The debate about Big Tech often breaks down into one of whether or not a private company should be “regulated.” This is especially true as attention heats up around the use of antitrust enforcement — substantively, definitionally, and applicably different than regulation, though in argument one side attempts to conflate them.
Jim Swift of The Bulwark reflected this sentiment to me recently on Twitter. His response made no sense in the context of the point I was making (noting that the same people criticizing Parler’s content moderation never, ever criticize those same actions when performed by Twitter), but it’s a common enough refrain that it’s worth highlighting here:
“I am just kind of shocked that the Rachel Bovards of the world went from ‘if you don’t like a service, don’t use it,’ to MAKE ME A BICYCLE, CLOWN. Not very conservative.”
A corporations-first emphasis
The tech debate is a larger proxy for the economic emphasis that has been reflected in the modern GOP over the last three decades. This began under Reagan and was suitable to its moment: the economy of the 80s had become entrenched, heavily regulated, and sclerotic. A disruptive approach was necessary. (Interestingly, though he largely weakened antitrust enforcement, Reagan also employed it as a means to spur innovation — something the libertarian Right now routinely argues is an impossibility.)
But it has continued in such a way that economic emphasis has come to define DC institutional conservatism, almost to the exclusion of other issues. It has also, as Swift’s response to me makes clear, mounted its own kind of purity test.
This may reflect a type of “corporation-first” thinking, but it is not the coherent response of traditional conservatism. In fact, I would argue that it reflects a brittle attitude of DC’s establishment conservatism that puts markets above all, and in doing so, de-emphasizes the tapestry of conservative thought that could actually guide us through this current maelstrom.
Russell Kirk and the free market
There are a variety of conservative thinkers up to this task, but I’ll discuss Russell Kirk, as I recently co-authored a book with former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) that relied heavily upon Kirk’s thinking.
Interestingly, Kirk argued against a type of economic fundamentalism — or policy fundamentalism of any kind — and for a conservative movement as one that resists dogmatic, ideological reflexiveness. Conservatism, he continually reminds readers, is not a single platform, applicable to every person, in every age.
Rather, it’s a set of principles, which emphasize moral order, the wisdom of accumulated tradition, private property, prudence, diffusion of power, equality of rights, and the necessity of a strong civil society. Together, they’re less a prescriptive set of policies than a practical way of viewing the world, and a way in which conservatism retains its relevance in a constantly changing, turbulent age.
Indeed, this take on conservatism is one that is very much alive, well equipped for the job of finding and presenting a coherent response to the ceaseless unfolding and changing of modernity.
This is the type of conservatism Kirk so masterfully articulated: one which rejects “‘abstractions’ — that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances.” Rather, in applying the broad principles, conservatism maintains its coherence, relevance, and practical application.
In this way, conservatives can find a practical response to corporate power. While there is an effort to define the debate around Big Tech as one of “government intervention into private companies,” or “free market approaches versus statism,” I’d argue the issue is far more about the character and preservation of personal liberty and civil society in the face of an assault from unconstrained discretionary power.
It’s a nuance Kirk understood. In his Concise Guide to Conservatism, Kirk wrote.
…economics has been overemphasized in our generation. I do not believe that the great contest in the modern world is simply between two theories of economics, ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ as Bernard Shaw tried to convince women a generation ago. No, I happen to think that the real struggle is between traditional society and its religious and moral and political inheritance, and collectivism (under whatever name) with its passion for reducing humanity to a mere tapioca-pudding of identical producers and consumers.
Collectivism is a threat to personal and economic liberty and can exist in many forms, even at the corporate level. The case has been made many times that Big Tech is a threat to both personal freedom, and the freedom of small businesses and markets to innovate. Attempting to shove the debate into a binary frame of “regulation or free markets” is a misinterpretation of, as Kirk would say, our current “practical experience and particular circumstances.”
This is not to say that economic liberties should be de-emphasized out of the debate, or that I am somehow arguing for a policy platform that dictates free association or behavior.
Rather, it’s a question of balance. Of course free markets are important. Of course innovation in a free economy is what makes the American system the most successful and robust in the world. The question in this particular case is if the interests of personal liberty and civil society are being appropriately served when corporations like Google control and define 90 percent of the information we search for, and if freedom for small innovators and individuals can be maintained in the face of a corporation more powerful and resourceful than some small countries.
The question is one of maintaining a balance that ensures mutual flourishing of people, civil society, markets, and the family. (Kirk distinguished himself from Hayek by rejecting the idea that unfettered individual liberty was itself the highest social good.)
It’s a balance that many traditional conservatives are still attempting to maintain — one that prioritizes free markets, but without the ideological reflexiveness that creates blind spots toward the threat of collectivism when it exists in the private sector, even when it threatens personal freedom and small innovators.
The challenge for modern conservatism is to reject the brittleness of ideological dogma, and instead apply time-tested principles to modern problems. Kirk, as usual, provides a guide (emphasis added):
For the conserving of freedom of any sort, then, the economy must be free in considerable measure. I repeat that much of the popular discussion of economic questions is obsolete, because it is founded, especially in America, upon the assumption that we still are living in a nineteenth-century condition characterized by the pressure of population upon food supply. But the real problems of the twentieth century are different from those of the nineteenth century, often, especially in the economic sphere, and are in some respects more difficult to approach. Our conservative task is to reconcile personal freedom with the claims of modern technology, and to try to humanize an age in which [Permanent] Things are in the saddle.