Blogs > Liberty and Power > Liberty, Power, and Knowledge: The Tale of the CBS Memos

Aug 8, 2005 1:06 pm

Liberty, Power, and Knowledge: The Tale of the CBS Memos

My apologies for reposting a big hunk of this, but I added some material at the end and wanted it all in one place. It also made cross-posting easier.

I want to weigh in with some thoughts about the whole National Guard documents/CBS forgery issue. This story has consumed me for the last two days. I'm far less interested in the whole question of what Bush and/or Kerry did or didn't do during the Vietnam Era than I am about what this particular incident has to say about liberty and power. I'm also assuming that everyone has some cursory knowledge of the whole issue. If not, the best places to go for summaries are Instapundit or Powerline. Let me also say that I am completely convinced that these documents, or at least 2 of them, are forgeries. If I'm wrong, this little essay's going to look pretty stupid, but I'm willing to take that chance. Let me also say that it doesn't matter to me where they came from and how they got to CBS. What I care about is how these memos got on the air and what the near-instant demolition of them by the blogs and "new media" means socially. And as I've argued before in this space, I have no love for the incumbent, so my point is not to destroy Kerry or support Bush. Finally, people will call this "blogosphere triumphalism" but so be it.

With that said, it seems to me that this incident is a triumph of liberty over power. For years, we've heard from both Right and Left that the "Big Media" are a problem. Each group thinks they are the handmaiden of the other group. What both appear to agree on is that they are near-all powerful entities who are growing unchecked like some electromagnetic cancer upon the land. The Left has long had the small alternative press, which tried to counter the power of the Big Guys, but with limited success, and it had academia. The Right, since the 80s anyway, has had the think-tank world (which I've always viewed as the alternative university for libertarians and conservatives who perceived themselves, perhaps wrongly, as being closed out of academic by what they saw as leftist power). However it had no real media of its own (Jim and Tammy Faye don't count) until the advent of the Internet. There's a reason the earliest and most well-known blogs lean conservative or libertarian: there was a latent demand for their services.

The net finally reduced the cost of publishing to near zero, at least on the margin, and radically democratized the knowledge production industry, especially investigative reporting. By eliminating both political (think broadcast licenses) barriers to entry and the huge start up costs of publishing, the Internet widened the sphere of liberty for those who wished to be producers of information. The result, as we've seen so clearly the last 48 hours, is that the strength of Big Media power has been radically reduced. Average Americans, with their knowledge of typewriters, military procedure, or fairly obscure terms like "kerning," were able to compete with, and effectively neutralize, one of the most powerful organizations on the planet. The Internet has demonstrated itself to be one of the most powerful (yes, powerful), power-checking institutions ever. By opening up the lines of communication to nearly everyone, it has forced us to rely on actual arguments, facts, history, and evidence precisely because the intensity of competition and the value of reputation is so high. The work that was done in demonstrating, at least to my satisfaction, the forging of those documents is a tribute to the power of truth that comes from liberty. There's no "trust me, I'm <Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite>", rather you're only as good as your arguments and evidence and your experts (and the persuasiveness of the latter can also be determined with a quick Google search).

None of this should be surprising to those of us raised on Hayek. After all, this is nothing more than the intellectual version of "Competition as a Discovery Procedure." Or better yet, it is Michael Polanyi's work on "The Republic of Science" transferred to current events. Even in the blogosphere, the commentary has talked about the "distributed intelligence" of the Net, or "open source journalism," or even the "hive mind" (a bit too Borg-ish for my taste, but it makes the point). The Hayekian lesson is that it is through the ability to enter the market and compete that knowledge gets created and made socially available to others. Just as in economic competition, where the process will tend to allocate resources better than alternative processes, so in the competition to produce news does the process tend to produce the best approximation to "truth." Markets are in that way examples of liberty defeating power. The very openness and competitiveness of markets makes any momentary hold on power tenuous, requiring that those who possess it continually act affirmatively (e.g. innovating, serving consumers well) to keep it. CBS and other Big Media simply have never had to face this sort of environment before and have become sloppy as a result.

I should add here one or two comments on how this all might have happened. I don't believe that CBS or others exhibit deliberate, conscious bias against conservatives. I don't believe (although it could be true) that Dan Rather said "I need to destroy Bush, so I'll take shortcuts to try to do so." Instead, as others have argued, the problem is more bias-induced laziness. Assuming CBS was duped and not complicit, I'm sure they saw these memos as fitting their priors about Bush and political issues more generally and simply didn't see any reason to investigate further because the memos, in some sense, just had to be true. All the head-scratching about why it took 12 hours for the blogosphere to see the obviously shoddy forging job while CBS missed it can be explained by the differences in behavior induced by both different political priors and the differening perceptions of the rules of the game held by bloggers and Big Media. Political priors will frame what sorts of things require "investigation" and what sorts do not. The competition generated by the advent of the Internet has widened the range of things deemed to be worthy of investigation (on all sides: think of the ways in which blogs have attempted to undermine the case for the War in Iraq). In addition, when one sees oneself in an environment of competition, as bloggers do, one cannot afford to be lazy and everyone has to start checking their premises. This is not, as this recent piece argued, an attempt to police people's politics. Rather it is competition doing what it does best: holding everyone accountable to the "constitutional rules" of the Republic of Science. And as good Hayekians know, when the rules are right and access is open, the truth will out.

Finally, I appeal to my friends on the Left to take the right lesson from this whole event. Again, this is a triumph of democracy, liberty, and the common person over some of the most powerful institutions in America. That aspect of this event, again assuming the memos are forged, should be cause for celebration on the Left. It's possible that this could further doom the Kerry campaign, but don't let that obscure the sunshine. To all who argue that monopolized unchecked corporate power is a problem, the outing of CBS, and the advent of the new media on the Internet more generally, should be a cause for celebration. More power to the people and all of that. The way in which competition takes advantage of distributed knowledge and mobilizes it through the rules and procedures of the competitive process is the key to toppling power, whether economic, political, or intellectual. It works in markets just as well as it works in the world of the new media. I'm sorry if you don't like the particulars, but if you call yourself a person of the Left, this is a moment you should have been waiting for. Orwell just got that whole technology and power thing ass-backwards. The democratization of knowledge production and the ability of one person with a computer to check the power of the major social institutions is here, and it is the technology of the telescreen that brought it to us.

Left, Right, Libertarian, or whatever, liberty has once again defeated power by redestributing it back to the people.

Two additional thoughts that I wanted to add:

1. To respond to Jonathan Dresner's comments: Yes, the reach of the Big Media remains large, as the Malkin incident shows. But we are, I think, in a period of transition the final result of which might be something different. As for the Net's ability to propagate urban legends, etc., no argument there. But that just means that in the same breath that the technology has democratized the production of knowledge it has also democratized the evaluation of knowledge. In the day when news was only produced by a few sources, there wasn't as much need for the average person to engage in "source evaluation," especially when the sources were largely telling the same story due to a lack of competition. In the new media world, not only can everyone be a publisher, everyone has to make decisions about the validity of what they read. Yes, this means we'll get a lot more crap that gets passed on via the Internet, but I think they are outweighed by the benefits in terms of more good things getting through (although the net effect on the signal to noise ratio remains an open question) and in terms of it, one would hope, leading people to be more critical and skeptical of everything they hear.

As an academic who has spent many years teaching first-year undergraduates how to write research papers, and developed what I think is fairly effective pedagogy to do it, I'm keenly aware of the problem Jonathan points to. Where my students are weakest is where they need to be strongest - evaluating the trustworthiness and validity of the millions of sources they might use. I can think of no task more central to liberal education and a prepared citizenry than the ability to evaluate effectively sources of information. The Internet has made this task a lot harder and more important.

2. I want to expand on a Hayekian theme from the original post. Part of what the blogosphere does is to mobilize the information necessary to address the issues at hand by taking advantage of the disperse and specific knowledge of millions and millions of people. Look how quickly experts on typewriters, typesetting, computing and the like "miraculously" appeared out of nowhere to provide "testimony." How did this happen? Well someone reads a blog and they know someone who knows something about typewriters, who knows a guy who heard about a woman who has a collection of old Selectrics, etc.. In minutes or hours, the necessary knowledge is mobilized through these sorts of networks. This is one reason why the "blogosphere" is a wonderful metaphor. Like a sphere, as the ability to communicate information at low cost expands, it expands its "surface area" and comes into contact with more people who know more and different things. This expands the network of knowledge and increases its ability to react quickly when knowledge is "needed" at one point or another in the blogosphere.

Many years ago, in his very under-appreciated book National Economic Planning: What is Left?, the late Don Lavoie talked about the principle of mass communication among animals (termites specifically) and used that as an analogy for how markets mobilized knowledge without a central authority. Well the Internet is another example of the same phenomenon. Faced with hurricane damage, generators, lumber, and ice appear in Florida in quick succession (and would do so even without FEMA - I saw it up here during the icestorm of January 98) because prices provide the relevant signals and incentive to mobilize human networks. ("I know a guy who buys generators from some guy in Atlanta, let me see what he has.")

What we saw happen so quickly, and apparently so effectively, with the critique of the CBS memos is precisely this sort of Hayekian "use of knowledge in society." And as many of us Hayekians have been arguing for years, it's exactly this feature of markets which makes them such wonderful processes by which liberty can check power.

Cross-posted at Taking Hayek Seriously.

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