David R. Henderson  

Does Facebook Restrict Liberty?

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In a comment at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL) site, "figleaf" wrote:

Consider further that the privately owned Facebook restricts user liberty more than any fully-owned public university website. Therefore it's not as simple as private-sector = more liberty, public sector = less. Consider further that Facebook is openly contemptuous of "citizen" privacy or the implicit right to the property of your personal information than the U.S. Census Bureau.

I think he meant to put the word "more" before "openly."

Later in his comment, he wrote:

Point being, I don't really care who's infringing liberties -- infringement by government vs. private interests is still infringement

Andrew Cohen, the BHL blogger whose post figleaf was commenting on, responded, in turn, to figleaf. Cohen surprised me. He wrote:
figleaf: this comment makes me think you're a BHL! My only limit about this is that I wouldn't say its about maximizing liberty at root, but maximizing well-being. My well-being requires liberty. I imagine yours does as well. I imagine most people reading this blog are the same. But I also think some people are better off with less liberty than I would otherwise think ideal--and I would not want to make them worse off by "forcing them to be free." In any case, I completely agree that it does not matter "who's infringing liberties." We should be concerned, I think, about any accumulations of power--whether in the hands of government officials or private parties--because we should oppose any attempts to use such power to infringe on others.

What I get from this is that neither Cohen nor figleaf sees the crucial difference between the two kinds of power.

figleaf is right that FB is contemptuous of privacy. I'm not sure that the U.S. Census Bureau is less contemptuous. Its handing over Census data to the Secret Service so the federal government could round up Japanese Americans and imprison them was pretty contemptuous of privacy, to put it mildly.

But let's grant, for the sake of this discussion, that FB is quite contemptuous of privacy and that the Census Bureau is less so. Here's the difference. Every single person who signs up with Facebook does so voluntarily. If FB had committed to guarding your privacy, then it would be breeching a contract by doing so. But I've never seen FB make that commitment.

The U.S. Census Bureau, by contrast, uses the threat of force to get its information. That's a pretty big difference. It's not one that I would expect, say, the New York Times, to point out. But it is a distinction that I would have expected from someone who calls himself a bleeding heart libertarian.


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
RPLong writes:

I completely agree.

There seems to be something in people's minds that leads them to believe that ubiquity = entitlement. Facebook becomes one of the most-used websites in the world, and suddenly everyone starts seeing it as a public good, whose terms deserve to be dictated by the public.

But Cohen's reply is staggering IMHO.

Paula writes:

Hear, hear! I THINK the ideas of free will and individals being responsible for their behavior and choices still exist.

I just brought this up yesterday in response to an article on unpaid internships (being bad). So much talk of exploitation, but people are not slaves and can leave or take action if they are being exploited or are not receiving value of some kind in return.

I'm fascinated by Facebook and online media. We get so much for 'free' nowadays (email accounts, Facebook, Youtube videos, endless content) that people forget there is an exchange of value going on and you DO pay - you make yourself available to advertising and your content and data is mined for various purposes, for a start.

John Jenkins writes:

I am not sure why this should be surprising. It has always seemed to me that BHL is actually just standard statist liberalism (of the U.S. variety), couched to try to appeal to libertarians by focusing on the issues where libertarians already broadly agree with those liberals, but with an undercurrent of forcing compliance in other areas with their broad version of the good (i.e., the exact opposite of rights-respecting libertarianism).

JKB writes:

We every day voluntarily offer up private details. It is necessary to obtain services or favor but it is just that voluntary in exchange for some consideration, be it a loan application, attorney services, medical treatment, etc.

Compelled disclosures are a completely different animal. One must reveal all income to the IRS under penalty of law. No choice. However, many come to believe that such exposure is the government's right.

Take for example my state's "use" tax paid in lieu of sales tax on online purchases. Unfortunately, the tax agency wants you to list all your purchases by description. It is none of their business if I am willing to pay the overall rate and forgo any reduced rates on privileged items. But the state tax man doesn't offer up the option, he wants his details and will threaten you if you refuse.

The odd outcome is by making the filing onerous, they lose out on income. They should offer the complex method but also the simple method. That is, a link where I tell them I bought X number of dollars of products online and then pay the near 10% sales tax. If I want the discounted taxes, I can weigh the time and effort of compiling the necessary details with the savings.

Seth writes:

I agree John Jenkins. I'd shorten it to: isn't that what the "BH" means?

david writes:

The left-libertarians have a notion that cultural and market power can exercise (what is tantamount to) coercive force, so the belief in equivalence there is honestly held.

David R. Henderson writes:

@david,
You may well be right that it’s honest. My point is that it’s mistaken.

david writes:

I'm saying that they're well aware of the simplistic argument that one involves the use of force and the other doesn't, and they generally reject it (for assorted reasons - they don't seem to agree amongst themselves).

It is fairly trivial to construct plausible situations in which an uneven distribution of wealth endowments means that consent to contract cannot be given in any conscionable sense, and once this is accepted, much else is a matter of degree.

But generally self-ownership plus the non-aggression principle is neither necessary nor sufficient for BHL notions of liberty, so to speak, even assuming that the boundaries of self-ownership and non-aggression are self-evident.

Jeff writes:

Of course, one is also voluntarily a resident/citizen of a country. Does the definition of liberty only include freedom from government coercion, however defined? Where is the line drawn where actions are and are not considered voluntary?

SheetWise writes:
"What I get from this is that neither Cohen nor figleaf sees the crucial difference between the two kinds of power."

Or the difference between freedom and liberty.

EricS writes:

A related point however, that the blog authors do not often emphasize, is that paying taxes is purely voluntary as well.

People do NOT have to pay taxes because they are not forced to work. People are free to barter, live off the land, move to a different region, etc. all of which do not require paying income or sales taxes.

Taxation is not theft because acquiring that which is taxed, is voluntary.

David R. Henderson writes:

@david,
It is fairly trivial to construct plausible situations in which an uneven distribution of wealth endowments means that consent to contract cannot be given in any conscionable sense, and once this is accepted, much else is a matter of degree.
That doesn't seem trivial to me. But because it does to you, are you willing to construct one of those plausible situations and share it here?

Max writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Alex J. writes:

Typically if people are criminal in some aspects of their lives they are criminal in lots of other ways too. It seems odd, then, that if Facebook greatly violates its users' right to privacy, that they don't seem to much be in the business of violating other rights.

It seems to me, that the difference lies with the right in question, rather than with the company. The customer's "right to privacy" is really Facebook's obligation to be blind and forgetful. Our right to privacy from the government is like the prosecution's disadvantage in a criminal trial, as opposed to the more level playing field between two parties in a civil suit.

Mentha Trecenta writes:

bleeding heart libertarianism = chomsky-libertarianism?

Brandon writes:
Here's the difference. Every single person who signs up with Facebook does so voluntarily.

Exactly! I see this kind of argument used with Google as well.

If you are afraid of privacy issues with Google and all the free services it provides, use Bing or Yahoo! or Hotmail. If you are afraid that FB is spying on you, don't use it.

Seems pretty simple to me...

david writes:
@david, It is fairly trivial to construct plausible situations in which an uneven distribution of wealth endowments means that consent to contract cannot be given in any conscionable sense, and once this is accepted, much else is a matter of degree. That doesn't seem trivial to me. But because it does to you, are you willing to construct one of those plausible situations and share it here?

Sure. The historically archetypical one is this: I'm a landowner. You're a landless farmer. You need to eat to live, and all the surrounding land has been claimed by landowners. In the limit of many farmers and few landowners, the rent I can extract from you is, trivially, any surplus above subsistence - this is why until today there are still landlords in central Asia who can demand tenant's daughters as concubines and sons to indenture themselves for another generation, as an entrenched practice that has apparently gone on for centuries, and the tenant families saw it as normal as late as the 1980s.

In short, you can exist in the world with an initial negative wealth endowment and must work your way to subsistence, whereas I can exist with a lot of initial wealth that I can then rent to you. Indeed for much of human history, these have characterized most of existence.

Observe too that in the limit of more land, I have no incentive to conduct any form of capital accumulation with my rent at all, nor allow you to retain enough surplus to do so yourself. Industrialization would reduce your reliance on my land; the value increases but my share of it falls faster - Western owners of vast swathes of farmland have generally been far poorer than dictators of even a small banana republic. The rent on arable land declines with industrialization. It's a perversely horrific equilibrium, but quite a real one.

Regardless, both of us may enter freely into a tenancy contract. I am coerced by nothing. You are coerced by nothing - save, of course, the threat of starvation, which nobody save your own existence forces upon you. We are both aware of this, of course, and I am quite willing to dally a few days before you accept whatever terms I offer. If you think the free entry of contracting renders the terms of contract necessarily just, I am going to regard you as straightforwardly evil.

(The modern industrial form of this is just the pecuniary externality, where principals rationally under-employs agents and compel employed agents to accept more of the externality when unexpected events cause relative price changes. Obviously, it is less coercive, but as I said, only by a matter of degree. Equilibrium conditions are better, but one still doesn't get to choose to be born a principal rather than agent.

All of this is consistent with conventional economics, but you need to think in general equilibrium rather than partial equilibrium terms on "voluntary" contracting - if third-party wealth endowments can shift in the face of a voluntary economic trade between two parties, then material harm has been done without coercion - then my set of actions that cause you material loss of wealth is not necessarily identical to the section of actions that aggress upon you! With the ability to do such harm, rationally comes rent extraction, which you might justifiably regard as unjust but uncoerced. What's so surprising?)

Mark Bahner writes:
The U.S. Census Bureau, by contrast, uses the threat of force to get its information.

I don't think I've ever filled out anything more than the number of people in my household (one). (I guess I put my name. Maybe I shouldn't...but I'm not a fanatic.)

The Constitution is pretty clear that's all the Census Bureau is authorized to get.

I don't think I've ever gotten the "long form", but I doubt I'd ever fill out all that junk.

Make Men Free writes:

@Jeff: it is incorrect to argue that one is voluntarily a citizen of the United States. I have seen a couple of blog postings discussing how difficult it is to renounce US citizenship. Which makes sense: why would the federal gov't let you leave? That's just one less person they can tax.

Make Men Free writes:

@EricS
Taxes are voluntary? Have you ever tried not paying yours?

Brian writes:

It's trivially easy to come up with an abstract example of a voluntary contract that seems rather coercive.

The old example: a man is lost in the desert and will likely die of thirst soon. Suddenly, an Evil Capitalist drives up and agrees to rescue him, if he will sign a contract committing himself to a lifetime of slavery in service of the Evil Capitalist. Since the desert is huge and few people drive through it, it is extremely unlikely he will encounter anyone else to rescue him. So he agrees to sign the contract.

This does indeed strike most people as a coercive form of contract which unjustly infringes upon liberty. Most people would support tearing up the contract.

But the idea that Facebook is like this is insane. Complaining about Facebook is violating your liberty by sharing too much information is like complaining that Pepsi is violating your liberty by producing soda that is too sweet. You aren't entitled to use a fun website or to enjoy every type of beverage.

David R. Henderson writes:

@brian,
Notice how far david had to reach to come up with a “trivial” example.

I agree with you that FB is nothing like the guy in the desert.

However, I don’t think the desert example works to make david’s or BHL’s point either. Notice that the guy in the desert made the thirsty man unambiguously better off. I wrote about a similar hypothetical here.

Jeff writes:

@Make Men Free:

No, it's not incorrect that one is voluntarily a U.S. citizen. You can renounce your citizenship if you want to. Go to the country you want to live in (since you'll have to leave the U.S.). Go to the U.S. embassy. Sign an oath of renunciation. That's it. Pretty simple. Go to the State Dept's website rather than blog posts.

david writes:

Goalposts. The exchange was about not Facebook in particular but the extent to which private power can be abusive. Company towns in fact existed and they were in fact coercive societies built via free contract.

david writes:

And Prof. Henderson, with all due respect, it would also make the thirsty man unambiguously better off to disagree that the water belongs in any legitimate sense to the 'guy' and take it.

Salem writes:

If you are a thirsty wanderer through the desert, you want there to be lots of people driving around to rescue you. If we do not enforce contracts for sale of water in the desert, no market actors will do so. Therefore refusing to honour these contracts seems to me against the interests of desert travellers.

There are two possibilities:

1. The cost/difficulty/risk/time premium/etc of the "Evil Capitalist" driving around the desert is so great that he does not earn any excess profit by exchanging water for a lifetime service contract. In this case, it seems that the contract is fundamentally fair.

2. The "Evil Capitalist" does earn an excess profit. This will incent more "Evil Capitalists" to go into the same line of work. The presence of more water-providers in the desert allows future thirsty travellers to get water cheaper.

Either way, it seems clear the contract should be upheld.

Rick Hull writes:

EricS > Taxation is not theft because acquiring that which is taxed, is voluntary.

Imagine that my name is Deebo and I come around your neighborhood regularly to confiscate all bicycles. By your logic, I am not forcibly depriving anyone of their bicycles, since all they have to do is never own one!

Joshua Lyle writes:

EricS, you're making blatantly false and dangerous statements. You still owe income tax on on the value of in-kind transfers (barter) and probably owe sales tax as well. In addition, even if you have no income you may owe property tax, and in principle any piece of property, no matter how trivial or low in value, may be subject to a tax of arbitrary size.

John D writes:

As Arnold writes, the crucial difference is that there is "No Exit" from politics (Does anyone know how far along Jeff Friedman's book project is?). Property solves problems because it facilitates Exit. I think of this idea as the core of market liberalism.

John D writes:

Excuse me, that should be "As David writes...

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