You might think that Steven Guilbeault, environmentalist activist turned Canadian Heritage minister, and Josh Hawley, a leader of the will-to-power faction of the American right, don’t have too much in common. But, as it happens, they do: both think that, when it comes to regulating social media, plunder is the right policy. Even by the standards of the times, their positions are unusually crude. But they have at least the merit of exposing a widespread misunderstanding of the permissible bounds of the activity of the state.
Mr. Guilbeault, as Michael Geist has noted on his blog, is promising to throw more money at the Canadian media and cultural sector and, in order to do so, to “go and get that money where that money is. Which is web giants.” The current idea, as Professor Geist explains in another post, appears to be to charge Google, Facebook, et al. for linking to news articles listed or shared on their platforms, but there may be other chicanery in the works, such as requirements that these companies, or some others, spend some amounts determined by government fiat on content deemed Canadian, or that they give such content a prominence they otherwise would not.
This brings me to Mr. Hawley who, as Christian Schneider explains at The Bulwark, is trying to induce regulatory retaliation against Twitter and Facebook for blocking or limiting the sharing of a dodgy New York Post article. This demand is only the latest in a series of claims by people who used to believe in free speech and free markets (Mr. Hawley’s Twitter biography describes him as “constitutional lawyer” first and husband, father, and senator after that) that social media companies must be made to carry their or their ideological allies’ communications, and punished in case they limit these communications’ reach or prominence.
As you can see, these plans agree in the essential principle that successful platforms must either be requisitioned directly or have their bank accounts raided for the benefit of favoured constituencies. Only the details ― namely, the identity of the beneficiaries ― differ. But then again, once the principle has been accepted, the details can and will change as the partisan make-up of governments shifts. It would be a mistake to focus on the latter rather than the former, though as Mr. Schneider notes, it is a mistake that is quite common on American right: “[t]his may come as a shock to Republican senators, but a freshly empowered Biden/Harris [administration] will not likely make content moderation determinations premised on what produces the largest font of liberal tears.”
The principle on which Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley operate is plunder. They are not alone, of course: so do countless other politicians, not to mention people who vote for them. As Frédéric Bastiat wrote in his great essay “The Law“:
Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property. But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.
Plunder by a single person or a small band is criminal. Plunder by a monarch and a dictator is illegitimate. But plunder under colour of law by a democratically elected government ― why, that is simply public policy:
Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few — whether farmers, manufacturers, ship owners, artists, or comedians.
By the way, lest you think that the belief that this sort of policy immoral is some peculiarly French radicalism, here’s Justice Chase, speaking in much the same terms in Calder v Bull, 3 Dall (3 US) 386 (1798):
An ACT of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority. … A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it. (388)
And lest you think that this is just American radicalism, let me also quote to your Sir William Blackstone, who wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that “the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature”, (124) and which “may be reduced to three principal or primary articles; the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property”. (129) The protection of these rights is the proper object of the law, so that
the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow-citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind; but that every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject, whether practised by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny. (125-26)
Yet wanton tyranny and plunder is precisely what Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley propose. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and the others have laboured to create platforms and services that hundreds of millions of people want to use. Their creators started from very little ― the beauty of the internet is that barriers to entry are pretty low. But now, instead of imitating them and creating platforms and services of their own, others ― be they journalists whom too few people want to pay for the privilege of reading, artists whose work is of little interest to anyone, or conspiracy theorists ― demand to be given access to these platforms or to the revenue that they generate. And politicians are only too happy to oblige.
Why wouldn’t they be? They think it costs them nothing. They are wrong. As Bastiat points out, one odious consequence of the perversion of the law into an instrument of plunder is that, because people naturally tend to associate what is just with what is lawful, they come to think of plunder and oppression as just: “Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.”
The other danger of turning the law from protection of liberty and property to their destruction is perhaps the more dangerous because it is even more widespread:
As long as it is admitted that the law … may violate property instead of protecting it … Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious.
This, and with increasing intensity, is what we are seeing. The stakes of politics are so high because it is admitted on all sides that the power of the winners is virtually untrammeled. The limits and restraints whose existence would in the past have been recognized, at least implicitly, such as the principle that a government shouldn’t simply raid the coffers of a particular company or handful of companies, let alone dictate what messages media ― social or otherwise ― should carry, are no longer recognized. On the one hand this is an escalation. On the other, nothing more than accepted principles being taken to their logical conclusion.
The prize of victory ― a permission to plunder ― is great. The threat of defeat is greater still. Because one expects to use power to engage in plunder oneself, one comes to expect one’s opponents to do likewise, at one’s expense. Losing an election means not simply that someone else gets to enjoy the honours of office, but that they get to despoil and silence you. Hence the desperation of the American right to hang on to power; but hence also the conviction of the Canadian left that it is entitled simply to take from those whom it does not like. These afflictions are not peculiar to countries or to parties. They proceed from the same source: the common conviction that there is no limit to political power, and in particular that plunder is part of the legitimate spoils of political office.
Now of course no one wants any of this to happen. Political schemers do not want moral decadence and civil war. But, they feel, they have no choice. If their preferred schemes do not get implemented, there will be no Canadian newspapers! No right-wing conspiracy theories on Twitter! They are convinced that if something is not done by force and the behest of a politician (preferably themselves), it will not be done at all.
And hence the state becomes the answer to all problems. Much of the right now believes this as fervently as does the left. As in Bastiat’s and in Hayek‘s time, this socialist mindset is spread across political parties. Yet as Bastiat wrote,
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley have no faith in the ability of their fellow-citizens to take care of themselves. Cede to the siren songs of libertarianism, they think, and the sky will fall. Let the other party take power, and it will fall just as surely, if a little slower. They want to save humanity with their projects. Alas, but their preferred means of doing so is plunder. For all their undoubted differences, their commitments to civilization are no more different than those of Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun.
Again, the projects of Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley are only an unusually stark illustration of how much ― too much ― almost all ― of our politics is done. Very little of it is about establishing general rules that protect the rights of all equally. All that matters is ― as Lenin asked ― “who, whom?”. Who is going to plunder and silence whom? Who will be the winner and who the victim? For vae victis.
This is bad policy of course, but more importantly, dangerous and immoral. No person and no party, no matter the size of their majority, have the right to behave like this to their fellow human beings. As Bastiat said: “No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate).”
2 thoughts on “A Proclivity for Plunder”
I can understand an argument that this approach is less efficient than a tax and corresponding subsidy, but I do not understand the moralistic “plunder” language. What are the pre-political property rights here? Nation states have defended their cultural production as long as there have been nation states, and Canada has been concerned about American cultural influence as long as there has been a Canada.
Blackstone writes at the outset of his discussion of the English law of property about “absolute dominion” and then spends the entire rest of the book showing how non-absolute and historically contingent common law property rights in the eighteenth century actually were. Very clearly, when a for-profit business has to pay for profiting from content it did not create is inevitably going to be contingent and political. The Bastiat rhetoric seems particularly out of place here. Facebook, Google and Twitter certainly need recourse to intellectual property laws – and aren’t afraid to use antitrust or regulatory law to make a buck either.