explained in books on using the Internet.

Just as market interactions led to the development of rules in the absence of governmental regulation, market forces have also begun to address some of the problems that have emerged as the Internet has grown. Many have complained, for instance, that the Internet is too confusing for non-hackers to use productively. But getting on-line becomes easier each day and bookstores feature a large selection of how-to books, such as Internet for Dummies. On-line services like CompuServe now offer easy-to-understand interfaces. And an increasing array of software “search engines,” sometimes called “spiders,” is available for those who directly access the Internet.

A thornier issue is on-line pornography. How do parents insulate their children from offensive materials without infringing on the rights of others to disseminate or view it? Again, while politicians mull over the issue, the market is responding. Most popular on-line services, like America On-line and Prodigy, give parents the power to restrict their children’s access to objectionable material. Software is in development to enable parents to identify and avoid offensive material. Without rules and regulations, the market process is discovering solutions to important problems.

In short, the Internet provides powerful proof that a complex, adaptive order can evolve without conscious design. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek presents several examples of such “grown,” or spontaneous, orders. In the world of nature, he cites crystals and snowflakes; both will develop under the proper conditions, but cannot be consciously created molecule by molecule. In human civilization, Hayek points to the emergence of language and currency. Both developed, unplanned, over generations. Yet these examples, while interesting, fail to convince many people of the feasibility of grown orders. After all, human beings are considerably more complex than the particles that compose snowflakes and crystals. How can we be sure that human beings, each of whom has unique motives and ambitions, will behave in an orderly fashion? The examples of language and money are no more persuasive; their evolution is so slow that we can scarcely perceive it.

The Internet, however, demonstrates that an order can develop not only in nature, but in human civilization. And it continues to evolve and adapt at an astounding rate in the absence of government regulation, let alone central planning.

The Internet and Freedom

The Internet’s importance is not limited to illustrating spontaneous order in operation. The Internet, and technological development in general, enhances personal freedom by facilitating the spread of information and ideas. Throughout history, the free flow of information has led to significant social and political change. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type printing enabled ideas to be circulated widely and cheaply for the first time. This free flow of ideas was a critical catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. In the 1980s the desktop computer and fax machine played an important role in the process that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1995, Time magazine reported that Iran is facing a “potential revolution,” now that Iranian scholars have gained access to the ideas of Shakespeare, Mill, and other Westerners through the Internet.

The Internet provides not only access to information and ideas, but the power to distribute them as well. Gutenberg’s printing press reduced the costs of sharing information a thousandfold. Innovations such as the photocopier and desktop publishing have further reduced these costs, enabling even individuals to produce professional documents inexpensively. The Internet takes this information revolution even further; now, one doesn’t even need paper to publish his ideas widely. Empowering people in this way has reduced the influence of the traditional media.

For years, information on world affairs came from a limited array of sources: the Big Three networks, a few national radio syndicates, and several large newspapers and news services. That has begun to change. Cable brought with it CNN and C-SPAN, and a host of other stations that cater to the varied tastes and needs of segments of the population. Talk radio has emerged as a new forum through which people can express their views. And now the Internet, with its host of real-time chat conversations, E-mail lists, and newsgroups, offers new ways for people to share information. In the words of Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund, “The Old Media will wind up on the scrap heap of history.”

The Internet also allows each individual to choose his own community. Typically, when we think of community, we think of the people who live in our apartment building or neighborhood, but the Internet allows us to converse with whomever we please. Technology makes it almost as easy to communicate with someone in Japan as someone around the block. The Internet has therefore fostered the growth of new, virtual communities that are not bound by arbitrary physical borders, but by common interests, goals, and values. Internet communities can be as tightly knit as geographically based communities. For example, the Internet proved the only effective channel of communication between survivors of the Kobe earthquake in Japan and their friends and families around the world. In the United States, several pages emerged on the World Wide Web hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, documenting the destruction and offering help and support to those in need. And before the evening news had announced singer Jerry Garcia’s death, word had already filtered through the Internet, to which fans turned for virtual support groups.

Information Age

Perhaps most important, the Internet is providing the means for ordinary citizens to subvert long-existing power structures, especially the taxes, tariffs, and regulations imposed by governments. In Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, Alvin and Heidi Toffler contend that we are entering an age in which “information increasingly substitutes for bulk raw materials, labor, and other resources” and “knowledge-based technologies are reducing the need for capital per unit of output in a capitalist economy.” As businesses rely increasingly on human capital (knowledge and information) and less on physical capital, tariffs become increasingly irrelevant. Likewise, entrepreneurs may establish banks and investment firms wherever the tax and regulatory burdens are least oppressive, and continue to serve customers anywhere in the world. At least one enterprise offers Internet users the opportunity to gamble legally on sporting events. Based offshore, it is not subject to the laws which forbid such operations in most of the United States.

Lofty purposes? Not always, but the Internet, by facilitating the spread of information, is restoring power to individuals to make choices that affect their own lives and undermining state interference in the process. How will governments respond to this rapid decentralization of knowledge and power? Perhaps they will be forced to compete with one another to create friendlier environments for trade. The result could be governments with simpler, less burdensome regulations and taxes. Some commentators, like Wired magazine contributor Jay Kinney, seem to believe that technology could make government more or less irrelevant. Kinney suggests that nationalism “will [come to] have the character—the strength and relative weight—of brand loyalty.” This may not be far-fetched. After all, the state’s regulatory machine is likely to run at least a step behind an adaptive spontaneous order that taps the knowledge of all its participants. That is a sight, no doubt, that Hayek might well have applauded.