The Ministry of Truth

In a truly staggering article, Evgeny Morozov makes the case that the internet needs a Ministry of Truth:

In its early days, the Web was often imagined as a global clearinghouse—a new type of library, with the sum total of human knowledge always at our fingertips. That much has happened—but with a twist: In addition to borrowing existing items from its vast collections, we, the patrons, could also deposit our own books, pamphlets and other scribbles—with no or little quality control.

Such democratization of information-gathering—when accompanied by smart institutional and technological arrangements—has been tremendously useful, giving us Wikipedia and Twitter. But it has also spawned thousands of sites that undermine scientific consensus, overturn well-established facts, and promote conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the move toward social search may further insulate regular visitors to such sites; discovering even more links found by their equally paranoid friends will hardly enlighten them. Is it time for some kind of a quality control system?

Morozov’s solution?

The options aren’t many. One is to train our browsers to flag information that may be suspicious or disputed. Thus, every time a claim like “vaccination leads to autism” appears in our browser, that sentence would be marked in red—perhaps, also accompanied by a pop-up window advising us to check a more authoritative source. The trick here is to come up with a database of disputed claims that itself would correspond to the latest consensus in modern science—a challenging goal that projects like “Dispute Finder” are tackling head on.

The second—and not necessarily mutually exclusive—option is to nudge search engines to take more responsibility for their index and exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results for issues like “global warming” or “vaccination.” Google already has a list of search queries that send most traffic to sites that trade in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories; why not treat them differently than normal queries? Thus, whenever users are presented with search results that are likely to send them to sites run by pseudoscientists or conspiracy theorists, Google may simply display a huge red banner asking users to exercise caution and check a previously generated list of authoritative resources before making up their minds.

Readers will be aware that I oppose the central planning of markets, for three reasons: the dangers of regulatory capture, the problem of unintended consequences, and most significantly the distortion of the market mechanism:

Capitalism means both successes and failures. It is a fundamentally experimental system, with a continuous feedback mechanism — the market, and ultimately profit and loss. Ideas that work are rewarded with financial success, and ideas that don’t are punished with failure. With capitalism, systems, ideas and firms that fail to produce what the market wants fail. They go bankrupt. Their assets, and their debt is liquidated.

When that mechanism is suspended by a government or central bank that thinks it knows best — and that a system that is too interconnected to fail is worth saving at any cost — the result is almost always stagnation. This is for a number of reasons — most obviously that bailouts sustain crippling debt levels, and are paid for through contractionary austerity. But it is larger than just that.

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

Precisely the same problems exist when the government steps in to centrally plan the market for ideas. The market mechanism — of good ideas that yield favourable consequences, and bad ideas that yield unfavourable ones — becomes distorted.

Regular reader FO SHO suggested that this problem does not merely affect monetary or financial markets:

Gresham’s Law — Bad money drives out good if their exchange rate is set by law.

Following the logic of Gresham’s Law, I would like to propose a couple new additional economic laws along the line of Gresham’s Law. (Forgive me if these laws already exist!)

Bliss’s Law (My last name!) — When bad economists drive out good economists due to the favour of a corrupt government and/or central bankers.

Aziz’s Law (Why not?) — When bad bankers drive out good bankers due to excessive greed and stupidity  due to bad bankers being bailed out by government.

Alas, the second point is not merely applicable to the field of economics: it is applicable to every field of ideas.

In order to get the benefits of a strong and dynamic debate, people need to be free to believe whatever they want. If their ideas are successful, they reap the rewards. If their ideas are unsuccessful, they must accept the problems.

Government  does not need to centrally plan the market of ideas by designating (in all of its wisdom) what is truth and what is not. If a lie is found to be injurious by a court of law, there is the common law precedent of  defamation. If words are used to incite hatred or promote violence or terrorism there are legal precedents and criminal laws to deal with such behaviour.

These limitations on speech are limited to preventing harm and injury.  But Morozov’s suggestions go far beyond the scope of this — while he dresses his claims up in the clothes of preventing harm, the real concern here is that he seems to believe that government ought to have a monopoly on the truth.

Giving government a monopoly on determining which ideas are valid and which are not is a dangerous precedent. It can be used to suppress dissent and dissidents. It can be used to entrench bad systems. It would entail the creation of a massive, far-reaching and costly bureaucracy, not only to monitor discussion, but to determine “truth”, and to intervene against speech that they determine to be “untruthful”.

This wouldn’t just be a disaster for the market of ideas — it would be a fiscal disaster, too.