Saturday, January 24, 2009

Being an Information Libertarian and Its Conflicts

I have claimed over the past several years that I am an Information Libertarian. I have defined an Information Libertarian as one who believes in the free flow of information, complete access to information, and the eventual triumph of information over all those that attempt to hide, control, or in anyway manipulate the use and access to information…for whatever purpose. I believe in openness and transparency in all activities.

I put this last sentence into the paragraph because it is hard to say that there are cases where perhaps some secrecy is necessary and still call oneself an Information Libertarian. Yet, I will admit, there are some situation where, perhaps, some information should be controlled…like in situations of national security…or, in the case of the hurt or harm that might be imposed on someone, say, who is dying.

But, this then gets back into the argument for balance…something that I dealt with in my post of January 19, 2009. Because we work in a world of incomplete information we can only say that there may be some situations that we have to deal with in which the “best” (whatever that means) decision we make is to keep some information “under wraps”…keep it secret. Still, to me, to argue that one is an Information Libertarian means that one should, in reaching a balance, always err on the side of openness and transparency. One should always lean to the side that argues for the release and spread of information…whatever that information is about.

It is difficult to be an Information Libertarian in the political world that exists today. On the one side, an Information Libertarian tends to side with what would be considered to be the left, or the progressive, side of the political spectrum. In other issues, an Information Libertarian would tend to side with what would be considered the right, or the free-market capitalistic, side.

This conflict puts the Information Libertarian in a conundrum because, taking one’s beliefs seriously, one feels constantly ill-at-ease with the wide chasm that seems to exist between these two extreme positions. Wouldn’t it be much nicer if one could one could find one location on the political spectrum where all that an Information Libertarian supports would be located?

On the left side of the spectrum, the Information Libertarian supports a free press, no censorship, freedom to publish anything, freedom to produce anything in the theater, movies, and so on, freedom to compose anything, paint anything, sculpt anything, and basically freedom to create, compose, write, or perform any kind of information one feels compelled to. Obviously, this refers to political as well as cultural efforts.

It also refers to individual thinking, individual decision making and so forth. These, of course, are all generally associated with those ideas, laws, and rules that are looked on as “liberal” as the way of thinking. Of course, all of these must be incorporated within the legal and social structure of groups, organizations, governments, and other cultural arrangements so that people can live and work and thrive together. One thinks of the idea of a “civil” society…one in which people can get along with each other and not harm one another. The fundamental concept here is the idea that a person cannot be allowed to yell “fire” in a movie theater filled with people. Where one can, one leans to the side of as much freedom of expression as is reasonable.

On the left side of the spectrum, the Information Libertarian supports free-market capitalism. Of course, as with the other side, a societal balance must be achieved between unfettered markets and regulation or oversight. One can argue, and I do, that the freedom of markets enhances the living standards and effectiveness of a society through the greatest encouragement of information exchange, innovation and progress. This kind of a society encourages the mobility and fluidity of people, the breakdown of exclusiveness and discrimination, and the spread of wealth, and, consequently, power throughout the society so a truly democratic form of government can exist.

It refers to investigation, exploration, discovery, debate, dialogue, collaboration, and scientific advancement in all forms. It produces an environment where ideas can go from just thought to creation to application to consumption. The world of free-market capitalism, because of the fact that it supports meritocracy rather than aristocracy, should provide the environment for all that produces openness and transparency within the whole society. Therefore, a society that supports free-market capitalism should support the spread of information, the enhancement of education, and the existence of the public forum where anything and everything can be discussed. But, again, I add the caveat that there are limits or boundaries that people or groups cannot go beyond except to the detriment of the society. Yet, one still needs to err on the side of liberty and freedom in contemplating the constraints that might be imposed on the society.

This last side of the argument may draw some skepticism from many readers at this particular time in history. With the collapse of the financial markets throughout the world and with many economies in recession or expecting something worse, a lot of analysts have pointed to the failure of free-market capitalism to operate without sufficient oversight and regulation.

I have two responses to these charges. First, with a greater flow of information in the business world…more openness and transparency…there would be much less for today’s more progressive thinker to be concerned about. If businesses had to reveal what they were doing in all areas of their operations, then people, groups, and markets would be able to respond to the information and the “bad” conditions, etc., for which the progressive thinkers condemn free-market capitalism. I argue that greater information availability and dissemination would lessen discrimination and bias, create greater mobility in markets, which I believe would reduce inequities and inequalities, reduce risk taking and other things that people contend create crises.

The second point has to do with how effective government or oversight or regulation is in overcoming the problems of free-market capitalism. It is my belief that government, or oversight organizations or regulatory bodies often create an environment in a free-market economy that can lead to the subsequent behavior that come to be criticized in the future as the “problems” with free-market capitalism. To me the current financial crisis is a perfect example of this type of situation.

I don’t have time to go into this in this post but my belief is that government actions can lead to the creation of incentives for business people and organizations to act in a self-destructive way. On top of this the government counters the consequences of their initial actions thereby creating moral hazard with respect to banks, investment banks, financial companies, business manufacturers, retail organizations and so on, who then enter into competitive behavior that makes themselves riskier and riskier finally leading to a point where the system becomes so fragile that it collapses of its own weight.

I would put the theory that the “government is the cause of the problem” up in opposition to the theory that “the problem with the world is the behavior of greedy business people and speculative financiers.” If anyone needs a quick bit of evidence that government activity, in this case “Conservative” government activity, can be harmful to the economy and the society, I submit the example of the eight years of the Bush 43 administration.

The apparent contradictions in policy prescriptions in today’s world that come from claiming to be an Information Libertarian can present a real hornet’s nest of problems. In today’s post my effort is to begin to get these problems out into the air in order to start a discussion of how these contradictions might be resolved.

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