The Public Square Must Be Public

George Caleb Bingham - Stump Speaking

A lot of things people say are both true and wrong. A good example of this is the claim that the First Amendment only applies to government censorship. This is true. But are we also going to say that this is good? I don’t think so.

In a world where the commons is now owned by private companies, we need to expand upon the First Amendment. And we need to be broader when we talk about free speech.

None of this should be seen as a defense of Donald Trump or conservatives more generally. The major social media platforms have been doing nothing but helping the conservative movement. Just look at the top shared articles on Facebook in any given week. It’s always overwhelmingly conservative articles with a couple of mainstream news items and nothing leftist at all.

Just as with the War on Christmas, what conservatives think is fair is for there to be great limits on everyone else while they get special rights. But there are major (Real!) free speech issues with the private ownership of the public square that greatly harm leftists.

Who Controls Speech?

The biggest political story since Republicans stormed the Capitol is that Amazon kicked Parler off their servers. The power of Amazon in the web hosting business has been a huge problem for years. If you pulled the plug on AWS, the internet as we know it would be gone. They host everyone! This is the biggest problem with Amazon, not its retail sales.

Parler seems to be a toxic entity on the internet. I have no problem with them being shut down. In fact, I’m happy about it. However, I don’t think Amazon should be the one to make that decision.

Similarly, I don’t have a problem with Trump being kicked off Twitter. But this example is illustrative.

Had Trump been an ordinary person, he would have been banned from Twitter years ago. In fact, I think that had Trump been a Democratic politician with leftist ideas, he would have been banned from Twitter.

So the question is not, “Why was Trump banned?” It was, “Why did it take so long”? And I think we know the answer to that. It’s because Trump is good for the bottom line. Fuck any concerns about the public good.

The Obvious Solution

Some people think that the big social media companies should become utilities. But to my mind, utilities are just a bullshit way of allowing the private sector to make a profit on things that are effectively collectivized. I’ve certainly not seen it working well here in California with PG&E.

So I say we just collectivize all of these things. We democratize the process of algorithms instead of allowing our country to be destroyed just so Mark Zuckerberg can add a few dollars to his store of wealth.

Now some may wonder why I had to write an article about this. What I’m proposing is really simple after all. And that’s the thing. Nationalizing general social media companies is distinctly outside the Overton Window. And that’s bizarre because the status quo is to allow the public square to be completely controlled by a few very rich individuals who have very different incentives from what is best for the public.

The Public Square Must Be Public!

So it’s obvious that the public square should be public. Yet we don’t generally talk about this because we are so caught up in a paradigm of socialism vs capitalism. But the progression of capitalism over the years has been to make more and more public space private.

When people like Adam Smith and Thomas Paine were writing, the world was far more public than it is today. It was still possible to go and find farmable land that didn’t belong to anyone. Not so today. Try farming an unused piece of land somewhere near you and see how long it takes for the police to come and arrest you.[1]

This isn’t rocket science. It isn’t brain surgery. It’s something that a toddler could understand. The public square should be public.


[1] Note that so-called libertarians are in favor of everything being private property. It shows that libertarians don’t really care about liberty. They care about private property. This is why a world run by libertarians would be a dystopia.

Image cropped by Stump Speaking by George Caleb Bingham in the public domain.