Liberty and Community Online

Barry Fagin
Department of Computer Science
US Air Force Academy
Any opinions expressed herein are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

1.0 Introduction

It is now conceded by even its most hostile critics that classical liberalism, also known as libertarianism, is the descriptive political philosophy of the digital age. The political scientist Langdon Winner describes it as "a wildly popular ideology that dominates much of today's discussion on networked computing" [Wi97]. Time magazine identifies the cyberspace community as a "powerful and growing source of libertarian sentiment" [Ki96]. Jon Katz, writing in Wired, remarks on the digital world's "ingrained libertarianism, its wholehearted commitment to political and economic freedom, [and] its fierce opposition to constraints on individual expression" [Ka97]. Barbrook and Cameron describe libertarianism as the "emerging global orthodoxy concerning the relation between society, technology and politics." [BaCa97]. Forbes magazine ran a cover story on net-libertarianism, calling it "the central axis of political discussion online" [Mc97a]. Even the decidedly net-ambivalent New York Times acknowledged the "free-market libertarian bent of the architects of the high-tech economy" [Lo97b], and outlined the "fiscally conservative socially libertarian" ideas of netizens in [Ro96]. These examples only scratch the surface.

As the net matures, policymakers and others outside of computing interested in ideas are beginning to take notice of and an interest in the philosophy. It seems, therefore, incumbent on libertarians in the computing community to articulate their principles in the policy arena. This has to be done to ensure that criticisms of the philosophy are intellectually well-founded, and to help educate the intelligent lay public for what it will encounter when it comes online.

Such articulation, however, is not easy to find. Online criticism of the philosophy comes most often from academic disciplines outside computer science, while support comes typically from those inside it. Critics of libertarianism in the social sciences can easily find scholarly outlets for their views, while supporters in computing cannot. The territorial boundaries in academia are clearly marked, but in this case they are more like one-way streets. Political scientists and philosophers can write scholarly articles about the net, and are assured a wide audience because of the net's growing importance. Computer scientists, by contrast, have few if any scholarly outlets for discussing politics and philosophy. Any such efforts would carry little weight with a tenure committee, nor would they impress the funding agencies so essential to a computer scientist's academic career. [1]

But even if the scholarly playing field were equal, both sides use different vocabularies, making communication difficult. Even when they use the same words they often use them to mean different things. This comes as more of a surprise, I believe, to computer scientists, for whom the exercise of their discipline requires unambiguous communication on a daily basis. Social scientists have long understood that a person's ideological predilections and social environment can influence their notions of meaning and choice of words.

One way to build a bridge might be interdisciplinary scholarly exercise. We might expect work in this vein to draw upon political philosophy, social theory, and computer science. Unfortunately, very few computer scientists have read Max Weber. Even fewer political scientists have read the JDK 1.1 tutorial.

This paper is one attempt to bridge that gap. I take as my starting point criticisms of cyberlibertarianism offered by communitarian thinkers Amitai Etzioni [Et96] and Langdon Winner [Wi97] specifically. I will argue that these and other critiques of libertarianism on the net suffer from several flaws:

  1. A mistaken conflation of "right wing" ideas with libertarian ideas
  2. An inappropriate emphasis on the short-term introduction of technology instead of its long-term advancement
  3. An inability to understand the libertarian perspective of justice as a process, and not a particular outcome
  4. A general unfamiliarity with the culture of the internet, to the point where assertions are made that contradict daily on-line experience.
Most importantly, critics miss the simplest explanation of why libertarianism, and not some alternative philosophy, has emerged as the descriptive ideology of the net. Elaborate sociological attempts to account for its popularity obscure some important issues.

This paper will illustrate these points with examples from the literature and from the author's own experience, both as a computer scientist who has benefited from the net's phenomenal growth over the past fifteen years, and as a libertarian who has enjoyed some degree of success as a political activist. My hope is that the dialog can continue if both sides better understand each other, and perhaps find common ground in a shared desire for the improvement of the human condition.

2.0 Communitarian Critiques of Libertarianism

It would be a mistake to say that libertarianism is the dominant philosophy on the net. There is no dominant philosophy on the net, any more than there is a dominant web site, corporate presence, or Usenet author. All computing professionals know that the net is diversity writ large: there are as many philosophies on the net as there are philosophers. Which is to say, anyone with a computer, an ISP, and an opinion.

Nonetheless, criticism of libertarian ideas seems to occur in the virtual world far out of proportion to their influence in the physical world. Some evidence for this is shown in Figure 1. This graph shows the results of a web search on the phrase "(Critique or Critiques) of ...", followed by any of several ideological labels.

Figure 1: Web search for critiques of various "ism's"

Hits from web sites that critiqued libertarianism outnumbered all others put together, and occurred more than three times as often as the next highest total (note that the vertical scale is logarithmic). Some, but by no means all, of the hits above are due to the popular and widely copied "Critiques of Libertarianism" web site [2]. There is an online "Non-Libertarian FAQ" , and even a "Non-Non-Libertarian FAQ" [Ra96].

But web searches are not the only way to judge the level of interest in libertarian ideas online. Online journalism provides many examples. Brooke Shelby Biggs, writing for the online zine "Synapse" at, denounces "The Net's neolibertarianism", calling it "self-serving, immature hypocrisy" [Bi97]. Paulina Borsook, writing online for Mother Jones, bemoans the libertarian predilections of the net and her computer-savvy friends, complaining that libertarians "[have] not thought much about what participating in a community means". To her, libertarianism is characterized by an "anti-communitarian" outlook, and on the net she finds the libertarian presence so strong that "there seems to be no place for political points of view other than the libertarian" [Bo96].

There are many possible reasons for interest in libertarianism online, some of which I will return to at the end of the paper. Whatever those reasons may be, it seems evident that libertarian ideas are an extremely active topic of modern online political debate. Mike Godwin, attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, observed that "Libertarianism (pro, con, and internal faction fights) is the primordial discussion topic. Anytime the debate shifts somewhere else, it must eventually return to this fuel source." (quoted in [Bo96]). Policymakers attempting to understand the net have to understand libertarianism, even if they do not personally agree with it. With this in mind, we turn to a discussion of fallacious critiques of libertarianism.

3.0 Confusing Libertarianism With Right-Wing Ideology

The most common mistake critics of libertarianism on the net make is the conflation of libertarianism with the radical right. Winner, for example, thinks that "the combined emphasis upon radical individualism, enthusiasm for free market economy, disdain for the role of government, and enthusiasm for the power of business firms places the cyberlibertarian perspective strongly within the context of right wing political thought" [Wi97]. David Hudson, writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, writes matter of factly of the "right-wing libertarian ethic dominating the on-line world" [Hu96a].

While it is true that the pro-capitalism, limited government economic ideas of libertarians are commonly embraced by conservatives, these ideas predate the emergence of modern conservatism by anywhere from several decades to two thousand years. The ideological predecessors of the libertarian movement are not Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, but Adam Smith:

"All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord." [Sm93]
Thomas Paine:
"Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origins in the principles of society and the natural constitutions of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of a civilized community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together ... In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government." [Pa95]
David Hume:
"We have now run over the three fundamental laws of nature, that of the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises. 'Tis on the strict observance of those three laws, that the peace and security of human society entirely depend; nor is there any possibility of establishing a good correspondence among men, where these are neglected. Society is absolutely necessary for the well-being of men; and these are necessary to the support of society." [Hu78]
and Lao Tzu:
"The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people will be. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits there will be. Therefore a sage has said: So long as I 'do nothing' the people will of themselves be transformed. So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight. So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves become prosperous." [Wa58]
These writers all believed in the sanctity of the individual, the power of reason, and the desirability of human flourishing that arises through the spontaneous order of voluntary, peaceful interaction that good government aims to secure. While it is true that the free market capitalism that is a necessary consequence of these ideas is now associated with modern conservatism, many early libertarian writers (such as Smith and Paine) were seen in their day as progressive activists, championing the cause of individual rights against an intrusive state and its associated dispensations of monopoly power. An honest review of intellectual history, I believe, will show the portrayal of libertarianism and classical liberalism as right wing ideologies to be fundamentally mistaken.

But equally importantly, focusing solely on economics shows only half the picture. Emphasizing libertarians' economic ideas at the expense of their clear, explicit defense of civil liberties and individual rights misses the consistency that many adherents to the philosophy find so appealing (and that, it should be noted, many of its critics find simplistic). Anyone interested in understanding the importance of libertarian and classical liberal ideas online, even if only to criticize them more accurately, cannot ignore libertarian views on free speech, drug prohibition, and lifestyle issues. The perspective of the online community on these issues is clearly at odds with the "radical right".

For example, on Usenet, there are dozens of newsgroups devoted to recreational drug use and the politics of drugs. The discussion and postings are overwhelmingly in favor of the repeal of drug prohibition. Similarly, there are several newsgroups and mailing lists devoted to protecting privacy and fighting censorship on the internet. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, Voter Telecommunication Watch (, and The Center For Democracy and Technology ( maintain a vigorous online presence and have helped to organize the online population to support freedom of speech on the internet [3]. If the net is as libertarian an environment as its critics maintain, then labeling the philosophy "right wing" can only be possible through a selective unawareness of prevailing online opinion.

The difference between libertarianism and social conservatism in the political arena is no more dramatically underscored than in the current internal squabbles within the Republican Party. Attempting to mollify these differences, Republican Senator Dick Armey calls the libertarian and conservative wings of his party "The twin voices in freedom's choir" [Lo97a]. Aspiring presidential candidate Steve Forbes initially courted libertarian voters in the '96 Arizona primary, which led him to victory there, but his sympathy for Arizona's medical marijuana initiative has alarmed conservative voters, whom he is now trying to court with overtures to Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition [Ti97].

Others have noted the tension between the pro-market, socially tolerant members of the Republican Party and its socially conservative faction. [GiDu96]. William Bennett, a noted conservative figure, is sufficiently concerned about the rise of libertarian ideas within the Republican Party to devote national articles to them [Be97]. If libertarianism is truly a right wing ideology, it would find a warm welcome and a comfortable niche in the Republican Party. Unfortunately, the tone of the present debate suggests otherwise.

Finally, the author's personal experience as a free speech activist makes the "right wing" label ring hollow. In 1995, in response to the imminent passage of the Communications Decency Act [4], my wife and I founded Families Against Internet Censorship, an organization of parents with children at home opposed to governmental attempts to regulate internet content [Fa97a]. Thanks to the power of the internet as an organizing tool and the support of the online parenting community, we were asked to join a constitutional challenge to the law, and wound up hearing our case argued in the Supreme Court.

The CDA was supported by the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and a host of other groups that communitarian critics would probably call the "religious right". In the context of the resulting media interest attracted by our organization, we appeared several times on national TV and in print [MSN97] [CSM96], debating representatives from these very organizations on why internet content should be left alone, even if potentially inappropriate for children. Critics of libertarianism who ignore these types of activities by labeling it as "right wing ideology" do little to further an honest understanding of the philosophy.

4.0 The Appeal of Process-Oriented Theories of Justice to the Computer Scientist

Part of the difficulty in engaging in cross-disciplinary political discourse concerns the use of basic concepts. Libertarian computer scientists and communitarian political scientists have strongly differing views, for example, on the nature of justice. While it would be a mistake to paint with too broad a brush, the former tend to focus on justice as a process, while the latter tend to emphasize justice as an outcome.

These views of justice are not new. Even in their modern form, they predate the present online debate by several decades. Nonetheless, it remains important to understand why computer scientists and social scientists might hold such different views.

One reason politically active computer scientists may find process-oriented theories of justice attractive is simply the nature of their profession. Computer scientists understand, for example, that theorems are not correct because of what they say, but because of how they are derived. Correctness arises from the process that produced the result, not from the result itself. Similarly, we have a higher degree of confidence in the correctness of a program if it was produced through the intellectual discipline of structured programming than if we simply run the executable version on a few test cases.

The empirical experience of computing suggests that our professional goal, correct software, can be best achieved by improving the process of software creation. Object oriented design, standardized class hierarchies (for example, Java), and the Personal Software Process [Hu96b] are all attempts to improve software quality by focusing on how software is created, not on the results the program produces. Computer scientists understand very well the best outcomes are achieved through intellectual rigor and the application of rules. To us, this is part of the appeal of our discipline.

Computer scientists also understand how processes lead to correctness because of our familiarity with distributed systems. The interactions of multiple computer systems are simply too complex to be understood by focusing on a top-down, results-oriented approach. Successful implementations of distributed systems can best be achieved through a bottom-up, decentralized approach. By designing small modules with well-defined behavior, and through the use of multiple layered protocols, we can have confidence that the system is implemented correctly because of the processes involved. Perhaps the best example of this type of system is the internet itself, built upon the layers of the TCP/IP protocol [Ha92].

Critics of libertarianism, by contrast, tend to de-emphasize processes and focus instead on outcomes. Where libertarians tend to emphasize processes that create wealth, communitarians tend to focus on the inequality and economic dislocation that these processes create. For example, Biggs bemoans "the disparity between rich and poor (in terms of both money and information), not only in the United States but worldwide" [Bi97]. Borsook is outraged at "the massive industrial dislocations taking place in affluent North America" [Bo96]. Winner, perhaps, sums up communitarian concerns most clearly:

"Who stands to gain and who will lose in the transformations now underway? Will existing sources of injustice be reduced or amplified? Will the promised democratization benefit the populace as a whole or just those who own the latest equipment? And who gets to decide?" [Wi97]

These writers and other critics call for an examination of the consequences of the rapid expansion of the online world, as opposed to the processes that make such expansion possible. The most common concern, and perhaps the one most relevant to computer scientists, concerns inequality of net access and information processing skills. Scarcely a critique of the net gets written without an expression of concern for this issue. Tom Steiner-Threlkeld, writing online on the ZDNet news channel, is typical:

"For most of the relatively short history of online computing, debate has persisted about whether society will be split into two camps: those who can access ever-increasing stores of human knowledge available electronically and those who cannot.

It's the debate about whether we are creating a divided world of information "haves" and "have nots." The expectation, rightly so, is that those without access to electronic information will fall behind their contemporaries, just as surely as those who don't know how to read books in a library will." [St97]

In fact, when it comes to matters of public policy, the existence of information "haves" and "have nots" is taken for granted. Addressing this issue is a cornerstone of modern information policy. For example, Jeanne Simon, chair of the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, testifying before congress on the National Information Infrastructure Copyright Protection Act of 1995, recommended that "Statutory changes [should not] contribute to the gap between information "haves" and "have nots", especially when it comes to the availability of new information technologies ..." [Si95]. Former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, testifying in favor of Section 1822 of the Communications Act of 1994, believed that the act would promote "a citizenry that has access to information, but is not divided between information "haves" and "have nots" [Br94]. Finally, the present administration has described the National Information Infrastructure as "the most viable route to ending the differences between information haves and have-nots". This was one of the Vice President's five principles in creating the NII [Pi94].

The question of information "haves" and "have nots" is clearly crucial to future national internet policy. How are process-oriented libertarians online likely to respond? [5]

5.0 Process-oriented Approaches to Inequality of Information Access

It should be accepted as an axiom by both sides of the debate that absolute equality of access to information is not achievable. Information is not lying in the ground, waiting to be dug up and distributed. Information and the tools necessary to access it are the products of human beings, brought into the world through social processes that arise from complex interactions between individuals. Such processes cannot bring about equality in any meaningful sense. What is being discussed in the present policy debate is an attempt to bring about a reduced level of inequality, using the political process, from the level that arises from the market process. Both these processes bear more careful scrutiny.

Implicit in the policy debate is that market processes are inherently flawed, and the political process can be used to achieve the indicated objective. While it has long been understood that markets are imperfect, in the sense that mathematical equilibrium is seldom achieved in practice, public choice theory [Bu64] [BuTo84] has shown that the political process is also imperfect. Politics and collective action have unintended consequences and externalities, just as markets do. A process-oriented approach would examine how redistributive attempts to reduce inequality using the political process would work in practice.

For example, how much would identifying and wiring "have nots" cost? How would the resources required have been put to use if individuals had been left to themselves? What about inequality of access to the political process? Who would get the contracts to wire unwired homes, and why? What happens as the technology changes? Will more resources be required? How likely is redistribution to be done efficiently? What about American citizens who find redistribution morally objectionable? Who determines who the "haves" and "have nots" are, and what criteria will they use? Most importantly, what effect will redistribution have on the processes that create wealth in the first place? These are all questions relevant to the political process that deserve careful scrutiny before spending public funds on information access. The author has written elsewhere on the importance of public choice theory in science policy [Fa93].

However, we shouldn't just focus on politics. It is equally important to focus on markets. Not simply over the short term, as many critics do, but over a long period of time. Such an examination would find a pattern of the increasing availability of technological goods, as the discovery of better and cheaper ways to produce them leads to increased affordability.

Pick virtually any high tech product, and you will find that over time its quality has gone up, its price has gone down, and millions more people use it now than when it was first introduced. In 1980, VCRs were an expensive toy that only the rich could afford. Now they're in over 78 million American homes (about eighty percent of all households), an increase of four thousand two hundred percent [AMR97]. Twenty years ago, personal computers didn't exist. By today's standards, all American families were information "have nots"; only large businesses, universities, and government labs could afford access to computing power and the Arpanet. Today, computers are in an estimated 23 million [NAS97] to 36 million [MOM97] households; one online firm estimates that number to grow by approximately 10% yearly. In 1975, a 300 baud Micromodem II cost $380. Today, you can get a 33.6K modem for $49 [GCS97]. This eighty-seven thousand percent improvement in cost/performance has put modems in approximately half of all US homes [DOC95] [6]

None of these success stories were due to redistributive attempts and "democratic control" of technology, but through the distributed, decentralized workings of the market [7]. In economics, just as in computer science good processes are more worthy of attention than good results. If the process is correct, desirable results follow.

Despite the dramatic success of market processes in the computer industry, it is clear that the benefits of the market do not and will not extend to all members of society. But it may be a mistake to see this as a deficiency of markets, as opposed to other problems that afflict the American poor. Few people of any political stripe would deny that the American poor have tremendous problems with poverty, unemployment, crime victimization, incarceration, and family breakup. Doubtless libertarians and communitarians disagree on the best ways to deal with these problems. I think we would agree, however, that if more children of the poor were born to two-parent homes, that at least one of those parents could find a decent paying job, and if they knew that life in their community meant that their persons and property were safe, problems of "unequal information access" would be much less urgent.

It seems to me, then, that the phrase "information have nots", while emotionally evocative, is a straw man. Present concerns about inequality of information access do not take into account how technological innovations are discovered and transmitted through society. Technological transfers require risk taking, experimentation, and failure to discover what works and what does not. These processes are inherently unequal in nature.

Furthermore, any technological innovation creates "haves" and "have nots", in the sense that before its creation everyone was a "have not". Focusing on this distinction may win votes, and generate a profound emotional response in a sympathetic audience, but it does little to improve the human condition. Fortunately, empirical evidence exists that most of the people who are have nots now are more properly regarded as "have laters" if a sufficiently long-term perspective is adopted [Si96]. Given the long term tendencies of market processes to outperform redistributive transfers at making goods more affordable to more people, libertarians tend to view emphasis on such transfers as counterproductive.

6.0 Life on the Net: Getting It Wrong

Although libertarians and communitarians online may differ on fundamental notions on justice, most agree on the necessary components of living a fulfilling, satisfied life. It is a common criticism of libertarian philosophy that it entertains no notions of duty, civic obligation, or community. Winner emphasizes this point when he asks rhetorically: "Are there any Usenet Newsgroups with names like alt.politics.duty? I think not" [Wi97].

This criticism is woefully inaccurate. Charles Murray, a former liberal policy maker who turned to libertarianism based on his analysis of the effects of American social policy, has written extensively on the nature and importance of community:

"Strongly bound communities, fulfilling complex public functions, are not creations of the state. They form because they must. Human beings have needs as individuals ... that cannot be met except by cooperation with other human beings ... The pursuit of individual happiness cannot be an atomistic process; it will naturally and always occur in the context of communities" [Mu88]
David Boaz, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, echoes similar thoughts in the online magazine Civnet, the self-described "journal for a civil society":
"... humans can barely survive, and hardly flourish, without interacting with other people. We want to associate with others ... because we feel a deep human need for connectedness, for love and friendship and community." [Bo97]
These writings could just as easily have been excerpted from Etzioni or any other major communitarian writer.

Labeling libertarians as "anti-community" is simply wrong. It has been my experience that libertarians recognize the basic human need for affiliation and connection in everyone, and that depicting the net as a moral backwater populated by individuals with no moral sense is contrary to the daily experience of professionals who spend most of their working lives online. There are thousands of segments of the online community that could not survive without the selfless efforts of individuals (many of whom, but by no means all, are libertarians). Although individual motivations are hard to determine, their behavior meets all the standard definitions of duty, obligation, and a sense of participating in something greater than yourself. I list six major areas below. Where appropriate, I include personal quotes from individuals solicited for this paper to learn more about online motivation for communal activities.

  1. Freeware/shareware authorship. The internet is a source of a vast amount of online software that is available either for free or for a small sum, payable on the honor system after you've tried the program for a few days [8]. One of the most popular sites on the web,, serves as a clearinghouse for free programs. Nor are these programs limited to simple games and screen savers. The Linux operating system, the Lynx web browser, and the GNU C compiler are all important, substantive contributions to the computing community, and are all distributed freely or at very low cost and maintained by volunteers.
  2. Although individual motivations vary, it seems at least plausible that a desire to contribute to the user community is an important reason why people write freeware and shareware.

  3. Newsgroup moderation. There are at least a thousand Usenet newsgroups that moderate their postings in some form [Mc97b]. Moderation cannot be completely automated by software; the higher the desired signal to noise ratio on the group, the more effort required by the moderator. Newsgroup moderators are not paid, and moderation requires tremendous amounts of time and effort. Motives vary, but here are some examples based on replies to a newsgroup posting asking moderators why they moderate:
  4. "I moderate to prevent anarchy from taking over a useful group"
    -- Michal Douglas, moderator of misc.transport.air-industry.cargo

    "I think that I am doing a public service and think of myself as a kind of productive patriot to my newsgroup"
    --, monitor of comp.lang.asm.x86

    "It takes about 30 minutes or so each day, sometimes more, sometimes less, so there is a sense of commitment."
    --Drew McMichael, moderator of

    "Especially with a Newsgroup dealing with health or a specific topic, the need for accurate information is very important. I also like keeping the garbage off.", moderator of

    Again, while individual motives vary, it seems clear from the examples above that motives for newsgroup moderation include notions of engagement, affiliation, and participation in a greater good. Certainly the higher-quality Usenet groups require people with such motives to survive.

    Internet mailing lists. There are probably thousands of mailing lists on the internet, more than moderated newsgroups, most of which require a moderator to maintain subscriber databases and deal with problems. Even those managed with a list management tool, such as majordomo, require a moderator to handle the administrative commands. I am unaware of any list moderators who receive compensation. Most do it out of a desire to facilitate communication, a love of the list topic, and a sense of participation in a shared community.

  5. FAQ maintenance. Anyone looking for useful information on the net will not get very far without a FAQ, a list of Frequently Asked Questions. The author's web search on the word FAQ, for example, generated over 2 million hits. FAQs must be maintained by individuals so that they can be kept current, accurate, and useful. While not requiring as much work as moderation, FAQ maintenance is a useful service performed by individuals without pay:
  6. "I've volunteered to be the state rep for the ISP/C trade association in the hopes of getting other area ISPs involved also to share my knowledge and time with folks who are maintaining the software and FAQs that help the net work. There's nothing special about all that, though ... that's how the net's always been. Someone would have to be totally unfamiliar with the net's history to not realize that."
    --Matt Magri (matt @, ISP owner and operator

  7. Internet standards committees. Virtually every important digital standard has a committee behind it. The names JPEG and MPEG, for example, come from the groups that wrote the standards they refer to. The smooth functioning of the internet itself is safeguarded by the Internet Engineering Task Force [IETF97]. The several dozen various working groups of the IETF are staffed by volunteers, and are open to anyone. Since no compensation is involved, the author believes it no exaggeration to say that the internet itself could not survive without individuals who give selflessly of their time and abilities. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with how the internet works understands this intimately:
  8. "I derive pleasure from helping to prepare the best possible technical specification. I also like to be recognized (especially in the SGML community) for my technical capabilities. I answer others' questions on newsgroups and mailing lists for similar reasons; I'm helping others, and they value my input."
    --Cris Maden (, contributor to SGML standards and the Lynx Browser

  9. Internet Bulletin Boards. Hundreds of low-cost, low-tech bulletin board services serve as virtual communities across the world, many of which introduce users to the online world. BBS's seldom make much money, and are instead run by their sysops for more altruistic reasons. Any sysop knows exactly what words like "duty" and "obligation" mean:
  10. "From 1989 through 1995, I operated "The Cellar", Philadelphia's only public-access Internet system. It was strictly mail and net news, and did not have a direct connection to the net, only UUCP. To recover the high costs of getting the news and mail feed and the modems and phone lines, I asked people to send $5/month. It was never intended to be a for-profit venture; I called it a "co-operative", and sure enough, I consistently lost about $100 a month on it throughout its existence. But the joy of running a public-access site and online community for everyone was well worth it."
    --Tony Shepps, co-founder and operator of "The Cellar" BBS

All of the individuals who serve in these and other capacities on the net help make the virtual world function smoothly. An honest, thoughtful examination of the online world should convince anyone interested in moral issues that the internet could not function without people who understand the notions of duty, obligation, and responsibility. Those who claim otherwise may simply have not spent enough time online.

7.0 Why Libertarianism?

Many critics of libertarianism spend little time trying to understand why libertarianism, and not some other ideology, has emerged as the definitive philosophical idea of the internet. Those that do try are not, in my opinion, particularly successful. Borsook [Bo96] believes its disproportionate influence on the net is due to the disproportionate wealth its adherents enjoy. Biggs agrees, noting that "Since so many of the self-made cybermoguls are libertarians, [their] message is reaching global spamnation proportions." [Bi97].

These explanations might work for a centralized, broadcast-oriented medium like radio or TV, or even a newspaper. Wealthy individuals or corporations who own media outlets have traditionally been quite comfortable using those outlets to promote their views. But there simply aren't enough dollars to buy off the internet. Nobody knows how rich you are in a chat room. Nobody cares about your stock portfolio when they read your Usenet posting. There are far too many people online, too many ISPs, and too many computers to equate wealth with influence online. Additionally, noting the disproportionate role of libertarianism in the discussions of "cybermoguls" just begs the question: why? Why aren't they liberal Democrats? Cultural conservatives? Environmental activists? Why is any ideology disproportionally represented at all?

Winner, by contrast, expresses some interest in trying to understand the reasons for the popularity of libertarianism online, but defers discussion of it in [Wi97]. He hints, however, at class-based and sociological reasons, noting "the cyberlibertarian position offers a vision that many middle and upper class professionals find coherent and appealing", and "the role of former hippies in Northern California's high tech industries who now affirm libertarianism as the spirit of Haight Ashbury finally realized".

But if class is so important, why is it that most middle and upper class professionals who are not online are not libertarians, and probably haven't even heard of the term? Why are things so different online? And it's quite a reach to go from the Summer of Love to sums of money. How many hippies, for example, believed in the moral legitimacy of capitalism?

Barbrook and Cameron attempt to deal with some of these questions. Their analysis of the rise of libertarian ideas online is more detailed than most, tracing the historical rise of a "virtual class" from "community media activists" [BaCa97]. To my mind, these and other culturally determinstic explanations are both inadequate and unnecessarily complex. The medieval philosopher William of Ockham suggested that when confronted with multiple explanations for a phenomenon, we should choose the simplest one [9]. Critics looking to understand the progress of libertarianism on the net would do well to heed his advice. The simplest reason libertarianism is so prevalent online, and why it is the descriptive ideology of the internet, is because it is the philosophy most consistent with the daily experiences of internet users. There are several reasons to suggest why this might be so:

  1. The importance of ideas on the internet.
  2. Ideas are important on the internet, and ideas are important to libertarians. Libertarians tend to be well educated, and take an active interest in intellectual debate. The internet is extremely conducive to the dissemination of and exchange of ideas, more so than most other social settings. Accordingly, libertarians are bound to find the internet an attractive place to spend time.

  3. The internet as a model for effective complexity.
  4. Much of the arguments for the effectiveness of markets in libertarian theory draw on the work of the Austrian School of Economics, primarily from the writings of Ludwig Von Mises [Mi63] and his student and eventual Nobel Laureate Frederich Hayek [Ha94]. Economists of the Austrian School emphasize the importance of complexity, the inherent fragmentation and decentralization of knowledge, and the function markets play in the discovery of that knowledge. Markets are essentially complex phenomena: phenomena that arise from the intentions of individuals but produce results no one individual intends. Their smooth functioning arises from the distributed processes involved, and not from any particular result they might achieve.

    The internet is another example of an essentially complex system. Serious internet users have an intuitive understanding of how markets work (if allowed to) because they work with complexity on a daily basis. The well known description of the internet as "anarchy that works" is a truism that online users affirm daily.

  5. The internet as an entrepreneurial environment.
  6. The laissez-faire business ethic of libertarianism strikes a resonant chord with entrepreneurs on the internet, who recognize the importance of both the underlying infrastructure required for commerce to occur and the minimal regulatory environment required to encourage the discovery of consumer preferences. The net lends itself well to rapid flows of capital (even across national boundaries, to the concern of its critics), rapid access to information, ideas with low startup costs, and financial privacy. These are important to entrepreneurs, who are likely to find libertarian ideas attractive.

  7. The internet as a forum for free expression.
  8. The internet is the most hospitable environment for discussion and controversy humanity has ever known. The Supreme Court's ruling in Reno v. ACLU et. al. seems likely to keep it that way, at least for American citizens. Libertarians have a principled commitment to an individual's right to express any opinion, no matter how controversial or offensive. If you spend any time on the net, you know that right is exercised millions of times daily. Once again, the experience of the internet reflects the basic tenets of libertarian philosophy.

  9. Computing technology as tool for individual empowerment.
  10. Computing professionals, regardless of their politics, understand better than most where computer technology is going. It may be clearer to them that trends in computing technology will make markets more effective, and politics less so. For example, PGP encryption software is available for free on the internet, making secure, private communication available for any user. What will happen to wiretaps? As standards for online commerce evolve, financial transactions can occur at electronic speeds between people thousands of miles apart, irrespective of national boundaries. What will happen to regulation? As smart cards and other forms of electronic money become prevalent, capital can flow quickly to where individuals desire it most. What will happen to taxation? All these trends and others suggest that the decentralized, complex actions of individuals will become more powerful, governments less so. This basic evaluation of where technology is heading, if correct, points in a libertarian direction.

8.0 Conclusion

Communitarians and other critics of libertarianism online make a number of mistakes. Libertarianism is not a philosophy of the "radical right", as even a superficial examination of its views on drug prohibition and free speech issues will make clear. Nor is the net a breeding ground for selfishness and greed. It couldn't function without the tireless efforts of standards committees, moderators, FAQ maintainers, and thousands of other unsung heroes who volunteer their time to make the net a better place. Finally, attempts to explain the popularity of libertarian ideas online on the basis of social class and moral vacuity fail, in the opinion of the author, to adequately account for the prevalence of the philosophy and the basic reality of the net. A simpler explanation seems more likely: libertarianism is the perspective most consistent with the experiences of online users.

Winner suggests responding to libertarianism online by "relocating the starting point for the whole discussion about society and networked computing" [Wi97]. He notes correctly that human history includes a long chain of important thought on the nature of community, on how communities actually work, and what it takes for a community to thrive. He believes libertarians are unaware of this tradition, and that libertarian ideas online should be countered with a communitarian perspective grounded in this long intellectual tradition.

This approach seems to me to miss the forest for the trees. Libertarian ideas and online communities are not separate from the chain of thought that Winner cites: they are its next step. Human communities form for a variety of reasons. In primitive times, they were necessary as protection from hostile elements and predators. Over time, they grew to meet social and material needs. Historically, it is at least possible to view the reasons for forming communities as moving from survival-oriented motives to economic and social ones. As the world becomes a wealthier place, we may be moving away from communities that form from the unintended actions of its members and toward those that form through conscious choice. The internet appears to be assisting in this process.

Choice-oriented communities present issues that existing writings on community have not yet addressed. I believe that emerging dialogue between libertarians and communitarians online will generate valuable insights into what community in a wired world means, but it would be a mistake to think that the internet offers nothing new. It most certainly does.

Bridging the libertarian/communitarian gap will not be easy. There are deep and fundamental disagreements about important issues between libertarians and communitarians online. Libertarians focus more on processes and rules, while communitarians emphasize outcomes and results. Libertarians place more value on technology and markets (which may explain why so many libertarians are computer professionals and entrepreneurs). Communitarians value politics and collective action (which may explain why so many communitarians are writers and social scientists). The cultures are very different; attempts to communicate are difficult and strained.

I believe, however, that there is hope for common ground. Just as communitarians may be unaware that libertarians recognize the importance of community, so too might libertarians be unaware that communitarians take a dim view of the coercive apparatus of the state (Etzioni acclaims a communitarian order as "largely voluntary" in [Et96]). Both libertarians and communitarians recognize that America has chronic and persistent social ills that must be addressed. Both recognize that human beings require affiliation and engagement with others to lead fulfilled, whole lives. Both libertarians and communitarians agree that understanding empirical evidence is important, and both, I like to think, would modify their views if presented with sufficiently convincing arguments from the other side. Finally, both libertarians and communitarians recognize that America is a great nation, one with a unique calling and mission in the world.

Perhaps, as more and more of the public joins us online, computer scientists should pay more attention to public policy and social theory. Perhaps, as the communal impact of the net increases, social scientists should start writing code. As these two cultures meet online, interdisciplinary work seems essential for any sort of scholarly communication. Such work might lead to the emerging of computing and public policy as a respectable academic discipline in its own right, something that researchers on all sides of the debate would welcome.

Let us hope that the dialogue will continue. Perhaps, in time, we will come to understand that the dichotomy between libertarianism and communitarianism is a false one: freedom and capitalism are not at odds with social order and communal fulfillment. If we can get past that, past the misunderstandings and the intellectual errors, we can move on to the most important public policy question of the 21st century: the proper role for government in a wired world.

I believe libertarians and communitarians alike are looking forward to the answer.


[AMR97] Adams Media Research, Carmel Valley CA, online at
[BaCa97] (1 2) Barbrook, R. and Cameron, A. The Californian Ideology, online at
[Be97] Bennet, W. "Rekindling Our Passion For America", Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1997
[Bi97] (1 2 3) Biggs, S. "You're Not the Boss of Me!",
[Bo96] (1 2 3 4) Borsook, P. "Cyberselfishness", Mother Jones magazine, July/August 1996, pp 56-60, online at
[Bo97] Boaz, D., Civnet features, online at
[Br94] Brown, R., Testimony of Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown on S. 1822, the Communications Act of 1994 before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation United States Senate, online at
[Bu64] Buchanan, J. and Tullock, G. The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, University of Michigan Press, 1964.
[BuTo84] Buchanan, J. and Tollison, R. Theory of Public Choice II, University of Michigan Press, 1984.
[CSM96] "Freedom on the Net Won't Impede Good Parenting", Christian Science Monitor, March 28th 1996.
[DOC95] US Department of Commerce, "Falling Through The Net: A Survey of the 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America, July 95, online at
[Et96] (1 2) Etzioni, A. The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, HarperCollins Publishing, 1996.
[Fa93] Fagin, B. The Application of Public Choice Theory to Science and Engineering Policy, Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
[Fa97a] Fagin, B. and Fagin, M. Families Against Internet Censorship web site,
[Fa97b] Fagin, B. "Skepticism and Politics", Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 1997, online at
[GCS97] Global Computer Supplies catalog, November 1997, page 92.
[GiDu96] Gibbs, N. and Duffy, M. "Battling the Party Crashers", TIME Magazine, February 19, 1996 Volume 147, No. 8.
[Ha92] Halsall, F. Data Communications, Computer Networks, and Open Systems, Addison Wesley, 1992. Chapter 9 discusses the TCP/IP protocol.
[Ha94] Hayek, F. The Road to Serfdom, University of Chicago Press, 50th anniversary edition, 1994.
[Hu78] Hume, D. Treatise of Human Nature, Clarendon Press, 1978.
[Hu96a] Hudson, D. "The Digital Dark Ages", San Francisco Bay Guardian, November 96, online at
[Hu96b] Humphrey, W. Introduction to the Personal Software Process (SEI Series in Software Engineering), Addison Wesley Longman, 1996.
[IETF97], Internet Engineering Task Force web site, online at
[Ka97] Katz, J. "Birth of a Digital Nation", Wired 5:4, April 1997 , online at
[Ki96] Kinsley, M. "America Tiptoes to the Left", TIME Magazine 148:26, December 9th 1996.
[Lo97a] Lochead, C. "Armey of the Right", Reason magazine, July 1997.
[Lo97b] Lohr, S. "Patience of Jobs: An Industry and its Founders Grow Up", New York Times Week in Review, online at
[Mc96] McGrath, C. "The Net's Arrested Development", New York Times, December 8th 1996.
[Mc97a] McHugh, J. "Politics for the Really Cool", Forbes magazine, September 8th, 1997.
[Mc97b] McKeon, D. Moderated Newsgroups FAQ, online at
[Mi63] Mises, L. Human Action, Contemporary Books, Inc., third edition, 1963.
[MOM97] Multicom Online Marketing study, online at
[MSN97] MS/NBC News televised debate vs. Nelson Griswold of the Family Institute, July 1st 1997.
[Mu88] Murray, C. In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, 1988, page 260.
[NAS97] National Academy of Sciences, "Reinventing Schools: The Technology is Now", National Academy Press, online at
[Pa95] Paine, T. The Rights of Man, from Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, 1995.
[Pi94] Piller, C., "Consumers want more than TV overload from the information superhighway, but will they get it?" MacWorld. September, 1994.
[Ra96] Raphael, G. "The Non-Non Libertarian FAQ", online at
[Ro96] Rosenbaum, D. "Internet Surfers Reveal a Curious Agenda", New York Times, July 8th 1996.
[Si95] Simon, J., Congressional testimony, online at
[Si96] Simon, J. The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment, Princeton University Press, 1996.
[Sm93] Smith, A. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations: A Selected Edition (the World's Classics), Oxford University Press, 1993.
[St97] Steiner-Threlked, T., "The Balkanization of the Internet", online at
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[Wa58] Waley, A. The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, Grove Press, New York 1958.
[Wi97] (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) Winner, L. "Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community", Computers and Society 27:3, September 1997, pp 14-19.

End Notes

[1] Conferences like this one are a welcome exception in this regard, and provide evidence that policy-related writing by computer scientists may be worthy of scholarly attention.

[2] For example, this site (, critiques the work of the author in [Fa97b]

[3] If there are newsgroups and online organizations calling for escalating the drug war, criminalizing homosexual behavior, and taking pornography off the internet, none of them can claim a significant online user base. This may, of course, change as more people come online. On the other hand, it may be that long term online experience affects people's politics, a point I will return to at the end of the paper.

[4] The (now unconstitutional) Communications Decency Act refers to certain portions of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. The text of the law is available at [Transcripts of oral arguments from the Supreme Court and the Court's opinion in the case are available from http://www.ciec.or/].

[5] Process-oriented theories of justice may be criticized on a number of grounds, including that initially just distributions are not achievable, that individual actions may impose costs on other people not party to them, and that we may engage in voluntary actions without approving of all their consequences. For more detailed versions of these and other criticisms, see Alan Haworth's "Anti-Libertarianism: Markets, Philosophy and Myth", or Jonathan Wolff's "Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal State". These criticisms are important, but the issue of the merits of process-oriented theories of justice is separate from how those who embrace them are likely to respond to public policy questions.

[6] Numbers vary by age, income, and educational attainment, but half is a good approximation for households headed by wage earners between 25 and 44 years of age. This is also consistent with online estimates from, a web site maintained by a company that specializes in internet demographics: "While only 30% of computer households had a modem in 1994, we expect that percentage to nearly double to 57% by 1999." See

[7] Paul Starr, in his book "Cyberpower And Freedom", argues that these types of figures vindicate the massive involvement of the government in the computing industry's early stages, when it seeded the industry and then withdrew to let markets function. This point is also debatable, but remains a separate issue from the effectiveness of market processes themselves.

[8] A web search on the exact words "Freeware Sites" yielded over 200 hits, most of which had dozens of pointers to freeware or shareware sites.

[9] non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem: entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. This dictum is more commonly known as "Ockham's Razor".
policy-related writing by computer scientists may be worthy of scholarly attention.

[2] For example, this site (, critiques the work of the author in [Fa97b]

[3] If there are newsgroups and online organizations calling for escalating the drug war, criminalizing homosexual behavior, and taking pornography off the internet, none of them can claim a significant online user base. This may, of course, change as more people come online. On the other hand, it may be that long term online experience affects people's politics, a point I will return to at the end of the paper.

[4] The (now unconstitutional) Communications Decency Act refers to certain portions of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. The text of the law is available at [Transcripts of oral arguments from the Supreme Court and the Court's opinion in the case are available from http://www.ciec.or/].

[5] Process-oriented theories of justice may be criticized on a number of grounds, including that initially just distributions are not achievable, that individual actions may impose costs on other people not party to them, and that we may engage in voluntary actions without approving of all their consequences. For more detailed versions of these and other criticisms, see Alan Haworth's "Anti-Libertarianism: Markets, Philosophy and Myth", or Jonathan Wolff's "Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal State". These criticisms are important, but the issue of the merits of process-oriented theories of justice is separate from how those who embrace them are likely to respond to public policy questions.

[6] Numbers vary by age, income, and educational attainment, but half is a good approximation for households headed by wage earners between 25 and 44 years of age. This is also consistent with online estimates from, a web site maintained by a company that specializes in internet demographics: "While only 30% of computer households had a modem in 1994, we expect that percentage to nearly double to 57% by 1999." See

[7] Paul Starr, in his book "Cyberpower And Freedom", argues that these types of figures vindicate the massive involvement of the government in the computing industry's early stages, when it seeded the industry and then withdrew to let markets function. This point is also debatable, but remains a separate issue from the effectiveness of market processes themselves.

[8] A web search on the exact words "Freeware Sites" yielded over 200 hits, most of which had dozens of pointers to freeware or shareware sites.

[9] non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem: entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. This dictum is more commonly known as "Ockham's Razor".