Neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris caused quite a stir recently by defending the social networks’ conspiracy (his word) to suppress news coverage of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s smoking-gun laptop shortly before Election Day 2020. Harris said the suppression was justified because Donald Trump was such a threat to America that he had to be defeated whatever the cost to the election’s integrity.
In other words, according to Harris, such tampering is okay as long as he deems it necessary to save American democracy from the voters.
The social networks are privately owned, of course, but remember that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged that the FBI warned him, shortly before the New You Post broke the laptop story, that unspecified major Russian disinformation aimed at the election was about to surface. The authenticity of the laptop, with its damaging emails about Hunter Biden’s lucrative business dealings with Ukrainian and Chinese entities while his father was the vice president, was known early on and has since been confirmed by others. Even the New York Times now concedes it. Allegations of Russian election tampering had as much merit in 2020 as they had in 2016, when Trump was portrayed by his critics as a Russian stooge.
But with or without prodding from the FBI, the social network operators, should not have suppressed the laptop story for a host of obvious reasons. These businesses acquired huge numbers of participants on the promise that they would be open forums. When they first began to interfere with that process, the networks let users down. To do this during a presidential election is a particularly egregious disservice. Why do people still depend on them for information? (No, this does not justify antitrust action.)
I leave it to others to debate whether Harris’s assessment of Trump is accurate. I’m more interested in the principle Harris has set out.
Although I am as far from Trump fandom as anyone could be, the first question I would ask Harris is whether he considers himself the only person wise and trustworthy enough to decide if a candidate is sufficiently threatening to justify concerted suppression of unflattering information about the other candidate. If he says yes, then he’s as self-centered as Trump. If he says no, he might do us the courtesy of spelling out how that decision would be made. Does he want a constitutional office created? How would the decider be chosen?
If he were to answer my questions, I would move on to this one: what makes him think that if his principle was adopted, he would like its future applications? Supreme Court justices have often disappointed the presidents who appointed them. For similar reasons, the decision makers anointed to carry out the Harris principle might somewhere along the way disappoint him. Harris must be a lousy chess player because he doesn’t think even two moves ahead.
Still, Harris’s remarks do raise an interesting dilemma. It’s not a new conundrum: what if democracy looks to be on a suicide course? Does the “sacred” principle of majoritarianism, which libertarians as individualists abhor, extend to the principle itself? Or is it proper to cripple democracy to save it?
Small-d democrats might say, “Yes — temporarily.” But there’s the rub. The future is uncertain. Temporary in intent is not necessarily temporary in fact. Governments taught us that long ago. We know that people don’t like to give up power, as Lord Acton taught us. Power doesn’t only tend to corrupt; it attracts the already corrupt. Wouldn’t that suggest that democracy should never be suspended or tampered with in the present for fear that the winner of an election might suspend or tamper with it in the future? What say you, Sam Harris?
If this problem is addressed only after it arises, it’s probably too late. The time to think about it is before a democracy with few real limits on power is launched. The War Games line, spoken by the computer after learning that nuclear war is futile, applies: “The only winning move is not to play.”
It’s not as if the original classical liberals and their libertarian descendants didn’t warn us. Individualist political economists and social philosophers long ago pointed to the dangers of a democratic state with the power to meddle in all aspects of people’s lives. For these thinkers, the whole point of laissez-faire in the age of democracy was to keep elected rulers, and thus the electorate itself, out of our private peaceful productive affairs so that the contest for political power would not become socially and economically disruptively cutthroat. When the government is just about omnipotent, everyone will want to get to their hands on it — if only for defensive purposes.
Even if those pioneering political economists did not want to dispense with government entirely (a few did), they understood that society essentially runs itself without a heavy-handed state because people generally understand that their best interests are served through cooperation with others. Thomas Paine, for example, in Rights of Man wrote:
Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.
Thus, at most, governments should be kept on a short leash, with their powers dispersed and their missions held to the barest minimum necessary to protect the peace, that is, individual rights. If we can eliminate the state altogether, even better!
What the good liberals didn’t tell us — because there’s no magic formula — is how to keep government to the bare minimum. Constitutions are no guarantee, are they? Today’s libertarians are still working on cracking that nut. Most people are not going to read books on political philosophy or economics, even something as accessible as Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law. So somehow we must strive to create a taboo against asking the government to do anything more than keep the peace in ways that respect everyone’s rights. How do we do that?