Thursday, June 9, 2016

Liberty in the Reputation Economy

Libertarianism is a perfectly fine ideology, one crafted with loving care. It’s joints are bound together with impressive internal consistency, it boasts a number of high-status followers, and its long heritage lends it gravitas like an Elizabethan clock.

But it’s old. The world has changed. Our needs have changed. Who needs a hand-wound clock the size of a cabinet when we’ve got digital watches that read tweets to us?

Sadly, the piece that’s most showing its age is the very core of the system - the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). For the benefit of the uninitiated, the NAP is the central feature of libertarian moral and legal reasoning. It states that it’s wrong to harm another person’s body or property through force or fraud. A prohibition against “force or fraud” is pretty much the whole of the libertarian law. Otherwise do what thou will.

Not all libertarianisms are NAP fundamentalists, but all of them are influenced by the NAP. I believe the NAP is a great start for a good society. Safety from violence makes possible the exploration of many different kinds of social arrangements - commercial and noncommercial. The NAP or some approximation to it is essential for human flourishing.

Once upon a time, when the economy was made up almost exclusively of physical goods, the NAP was almost a sufficient legal code for a good society. But now it feels incomplete. There’s a hole in the ideal legal code where something more is needed. If the word “libertarianism” needs to remain as a static pointer to NAP-based philosophies for reasons of historical legibility, then I recommend upgrading your label to something else - “post-libertarian” perhaps.

Where does this hole come from? We live in the age of the reputation economy. Much of what we value is not physical and we are vulnerable to harm from non-physical means. Our reputations are among the most valuable capital we possess, and they are online, global, permanent, and auditable by anyone we encounter.

And these reputations are vulnerable. An assault on our reputation can be devastating without doing anything that qualifies as “force or fraud” under the NAP. The target of a social media mob can lose their job, reputation, funding, and social connections. Attempted assaults succeed and fail without much regard for whether they are justified or not. They are semi-random acts of destruction.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be mugged than suffer a reputation assassination. A twitter mob can do much more psychological and financial damage to me than a street tough that takes my wallet and iphone. Even the physical toll can be higher, as some victims of online mobs are bullied into suicidal ideation.

The job of the State is to maintain a monopoly on violence. An ideal libertarian state will use this monopoly to enforce the NAP (how to create such an ideal state is an exercise left to the reader). When the State loses its monopoly on violence things of value are lost. People come together in groups of armed bandits. Social trust disappears and commerce dries up. A society ruled by a violence monopolist is much nicer than a society ruled by a thousand petty tyrants.

“A thousand petty tyrants” exactly describes the state of the reputation economy. Social media is an anarchy, a wild-west.

Gawker media was one such petty tyrant. It has made a business out of shaming, outing, and attacking people. Founder Nick Denton’s plan to make millions of ad dollars is right there in the business name: people are drawn to gawking at the pain of others, so report on that. If there isn’t enough pain in the world, create more of it.

The Non-Aggression Principle offers no basis from which to criticize Gawker. I’ve seen a few self-styled libertarians defending its actions. Sure, sometimes it publishes outright lies, e.g. by accusing celebrities of rape. But a lot of what it prints is true. A video of a person being raped is fact. Outing a gay person is reporting fact. Sharing a non-consensual sex tape is fact. But it’s still incredibly damaging.

There is a way out of this dilemma. First we note that not all anarchies are the same. Social norms against violence can make them relatively safe and productive environments. In the American old west, the nearest law enforcement official was often far away and most people were armed. But violence was relatively rare. In the absence of formal law, a network of informal agreements and cultural norms made it unprofitable to be a violent thug.

In the analogy of the Wild West, Gawker media is like a drunk gunman opening fire indiscriminately in a saloon. They’ve hurt a lot of people - some powerful, some not, and seldom for a good reason. For the good of everyone, and to set an example, they needed to suffer some consequences.

Fortunately, the formal law recognized a right to privacy which allowed Hulk Hogan to successfully sue Gawker media. The reputation economy isn’t quite the Wild West. This isn’t enforced much of the time, but high profile verdicts like the Gawker case might encourage some to play nice.

In the absence of formal law, group norms that limit aggression would make society a better place. Reputation assassination is a kind of power and power competitions without rules are a recipe for scorched-earth conflict.

Not all reputational attack is bad. Sometimes it is justified. But it shouldn’t be without cost - that's a recipe for an internet overrun by sadistic trolls who get their lulz out of attacking people. If there were some risk of a cultural backlash against people who are too enthusiastic about attacking others, we would all be more safe.

The principle I suggest for determining whether or not an attack is justified is probably something like a right to privacy. Privacy is a fundamental plank of liberty, as enshrined in the fourth amendment to the US Constitution.

The legal philosophy demonstrated embedded in the Fourth Amendment is incredibly pro-liberty. It protects a sphere of private action from government surveillance. This renders overly intrusive laws as unenforceable. The state can ban, mandate, and regulate whatever activity they like. But if that activity doesn’t impact the public sphere in some way, there is no way for the state to know it is happening.

Privacy allows the evolution of civil society outside the watchful eye of the state. Every activity which was ever decriminalized happened because a culture of its practice grew in private. Without privacy, the state could reach 100% enforcement and bans against alcohol, marijuana, or sodomy likely wouldn't have been overturned.

Most libertarians support the Fourth Amendment. But the Fourth Amendment only protects us from the government. A good society also demands privacy protection from the multitudinous warlords of social media.