Friday, November 14, 2008

Harnessing the Networked Masses

Recently, an Op-Ed column in the Wall Street Journal stated that Barack Obama had run his campaign in a capitalist manner and proposed that he govern the country in the same fashion. Columnist Bret Swanson, in a seeming defense of entrepreneurialism (he strangely never uses the word "capitalism"... not once), exhorts President-elect Obama to learn from his campaign and foster "the unforeseen abundance that entrepreneurship can bring" to help the economy.

Swanson claims that Obama's campaign relied on individual initiative by grooming his supporters and then unleashing them on the web and on the streets - as opposed to the command-and-control, centralized McCain campaign that couldn't make heads or tails of the "Internets." He describes the "entrepreneurial" quality of Obama's campaign in primarily web-centric terms, listing the "8,000 web-based affinity groups" and millions of web volunteers and donors, and how his "even temper and relentlessly consistent message . . . encouraged supporters to take risks." This is held up as celebrating individual achievements.

The proposed "heavier hand of government" that comprises Obama's policies, including restricting free trade and "higher tax rates on capital and entrepreneurs," apparently runs counter to the actions of the successful campaign, and "do not reflect his campaign's deep trust in individuals."

Against this background, Swanson proposed an intriguing thought experiment.
Mr. President-elect: What if as your campaign raised more and more money it was taxed away and given to Mr. McCain to level the field? Or think of this: What if you were not allowed to opt out of the public financing scheme that left Mr. McCain with a paltry $84 million, about a quarter of your autumn total? [emphasis added]
Now, this is a great example that should show even the most myopic person the realities of taxing the great producers to pay for welfare state programs. Sadly, this is not at all what Swanson means by this example.

Not once does Swanson make a principled defense of capitalism, or the moral right of every individual to keep the product of his efforts without fear of forced government redistribution. It's not that he holds that government intervention in the economy is wrong, per se, he just thinks that if Obama wants to "raise the revenue he needs for his lofty priorities", he had better leave the "diffuse networks of entrepreneurs" free enough that he doesn't choke them to death. You can't tax a dead man, at least not enough.

Under the guise of promoting capitalism, Swanson has mapped out a blueprint for Obama to treat entrepreneurs the same way he treated his campaign automatons; fill them full of vagaries and promises, a frothy mix of hopes and dreams and change, all members of a cause greater than themselves, and then let them loose to do whatever it is that those entrepreneurs do to create wealth that he can tax.

Swanson's ideas amount to "we don't quite understand what it is that makes these fellows so productive, but it seems that freedom has something to do with it. We need them to keep going, so let's lay off the yolk a bit so we can keep working them. Somehow, they'll get us out of this recession."

Neither Obama nor Swanson understand or respect the individual right of each person to follow his own course, or that a society in which this is possible is the prerequisite for the "individual initiative" and the "technology [that] allows us to leap, obliterate or ignore" the various obstacles in the way, whether they are man-made or not. Swanson takes technological advances as a given--as if they are magic that invades our brains from "the ether"--trusting that even though government throws regulatory roadblocks up that stifle innovation, the spark of ingenuity somehow always hops right over.

At the core, both Obama and Swanson see the enigmatic producers of the world only as a key resource in wielding power. This is not a new concept, as despots of all stripes have long relied on the virtues of their subjects to feed their tyrannical regimes. It is perhaps just a new variant on the theme, made novel by the appeal to social networking and the web, but the meaning is the same: it is the duty of the productive members of the collective to carry the rest on their backs.

Swanson ends his appeal to his brand of pseudo-capitalism with this cynical bit of advice for President-elect Obama:

Mr. Obama should throw away his tax-regulate-and-centralize white papers. Instead, he should follow his campaign playbook and trust the networked masses. The best way to harness their power is to undo the reins. [emphasis added]

Welcome to Despotism 2.0


Anonymous said...

This is one of the most baffling and hare-brained ideas I have ever encountered, asserting that Obama ran his campaign on "capitalist" principles. Bret Swanson may as well have concluded that Lenin was a capitalist because he proclaimed his New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed some economic "freedom" in Soviet Russia in order to prevent the total collapse of the Russian economy and his government.

Ed Cline

Bruce V. Bracken said...

I, for one, do not require the Big O's trust; I require his obedience of our constitution.

Jeff said...

From Pharsalia of Lucan (Lines 324-331)

"Ev'n liberty has lost the power to please;
Hence rage and wrath their ready minds invade,
And want could every wickedness persuade; ...
With glory tyrants did their country awe,
And violence prescribed the rule to law;
Hence pliant servile voices were constrained,
And force in popular assemblies reigned,
Consuls and tribunes, with opposing might,
Joined to confound and overturn the right.

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "It's not that he holds that government intervention in the economy is wrong, per se, he just thinks that if Obama wants to 'raise the revenue he needs for his lofty priorities', he had better leave the 'diffuse networks of entrepreneurs' free enough that he doesn't choke them to death."

A probable philosophical source for this message is John Rawls, Theory of Justice. Rawls, a chairman of the Philosophy Department at Harvard (if I recall correctly) was one of the most influential of the Kantians in the last 50 years or so.

Ayn Rand analyzed the ideas (not the book itself) in Theory of Justice in her essay, "An Untitled Letter" (1973), published now as Ch. 11 of Philosophy: Who Needs It.