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Equality and the Internet

Mises Daily: Friday, July 16, 1999 by

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Here’s a test concerning your political philosophy.

First the facts, from Forrester Research, as reported in the Wall Street Journal: right now, 64 percent of Asian-American households are on-line, whereas only 34 percent of white households are on-line. That’s a disparity of 30 points.

Now the test. Do you regard this as: 1) proof that Asians are privileged oppressors who need to be put in their place; 2) a grave crisis that needs to be remedied through legislation and redistribution; or 3) a point of trivial demographic interest with no political relevance whatsoever?

Surely #3 is the only answer that fits with good sense. There may be interesting reasons why Asians are more likely to be on-line, and there’s nothing wrong with speculating. But the bottom line is that more individuals who are Asian have chosen to be on-line than individuals who are not Asian.

Each person chooses according to individual preferences. That the members of one group tend to make different choices than the members of another group says nothing about who is oppressing whom, much less about what the political response should be to demographic trivialities.

Why, then, has the political class thrown itself into a tizzy about equalizing access to the Internet? Why is Clinton running around the country warning of grave disparities in on-line access and promising to remedy them with government prodding of the private sector and technological central planning?

The fact that set off this bluster is this: among blacks 23 percent are on-line, compared with 34 percent of whites. Note that, according to this survey, the disparity is 11 points as compared to the white-Asian disparity of 30 points. Note too that today’s rate of black on-line use is identical to the white rate of only two years ago.

These figures are from Forrester Research, while the Commerce Department shows a larger "racial gap" of three white users per one black user. On the other hand, a study by the Commerce Department also reveals a stunning racial gap that runs the other way. Among black households earning more than $75,000 per year, 54 percent are on-line, while only 17 percent of white household earning between $15,000 and $35,000 are on-line.

Clearly, income and not race is the crucial factor in the latter statistics. But for those with wild imaginations, these figures might elicit an elaborate conspiracy theory of rich blacks not only hogging personal computers from whites, but also using these computers to keep whites poor and subservient. It’s all in the spin.

Not only that; the figures themselves are subject to wild manipulation. At what pace is access increasing? (Some surveys show a 50 percent minority increase in one year.) How are the income groups broken down? (Typically surveys break down data by income or race but not both.) Are we talking about individuals or households ? (Data are easily skewed by a million demographic variables.) Are we talking about home or work access? (A New York Times story treated work as versus home access as a sign of economic deprivation, when it could easily indicate the opposite.)

All this statistical meddling is animated by grave errors on the part of government.

The first is material egalitarianism, the belief that all groups and individuals should own and use identical goods and services, or no one should be permitted to own and use them. It is this error, for example, that leads socialists to decry income disparities as such, without comparing the plight of the poor in the absence of the rich.

Egalitarians are driven by the sin of envy, which is institutionalized in the redistributionist state. This is the dastardly impulse to destroy what you do not or cannot have. Those who believe in the politics of envy, for example, don’t care that the welfare state doesn’t materially benefit the poor in the long run, so long as the rich are hurting from all the taxation.

In the case of the Internet, we could achieve equality immediately by destroying all computers. So long as we don’t want to do that, inequality in access (as in everything) will be a permanent feature. Does it ever occur to the Internet egalitarians that some people might have better things to do than surf the web? Why should the priorities of the techno-statist elite supercede those of regular people?

Another grave error is the impulse toward forcing mass technological distribution. It was Stalin’s desire for industrialization that led to the death of millions. It was FDR’s desire to industrialize the South that brought about the flooding of the South’s best farm land. Clinton’s Internet program merely replicates the same political impulse on a different level.

These errors are behind the attempt to whip up hysteria about Internet access. The statists among us are merely seizing on another arena in which to sell their socialist claptrap. The risk is that they will saddle emerging Internet markets with so many mandates that innovation will be slowed and distribution channels interrupted.

Data on the racial use of net technology may be of commercial interest, but they spell nothing but trouble when they fall into the hands of politicians. As with all areas of the policy, the answer is for groups and individuals to make peace with the diversity the market economy, the only source of mass material prosperity that mankind has ever known.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.