The Internet–A Technology for Encompassing Interests and Liberty

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As a counterforce to government intrusions, technological advances have generally promoted liberty. Among the most powerful of these forces is the internet—the medium of this blog. In the book Technologies of Freedom, Ithiel de Sola Pool showed how the printing press was indispensable to the transformation from monarchy to democracy. The printing press was certainly essential to creating a constitutional, continental democracy in the United States, for, as de Tocqueville observed around that time, organization for the public good “cannot be conveniently and habitually done without a newspaper. Only a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before thousands of readers.” In 1789 the printing press fostered the most widespread deliberation on fundamental law that the world had ever known.

The history of liberty has been in no small measure the struggle between diffuse and encompassing interests, on the one hand, and special interests, on the other.  Through their concentrated power, special interests seek to use the state to their benefit, while diffuse interests concern the ordinary citizen or taxpayer, or in William Graham Sumner’s arresting phrase, The Forgotten Man. When the printing press was invented, the most important special interests were  primarily the rulers themselves and the aristocrats who supported them. The printing press allowed the middle class to discover and organize around their common interests to sustain a democratic system that limited the exactions of the oligarchs.

Bu the struggle between diffuse and special interests does not disappear with the rise of democracy. Trade associations, farmers’ associations and unions have leverage with politicians to obtain benefits that the rest of us pay for. As a successor to the printing press, however, the internet advances liberty by continuing to reduce the cost of acquiring information. Such advances help diffuse groups more than special interests. By their nature, diffuse groups face relatively higher costs in discovering common interests, organizing around them, and publicizing special interest schemes.

As a result, interest groups today are often desperate to avoid transparency to retain their benefits. For example, teachers’ unions strongly oppose publishing evaluations of schools and teachers on the internet.  In another instance, the farm bill recently passed by the House and currently before the Senate keeps farm insurance subsides secret, including those received by the legislators themselves. Such legally mandated secrecy demonstrates the threat posed by transparency to special interests.

Happily, in many other areas of law—like state and federal contracting—information on payments and performance is more widely available than ever. Earmarks were ended in no small measure because lower information costs have made it easier to identify and publicize outrages, like Alaska’s infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

The internet  makes it more important than ever before to agitate for transparency in government so that encompassing interests can make use of it. The Cato Institute has a center that presses relentlessly for transparency in government, headed up by Jim Harper. It deserves our support.