Clown Town

A Libertarian Thanks the Government for the Internet

“How can you be a libertarian? Don’t you know that the government invented the Internet?

A gotcha. Not as pithy as “Who will build the roads?” But a modern-day classic all the same. Credit where due. Now let’s dissect.

The thrust of the question does not rest, properly speaking, on what historically happened. In the real world, of course, federal R&D funding was sufficient to produce the basic architecture of the Internet. And every reasonably well-informed person knows it.

Properly understood, though, there’s an additional claim – that we must question our commitment to private enterprise – and it rests on a counterfactual: namely, that federal government was necessary here, and that if it had not acted, the private sector couldn’t have gotten us anything sufficiently like the Internet to carry the point. No private entity or coalition would have figured out (or converged upon!) a way to make computers talk to each other, irrespective of local network conventions, through packet switching and a universal computer naming convention. Or their functional equivalents.

That’s a much bolder claim. Particularly when the Internet – or something quite like it – seems to have been on everyone’s mind. Long before there was a real-life Internet, there were networked computers in science fiction. And everybody who had a computer in the early days appears to have wanted nothing more than to talk to everybody else who had a computer. To say that this incredibly enterprising and intelligent cohort – which would, without DARPA, have included Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, and Donald Davies – would still be unable to create the Internet… well, that position smells more than a little of magical thinking, and the odd belief that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. We just couldn’t have done it otherwise!

Further, as one of my colleagues pointed out, when we say yes to the government, we aren’t simply saying yes to the Internet. If only that were all of it! But it never is: When we say yes to the entity whose employees invented packet switching, we also say yes to the entity that runs the murderous drug war, the one whose employees shoot, beat, and tase helpless handcuffed pregnant people. The entity whose other projects include Guantanamo Bay, our morally grotesque immigration policy, massive NSA surveillance, and whatever the hell they’re currently up to in Yemen. (I’m not sure I even want to know.)

In short, even if the magical-thinking counterfactual were completely airtight, it’s far from clear that this is a deal we’d be happy to take ex ante.

But the title of this post would be misleading if I didn’t offer my sincere thanks, and I plan to: I, a libertarian, will thank the government for the Internet.

We mustn’t do so without a full picture of exactly what it did, and happily that picture is… small. If we are to thank the government for the Internet, then besides the pittance it took in federal R&D money, we must also give thanks that this technology was rather promptly liberated: The Internet did not remain merely a piece of military hardware, as it easily might have, and for which scant thanks would be required. An actually quite believable counterfactual, I find, is a world in which the federal government decided that the Internet – while it might have been invented by anyone – was simply too good a piece of military hardware ever to be released to the public. And in this world even private imitators of the basic technology are actively forbidden.

I find this counterfactual relatively plausible because something rather like it nearly happened in our own world, in the so-called crypto wars. Indeed, something rather like is in the process of happening once again. We should be thankful that our government didn’t take this route on the basic idea of the Internet.

In our own world, the Internet was soon opened up to civilian researchers, and a few years later it shed the cumbersome rules that forbade private commerce. Censorship proposals were mostly brushed aside, and the Internet became one of the freest – indeed one of the most nearly anarchic – social spaces in the world.

It was a rare and bravura performance in the art of getting out of the way. If only our government did so more often. And now I can say it without a chance of being misunderstood: Thank you, federal government, for the Internet! I look forward, I hope, to thanking you for many similar endeavors in the future.