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Bureaucrats and Their Emails

Mises Daily: Monday, August 16, 1999 by

President Clinton has been itching to find some way to make government a major player on the Internet. So he issued an executive order to establish a working group "to address unlawful conduct that involves the use of the Internet."

It is to "prepare a report and recommendations concerning: (1) The extent to which existing Federal laws provide a sufficient basis for effective investigation and prosecution of unlawful conduct that involves the use of the Internet, such as the illegal sale of guns, explosives, controlled substances, and prescription drugs, as well as fraud and child pornography. (2) The extent to which new technology tools, capabilities, or legal authorities may be required for effective investigation and prosecution of unlawful conduct that involves the use of the Internet.."

The "prescription drugs" line is the tip-off. The government hopes to crack down on the myriad ways in which the Internet is being used to circumvent established channels of government authority, whether through ideas (Hillary complains there are no "gatekeepers" on the web) or goods and services (prescription drugs is just the beginning.

Interestingly, the one area wherein Mr. Clinton's intervention may well make sense is not addressed by the executive order, nor is the Working Group instructed to deal with it: how government employees may or may not use the Internet. The dot gov domain is his to supervise, unlike the market. Instead, he wants the working group to advise on how to meddle with other people's business, how to behave like a vice squad.

In a recently posted column on mises.org I made some mention of how government ought to be strictly limited to adjudicating disputes about rights violations.

A few days later I received the following rather garbled post from someone at the Federal Communications Commission ("fcc.gov"). From its tone I concluded it must have been someone whose liberal democratic sentiments are simply bubbling over with excess passion.

Here is part of what the post said:

"Hi: It's no wonder that you and your ilk teach at the 'Ludwig von Mises Institute' rather than a real institute of higher learning (does the Institute even exist apart from the Internet?), and that von Mises' work is not taken seriously by anyone with any sort of intellectual or professional competence, must less influence or real power. I am always amazed at the amount of right wing extremist crap one finds on the net, no doubt because the lonely, isolated, powerless proponents of this sort of paranoid crap have few if any other social outlets, apart from their isolated computer monitors. (I mean, what kind of a culturally illiterate philistine would be unable to see the good-- whether characterized as private, public, social or individual--in having music programs in public school?) On a happier note, we can rest assured that none of the von Mises agenda will become reality, so long as our human world is recognizable as such, i.e., as it has evolved since approximately the enlightenment. God willing, the von Mises people will go the way of the neo- nazis, anti-semites, luddites, UFO-believers, and so on, ad nauseum, straight to the dustbin of history. Have a nice day."

I might as well tell you my response:

"It is not, I suppose, very amazing, after all, that you fire off a note without checking out any of your facts. First, I do not teach at the Ludwig von Mises Institute; I am an adjunct (unpaid) scholar. Second, I have taught in the Cal State, UC, SUNY systems as well as in several other institutions, including the US Military Academy. Third, why are you so sure that such established institutions are better at capturing the truth than those not funded by the government? For example, in the former [institutions supported by the government] the faculty isn't likely to challenge the very basis of its own financial support, namely, the institution of government. Just goes to show you how reliable you folks in government are when you enter the fray."

Of course there is much more to say. First, big government is not a product of the enlightenment but of socialist ideology, which has not produced civilization but barbarism. Second, if it is cultural illiteracy and luddism you seek, look no further than the bureaucratic class, which wars against all genuine innovation. Third, it is an unreliable test of the truth of idea to examine whether people holding it have "real power" unless you are convinced and even devout statist (as this bureaucrat surely is).

Of course it is largely pointless to argue with a person who believes he is inherently superior because he works in the government's bureaucratic machinery. This is one of many things I've learned in the last several years of participating in fairly vigorously in Internet communications. I have 4 or 5 different e-mail addresses. I use one of the screen names on my daughter's AOL account. I contribute some columns to various Web cites. I send posts to web masters of various cites. I am part of some discussion groups and I fill out surveys on political issues.

The Internet is a great place to communicate, although there are some elements to it that aren't easily adjusted to. One hardly knows the people with whom one is in contact and some of them surprise one with their curious manners and mores, as the correspondence from the regulatory agency illustrates.

Usually folks remain polite even in the face of arguments on sensitive topics, but certainly not always. Even those who take part in friendly chat-groups often resort to snide comments instead of arguments to achieve some kind of satisfaction that's difficult for me to fathom but must be of great importance to them. Yet that, too, has its uses: one can decide pretty quickly whether to continue communication with someone who is more interested in landing digs than in getting to the heart of an issue and resolving it as well as possible.

In short, there is as much variety of humanity now on the Internet as there is variety of humanity, period. Coping with it is a little easier than usual since one does not have to hang around to be abused, insulted, offended and so forth. One's terms are fairly easily insisted on and the exit option can be exercised without any difficulty.

But conversation and learning on the Internet presupposes a level playing field of power. It is somewhat scary to consider that here is an employee of one of the most powerful regulatory agencies of the US Federal Government firing off e-mail posts voicing his statist convictions, thereby coming mighty close to stepping outside the boundaries of his authority. Talk about a chilling effect!

Maybe Mr. Clinton ought to do some house cleaning before he gets set to wag his fingers at the rest of us for how we are making use of the Internet.

* * * * *

TIBOR R. MACHAN teaches at the School of Business & Economics and Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, which is not funded by government and has its physical offices and library in Auburn, Alabama.