Image credit. This woman is congratulating soldiers for embarking on a disaster. By embracing new net neutrality legislation, might we be facing a much hailed disaster? Or are we going over the top with our fears?
A Closed Reading of Liberty and an Open-Ended Reading of Liberty
One reading of liberty favours political abstention, while another reading insists that political participation is an indispensable condition of freedom.
I would argue that the second reading trumps the first.
We cannot enjoy freedom in the absence of the possibility for every adult citizen to participate in politics, if she is so inclined. But we can have freedom in the absence of some of the many interpretations of freedom to be politically preponderant.
Challenging Net Neutrality
New net neutrality legislation is perceived by some as opening the floodgates to allow massive politicisation, in an area where previously politics had little/considerably less influence. Both this general contention as well as detailed arguments against concrete negative implications of net neutrality may be perfectly valid. It is absolutely vital that such objections can be raised.
Playing on the fear of one narrow issue that would have been easy to legislate (that broadband companies might block or limit access to certain sites), the government used this niche concern to drive through a total takeover of the Internet.
For more see My Response to Triumphalism over Turning the Internet into a Utility, and The Biggest Lie in the FCC's Net Neutering Actions. Make sure to take a look at the comments to these posts.
Freedom is Deliberative Plurality
However, objections against net neutrality and accusations of inordinate political influence are contributions to a debate, to which anyone is invited whatever her position relative to the anti-net-neutrality view.
It is perfectly compatible with freedom, in fact, it is a requirement of freedom that people compete to shape the debate and the eventual political decision making so as to conform to their preferences.
We should never forget that in a free society arguments and policies supported by (some faction among) those conscious of liberty are not by rights exempt from loosing the battle for public opinion and political dominance.
Only what I call robust conditions of freedom ought to be exempt from being overwritten by temporal fads and currents in public opinion and political dominance, or to put it differently: the right to compete in the political arena must be absolutely defended and has a higher priority as a publicly protected concern than any particular opinion contributed to the scramble for ultimate political validity (expressed through legislation and enacted policy).
For more on robust conditions of freedom see King George I - From Anthropocentric Liberty to Sociogenic Liberty, Freedom Limits Liberalism, and Why It Is Not True That Politics Makes Us Worse ...
The Libertarian Conundrum
There is a liberal (= libertarian) conundrum that relegates the libertarian to the sideline of real world politics. He wishes no politics, no interventions to take place, while many other players take the opposite stance. For the liberal position to become more prominent, its adepts must organise themselves politically and act in the very world of politics that they feel we ought to be able to do without.
This has two implications: in order to concretely defend liberal positions, the libertarian must engage in practical, pragmatic and hence compromise-accepting politics, i.e. he must contribute to the politicisation of the world, he must become an effective special interest (say, in matters concerning net neutrality).
Or else, the natural and legitimate desire of many of us to take advantage of the possibility of political participation - an indispensable condition of freedom - will be disproportionately utilised by opponents of the libertarians - which is what happens in real life, and has shaped the political face of our societies for at least 150 years.
If this is so, why should we still enjoy the blessings of civil society? I doubt that the libertarian can pride herself of being responsible in the chief for this happy situation. Much rather, the robust conditions of freedom are so deeply rooted in our societies that substantial violations of the framework of freedom are painful to such an extent that we tend to avoid them, at least in the long run, irrespective of people being much concerned with or knowledgeable about freedom.
I suspect, we are free to such a large extent as we are in our historically privileged 20 or so countries supporting advanced civil societies, because freedom works so well, indeed better than anything else, at the level of development attained by us, and people find out about it, by trial and error, rather than some of us understanding freedom supremely well and exerting sufficient influence to protect her.
Macro-Level Freedom and Freedom at the Micro-Level
This assessment refers to the macro level. On the micro level it is certainly very important that the message of freedom is introduced into the various political debates, especially regarding specific issues such as net neutrality and concerning the defence of the robust conditions of freedom.
But again, the message of freedom contains the postulate of open debate--and once you delve more deeply into the net neutrality issue, it is impressive to see the intricate ramifications of the theme, the many layers of issues and the spectrum of competing expertise. I place more trust in this vibrant debate than in any ideologically stream-lined, cut and dried opinions (such as one reducing the FCC to a simple motto "If It Ain't Broke - Break It")--and I am ready to find myself surprised by knowledge I did not have before.
I am almost certain that a very thick layer of argument that is dear to the libertarian's heart is largely irrelevant or even counter-productive in that it alienates large parts of the public from the libertarian core objective of freedom: the false reasons/assumptions underlying the libertarian abstention from practical politics.
Freedom to Act with Public Effect
The libertarian's basic error is to ignore that a free society is one that allows and invites people to get involved in politics, enabling them to express their preferences and fight for their realisation. Ignoring this side of freedom condemns the libertarian to chronically arguing on too high a level of abstraction and within a closed, quasi-proprietary set of assumptions and expectations.
That is to say, libertarians tend to formulate fiercely held convictions concerning the correct and feasible connection between what they propose to do and the expected or desired outcome of such course of action, without regard for the intermediate conditions - to a very large extent brought about in the world of politics - that ultimately determine whether such a connection can be achieved or whether the means and ends actually available will be of a different kind and form of connectedness.
The belief in freedom and the belief in a world with very low levels of political activity are incompatible.
Freedom must find ways of accommodating herself with some of her more complicated and potentially disruptive consequences. In an open society, freedom permanently disrupts and restores the tissue of which she is made.
Almost paradoxically, it is precisely because liberty invites and empowers us to pursue by political means our competing visions of the inevitably partially designed order in our social surrounding, freedom turns out to engender more of a spontaneous order than the libertarian is capable of handling/willing to acknowledge.
We cannot be free and abstain from public action to the extent many libertarian hope for.
The kind of thinking that is conscious of freedom can only make a contribution to the general discussion to which everyone is invited. Freedom as method is a way of influencing the debate, with unevenly successful, unevenly correct, and unevenly attainable results.