Politics & Policy

Ones & Zeroes Have Consequences

Are conservatives still conservative?

I delete a lot of text. What I mean by that is I write things, decide they’re not very good, and then delete them.

I know, I know: You’re saying, “Sure doesn’t seem like it.” But it’s true nonetheless. And, when I do, it often makes me think how cheap writing has become. I don’t mean in a stylistic sense or even a Paul-Krugman-column sense. Rather, I mean writing itself has become cheaper. To have written a whole paragraph or page only to cavalierly ditch it would have been an extravagance in, say, the Middle Ages (never mind the luxury of learning to read and write). Paper, pen, and ink were all quite expensive in 1003. To rant on a page about how many angels fit on the head of a pin and then chuck the whole thing and start over would have been a hard, expensive decision, in part for the simple reason that the actual parchment was so valuable (which is why it was reused).

The same dynamic probably holds true for every form of expression. I know that recording music onto tape or albums was once daunting for musicians because the expense of it often required getting the song right in just one take.

Now, when I delete my text — usually paragraph after paragraph of “All work and no raise makes Jonah a cranky boy” — it seems cost free. Except, of course, for the lost time such deletions represent. My time has some value, so wasting it on bad writing has to have some cost for me. But leave that aside. My question is: If I delete a bunch of ones and zeros, is there any cost in terms of materials? I mean, if I erase 10,000 words with the stroke of a key, am I in fact destroying anything of tangible value at all?

I’m sure that some computer engineer will tell me that at the subatomic level there’s some cost, that I’m contributing to the wear and tear on my computer screen, or that each deletion tires out the teeny-tiny hamster that spins my hard drive or erodes the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Whatever. But for all intents and purposes, the cost in terms of resources of deleting this whole column is nada — just as deleting a beautiful digital drawing or photo or destroying a spaceship in a video game would have virtually no material cost whatsoever on this computer.

When you think about it, this is something new in human experience. For most of human history, art and text were tangible. A book had value greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts — the pages, the binding, the ink — had value too. The parts that make this sentence barely exist themselves but their verisimilitude is a fact (if these words didn’t seem like real words, NRO wouldn’t exist).

Still, there are no free lunches. I had to pay a bundle for this computer, after all, and for the software inside it. So there was a real cost to obtaining a cost-free medium. The only problem is that I can’t understand the economics involved under this new system. While I could have understood “a piece of paper costs a penny,” I have a really hard time understanding whatever weird formula it would require to express how much it costs to waste a page of computer text (the lifetime of the computer divided by the time it took me to write, plus the cost of the electricity, blah, blah, blah, etc., etc. — times Pi).


Now, I bring this up for a few reasons. First, to give you a sense of how I entertain myself in my cloistered, computer-bound world. Second, to introduce the idea that, while the laws of economics are permanent, technology can change the way they manifest themselves by reducing costs or by transferring those costs someplace else.

Third, the same holds true for culture. Let’s stick with the deleting-computer-stuff thing for a second. Character is culture in the singular, in sort of the same way that anecdotes can be the singular of data. In order to foster good character we teach children not to waste. Even very rich people — if they raise their kids right — tell them not to squander resources needlessly. If your kid took a brand-new toy and smashed it, you’d probably chastise him or her, saying “you need to respect your things.” If you went to the store and bought your kid a stack of drawing paper only to have him tear it up when you got home, you’d say “that’s so wasteful!” or some such. Well, on kiddie-drawing programs and computer games the kids can waste virtual paper and smash virtual toys all they like. In fact, that’s what parents like about them — no mess. In short, the concept of “waste” disappears in virtual reality because the concept of scarcity disappears, too.

Sociologists will tell you that all sorts of customs and traditions are rooted in their utility. When I lived for a brief time in Prague, I was stunned to see how many young couples fooled around in public and how socially accepted public tonsil-hockey was. Sure, the explanation had a lot to do with the erosion of traditional morality over the years by the Communist regime. Fine, fine; good argument to be had there. But it also had to do with a more basic fact. For decades, the Czechoslovakian state would not give unmarried couples or singles an apartment. So young people, well into their twenties, lived with their parents (or joined loveless marriages of convenience). And, let’s face it, a make-out session with your parents in the next room just ain’t cool. So, having no place else to go, young people figured a subway platform was as good a place as any to grope your date. The scarcity of housing put hormone-charged kids into the street. And, the bad examples they set further eroded the taboo. If housing weren’t a problem, the necessity — real or perceived — to dismantle one social custom and replace it with another would not have existed.

In the United States, one need only look with clear eyes at the effects of the automobile and the birth-control pill on sexual mores to understand that technology can shatter traditional arrangements and customs more than any perverse idea or ideology. The problem is that, while we know how to argue with ideas, we have a very bad vocabulary when it comes to arguing with technology.

In the past, technological change was slow enough to allow institutions to change with them. But as the pace of technological change has increased, the ability of societies to change with them has decreased. Much of the bloodshed of the 20th century can be attributed to the chaos and alienation which came with the rapid industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century and the erosion of traditional arrangements those changes brought with them. Men moving from farm to factory and all that.

The rise of ideologies calling for an omni-competent state tracks nearly perfectly with the increased popular demands for more security, stability, and predictability in peoples’ lives. The expansion of the free-market system, which is the oxygen for technological change, was dismantling social arrangements across the board. Both fascism and Communism, and pretty much all the other variants of socialism, are the direct result of states’ trying to give people what they want in this regard. As Robert Nisbet argues in The Quest for Community, most people are not individuals seeking autonomy, they are humans eager to belong to a community. Totalitarian regimes, evil though they were, claimed to satisfy this desire and for millions of people — and they did.


I got to think about all of this in part because I’m writing a book that touches on many of these themes. But also because I read Chris Caldwell’s cri de coeur against e-mail spam and many of the critical reactions to it (including this one on NRO).

Caldwell wants the government to regulate e-mail. He doesn’t like all of the “noxious weeds” making their way into the garden that is his e-mail inbox, and so he looks to government to solve the problem. Like the economics of limitless text discussed above, Caldwell believes that the near elimination of scarcity has created a spam monster because sending e-mail has become too cheap for the spammer and too expensive for the rest of us.

Caldwell writes: “There is no chance that the Internet will return to its old level of user-friendliness until lawmakers recognize that the decision to leave it unregulated was a serious, ideologically driven mistake.” Now, both in tone and substance this strikes me as no different than Al Gore’s desire to put the federal government in charge of promoting “livability” in order to fight suburban “sprawl.” Neighborhoods were once “user-friendly,” to use Caldwell’s phrase. Now they’re not. Ergo, government should fix the problem. This is a classic liberal-socialist formulation that can be found in generation after generation on issue after issue. An intellectual conjures a mythic and safe past and then claims the government can restore it. The only thing that’s shocking about Caldwell’s argument is that the mythological past is only a few years behind us.

Caldwell simply asserts that if the Congress had gotten in on the ground floor, the Internet’s user-friendliness would have remained constant from, say, 1995 to 2195 and beyond. I’d bet Chris would shoot down such thinking if he saw it employed on the subject of architecture or science or anything else. And yet, he feels free to say the government’s decision to stay out of the e-mail game was an “ideologically driven mistake,” as if to say that using the government to obtain and sustain e-mail perfectibility is somehow not “ideologically driven.” That is bizarre.

As for Caldwell’s critics: Their problem is that they base their critiques almost entirely in faith in the free market. In a sense, they make the same mistake as Caldwell — and too many other folks over the last century. The world is not divided solely between the narrowly defined, profit-driven free market and The State. There are countless other institutions that have a voice in a free society — in our shorthand, we call this “the culture.” There was a time when churches, guilds, associations, communities, universities, schools, journalists, and just-plain decent people were given a bit more space to police and regulate society. It seems to me that a conservative — as opposed to a libertarian or a liberal — should not have an inordinate fear of the state or an inordinate love of the unregulated free market. This requires conservatives to prefer nuance and balance over On-Off-switch arguments. There are dials to be tweaked. A little more government here. A lot less there. An increased role for the culture everywhere.

Most socially unacceptable behavior is not solved by government action or pure self-interested, free-market consumer choice. It’s solved by social pressure: shaming people, refusing to deal with them in polite company, encouraging boycotts, creating formal or informal associations which refuse to do business with certain individuals. I would hope, for example, that even in a world where drugs and prostitution were legal the local Chamber of Commerce and Elks Lodge would give pimps and pushers the cold shoulder. Personally, as a conservative, I have few ideological problems with laws designed to aid and reinforce social rules. Nor do I have an ideological problem with the free market working things out. Conservatism is a practical ideology.

Now, you may be asking, Why didn’t you just delete this whole column? It’s a good question. After all, what do all of these points have to do with each other? Well, conservatism faces a moment of truth. Libertarianism is gaining in popularity and so is a government-friendly form of conservatism of which Caldwell’s spam article is a minor example. A new and interesting magazine called The New Atlantis seems to be trying to carve out the space for the government to stop the more offensive aspects of biotechnology while libertarians increasingly take the position that all new technology is always good no matter what the consequences. What both branches of the Right share is the view that it is government and government alone that has the power and/or the right to stop change we as a society don’t like. This is a disturbing development because it reveals that much of the Right has grown blind to the organic society championed by both Hayek and Burke. If the Right comes around to the position that only the government has the authority or the ability to solve a real social problem and that a real social problem is defined as any problem the government can solve, then we are in big trouble. It would signal that conservatives have given up on trying to improve the culture and uphold the authority of tradition. In short, it means that conservatives will have given up on conservatism.


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