The Internet: A Free-Market Paradise or a Socialist Village?

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Mar 17, 2006 3:26 PM

I heard a new word last week when I was in Austin at SXSW. When folks found out I was politically conservative, they were visibly surprised I was there, but pretty friendly for the most part -- even if they did look at me like a zoo exhibit.

I think, in a 99-percent liberal environment like that, populated by liberals who have never actually knowingly spoken to a conservative before, conservatives benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations. They really do expect Hitler, and when they get polite, Southern gal, they're pleasantly surprised I don't pull a hand grenade out of my purse and start lobbing.

Anyway, back to the new word. To smooth over our political differences, several liberal conference attendees told me, "well, we're all communitarians, here." I hadn't heard this communitarian word before, but it sounded enough like communism that I was naturally suspicious.

Turns out, there was no need for suspicion. A communitarian, it turns out, is someone who's into the Wisdom of Crowds and the Army of Davids and the Information Reformation and Crashing the Gate-- no matter which side of the political divide he's on.

But the word got me thinking. "Communitarian." It got me thinking that even though Right and Left both believe in the potential power and the wisdom of these communities the Internet makes possible, the reasons we think they work are entirely different. All the folks at this conference were all about the "community" aspects and the way it "takes a village" to bring down Bushitler.

Craig Newmark, founder of Craig's List, refused to take any credit for the astounding organization of Katrina assistance that went on on his web sites. Instead, he said that was the work of the Craig's List community, everyone working together. "They repurposed the websites for what they needed and we just got out of the way," Newmark said of Craig's List users in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Everyone applauded the community for the great work it had done-- together.

That's when it hit me. The Left thinks the wisdom of crowds and the army of Davids are victories for socialism, for collectivism. If we all work together, they think, we are better than the individual.

But I've always thought of online communities as exactly the opposite. I think of them as the ultimate free market of information. Individuals with diverse experience and knowledge willingly trade information and debate ideas. The good ones earn credence and attention and rise to the top. Many individuals act with free will and the Invisible Hand leads to efficient solutions. There's not a lot of bureacracy. There is no central command.

Odd, huh? That two groups of people can look at the same phenomenon and interpret it in exactly opposite ways?

The Craig's List Katrina aid is a perfect example. Newmark said he was just getting out of the way and letting the community work to solve the problem the best way it knew how. He figured his central command from California would hamper the process rather than help it, so he let locals have at it.

Gee, that sounds just like getting the bureacracy and central government out of the way and letting the free market work. Seriously, he sounded like Grover Norquist, but all the Lefties in the room were nodding their heads vigorously just because Newmark called it community.

I think all this betrays two things on the Left (or, at least in this particular Lefty audience). One is a misunderstanding of socialism. Most of the 20-something socialists I know are socialists because they don't understand that the system requires an all-powerful and usually abusive central government/dictator to run everything and dole things out. The Internet is too broad and deep to be controlled by a central command (and thank goodness!), but 20-something socialists tend to mistake anything that exalts the community for socialism.

Two, it betrays a confidence in free markets on the Left in some form, as long as they're referred to as communities. Maybe we need to work on some of our messaging. Maybe if they can be convinced that the government "getting out of the way" would be better for the community, we'd be allies a lot more often.

"Yes, guys. Smaller government is just a way of letting the community work more efficiently. We're better together, right? As a village? Now, let's just get all this bureacracy and central command out of the way and let the locals solve problems the way they know best. Cool? Hey, Craig Newmark said it, not me."

The Internet and all it allows us to do undoubtedly have both community and free-market aspects. It just sounded odd to hear a bunch of avowed big-government types seeming to applaud the free market without knowing they were doing it. Just thinking out loud. This is the first time I've thought about it exactly like this, so my thesis undoubtedly needs some tweaking. It's probably not as black-and-white as I'm making it. Just putting it out there.

Maybe I'll learn more about this when my co-worker gives back my copy of Army of Davids, which she snuck out of my office the other day. Apparently, she's into the whole collective ownership thing.

Oh, and podcasts of most of the SXSW events I've mentioned are available, here.