The Corner


Corporations Can Also Undermine Freedom

An illustration of silhouettes in front of the Google logo, April 8, 2019 (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Libertarians have a habit of acting as if the impartial application of rights inevitably yields a morally neutral outcome. Here is Reason’s Stephanie Slade — who I’m probably in philosophical agreement with on most issues — commenting on this week’s demonetization of the Federalist by Google:

Today conservatives are up in arms because Google made a business decision that reflects its moral convictions because they, they conservatives, find those convictions misguided or abhorrent. What am I missing here?

Slade is right that Google can do what it wants. But she misses the fact that marketplace decisions can also be fundamentally illiberal and abhorrent, and that it’s completely reasonable for people to object to them — even if they don’t believe that tech companies should be compelled by the state to change their behavior.

If a bunch of Americans were “up in arms” over an example of industry-wide racism, the modern libertarian’s first instinct wouldn’t be to ask, “why is everyone so mad about these totally legitimate business decisions that reflect the moral convictions of these companies?” Rather, it would be to note that speaking up is the best way to precipitate changes in the marketplace, and that racism, even if it is protected, is antithetical to the ideals of a free nation.

So is what’s going on right now. There’s a digital mob operating in America, and it’s using the tactics of the cultural revolution to destroy people and quash dissent. Many of society’s most powerful information gatekeepers have either allied themselves with this movement or been cowed into submission. Google and NBC News can’t coerce you with a gun, but they can act in ways detrimental to liberalism.

I support the legalization of drugs and prostitution for reasons of personal liberty, but also believe that drugs and prostitution destroy lives and should be stigmatized. It’s complicated, but those two positions don’t conflict in my mind. In the same way, to acknowledge that there will be serious societal and cultural consequences if massive corporations start shutting down websites because they object to their content is not to advance statism. On the contrary: By treating bad behavior — rather than the underlying right — as neutral, we give politicians ammunition to convince the targets of that bad behavior that state action is needed.


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