9.698 democracy on the net

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Fri, 5 Apr 1996 18:09:37 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 698.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Charles Ess (56)
Subject: Re: 9.692 article in AM; MonoConc released

You hit it on the mark regarding Fallows - though I'm puzzled that a
guy with his track record could trip up on such a basic theoretical
Namely, in my terms, "democracy" can mean any number of things -
ranging from a pure libertarian plebescite (which is what Fallows
seems to assume it _must_ mean) through pluralist and communitarian
forms - the latter of which certainly allow for judgments about limits
of discussion, ideally based in consensus ("consent of the governed,"-
a theme from Locke and Jefferson through Habermas). These latter forms,
most political philosophers agree, are sharply distinct from "authoritarian"
regimes which programmatically ignore the wishes and voices of the
community. This means there's a continuum of democratic options - the
latter sort including the kind of considered and reasoned judgements we
refer to as editing, legislation by representatives, etc.

But for many of the libertarian voices of the Internet - and apparently
Fallows has accepted this assumption wholesale - we really only have
two choices: pure democracy of the plebescite/libertarian sort -- or
nasty old authoritarianism. Instead of a continuum, then, there's a
simple either/or: either untrammeled plebescites -- or authoritarianism
of some sort or another. In terms of speech - we have either
absolutely untrammeled "free" speech (i.e., free from all constraints)
or censorship. As you note, this simple dualism forces us to accept
any sort of editorial and/or representative legislative judgments as
authoritarianism only.

Several ironies attend this dualistic schema. Perhaps first and
foremost, it overlooks the logical and historical consequence of the
libertarian insistence on individual freedom from all constraints:
namely, it self-destructs.
As Hobbes argued, and as countless examples of Internet lists which
begin with no limits or rules whatsoever in the name of free speech illustrate,
the open spaces of plebescite democracy are quickly overrun by the
tyrants who manage to impose their will and view on the rest of us.
In political terms, Internet lists quickly discover that they must
move from the discourse equivalent of the Hobbesian war of each against
all (in which, in the end, only a few dominate and the list dissolves)
to a Lockean community which includes self-generated rules for editing and
controlling discourse.
But one hardly has to be an authoritarian to suggest that we are all more
free to pursue our projects in a self-regulated environment of the
Lockean sort, rather than in the constant war of each against all
engendered by Hobbesian conceptions of the individual and "freedom."
Anyone who disagrees with this should imagine trying to drive their
automobile in a Hobbesian world of no rules (in the name of freedom from
constraints for every individual) vs. a Lockean world of some modicum of
self-imposed traffic rules.

I'm not surprised that many Internet voices don't get this very well.
I am surprised that someone like Fallows doesn't. He should know better.
In any case, rest assured that this Netizen much prefers the freedoms
of expression made possible by self-regulated environments - which include
careful and judicious editors - to the Hobbesian killing fields unfortunately
characteristic of some unmoderated lists I have experienced.

Cheers and best wishes,
Charles Ess
Drury College