June 4, 2013 1 Comment
(As the piece makes clear, they’re using "liberal" in its classical, more libertarian sense: "In the United States our creed is so misunderstood that people associate liberalism with big government, when it advocates the opposite.")
It’s a very encouraging article, and I hope what it says is true, but a minor point caught my eye:
There are several explanations for this commendable fashion.… During their formative years they were exposed to the internet — an organ with an inbuilt resistance to government meddling. [emphasis added]
In my blog post "Should we thank the State for the Internet?" I mentioned that
Pro-regulators and advocates of market intervention like to cite the Internet as an example of an infrastructure that required massive central funding and government planning — something the free market couldn’t have produced.
Here’s President Obama taking the position I described:
The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.
(Obama made that claim in the same infamous speech in which he pronounced, "If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.")
In "Who Really Invented the Internet?" former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz declares it "an urban legend that the government launched the Internet." (But this piece from Ars Technica seems to debunk the debunking.)
Blogger Brian Carnell, whom Crovitz quotes approvingly in his WSJ editorial, acknowledges the military source of the Internet’s creation, but he’s not exactly giving the state "credit" for their role:
Prior to the early 1990s almost nobody outside of governments and universities had home access to the Internet while several million had logged on to a BBS at one point or another. What caused the change? Something [left-liberals] usually fight tooth and nail — privatization. The floodgates of the Internet came open only after key resources became privatized and companies and individuals could operate on the Internet. For much of its existence, commercial activity on the Internet had been forbidden. The removal of that barrier is primarily responsible for the Internet we have today, where both anarchists and Abercrombie and Fitch use the web to broadcast their respective messages. [link added]
Here’s the part Crovitz quoted:
The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished with almost no added benefit other than to the military and academia. In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.
I know libertarians more Internet savvy than I am who remain divided on the question of the Internet’s origins. We all seem to agree on the emphasis I tried to give in my post about the critical role of counterfactuals in any causal claims. Carnell makes the point well: statists, he says, "must demonstrate that without the government, innovations such as the Internet wouldn’t exist.”
But I still think the factual historical question is important: where did the Internet come from?
Clearly the American government played an important role, but how much?
How much of a role was played by the private sector before privatization of the network itself?
I expect we’ll be seeing historians, technologists, and libertarians weigh in on this question in the near future.
Here’s a puzzle piece I’d like to see included: when the Economist magazine calls the Internet "an organ with an inbuilt resistance to government meddling," it’s referring to the decentralized structure of the network. Economist Peter Klein, in his Mises Daily "Government Did Invent the Internet, But the Market Made It Glorious," tells why a central political power would want to build a radically decentralized network:
During the 1960s, the RAND Corporation had begun to think about how to design a military communications network that would be invulnerable to a nuclear attack. Paul Baran, a RAND researcher whose work was financed by the Air Force, produced a classified report in 1964 proposing a radical solution to this communication problem. Baran envisioned a decentralized network of different types of "host" computers, without any central switchboard, designed to operate even if parts of it were destroyed. The network would consist of several "nodes," each equal in authority, each capable of sending and receiving pieces of data.
Klein adds, parenthetically, that "former ARPA head Charles Herzfeld says that distributing computing power over a network, rather than creating a secure military command-and-control system, was the ARPANET‘s original goal, though this is a minority view" (links added).
The Cold War scenario is one I’m fond of for its irony, and it makes sense to me.
If it’s not true, then where did the Internet get its anarchic architecture?