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Google is right on China, by James DeLong

Google is right on China, by James DeLong
Google is right on China, by James DeLong



[Jim makes some good points. Though I'm not so sure about his swipe at 
the 1960s! --Declan]

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Google is Right on China
Date: Thu, 02 Feb 2006 15:02:10 GMT
From: The Progress & Freedom Foundation  
To: Declan McCullagh  

Google is Right on China

Progress Snapshot
Release 2.5 January 2006

by James V. DeLong*

Google has agreed to submit to censorship of search results in
exchange for operating in China.

The full scope of the censorship is a work in progress. Wired
says: "To obtain the Chinese license, Google agreed to omit web
content that the country's government finds objectionable.
Google will base its censorship decisions on guidance provided
by Chinese government officials."
(http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,70081-0.html?tw=rss.technology) 
And C|Net News' Declan McCullagh's research found: "Many Web
sites censored from Google's Chinese results touch on topics
known to be unpopular with the Communist Party: the Tiananmen
protest and massacre, political criticism in general, Tibet,
Taiwan and Falun Gong (a growing movement that combines
traditional Chinese breathing exercises with meditation and
that's been renounced by the Chinese government as a cult). But
others are more puzzling, such as jokes and alcohol."
(http://news.com.com/2100-1030_3-6031727.html) 

As a result, Google is being roasted in the flames of an
outraged Internet, accused of selling out its "Don't Be Evil"
corporate birthright for a mess of Yuan.
(http://www.usingenglish.com/reference/idioms/sell+your+birthright+for+a+mess+of+pottage.html) 

About the only tepidly good word came from George Mason
University economist Thomas Hazlett: "the terms of the agreement
struck will push modern communications yet further in a
basically authoritarian society. That triggers an underlying
dynamic that ultimately, will undermine restrictions, allowing
civil liberties -- not Chinese government censors -- to
triumph."
(http://news.ft.com/cms/s/b89f3cd0-8dd6-11da-8fda-0000779e2340.html) 

My view is considerably more sympathetic both to Google and to
China and its leaders than is the Internet consensus.

The Chinese are undertaking simultaneously several of the most
difficult tasks that any nation can attempt. They are loosening
the grasp of an authoritarian regime; fostering rapid economic
development; and evolving the proper form of government for a
huge population of widely varying sophistication and skill in
the technological age, bearing in mind the history and culture
of China.

Were I a Chinese leader, I would be thinking along the following
lines.

We have no model for this daring and difficult enterprise, even
if we think that in the long-term we need some variation of a
democratic state. The West's assumption that all we need do is
ape it represents a presumption that would be amusing if the
issue were not so serious, because democracy in the West is in
serious jeopardy.

Look at Russia, where the recommended shock treatment approach
was a disaster. The lesson may be that converting to a more
capitalistic state requires economic loosening before political
loosening -- perestroika before glasnost. The rule of law may
have to start at the top and then extend downward, and be
followed by a broad voting franchise only after the basics of
industrial development are firmly in place. This was, after all,
the pattern of the Western democracies. Magna Carta was for
barons, not peasants.

A hard-eyed look at the West also reveals more question marks
than answers.

Will Europe be democratic in 20 years? The EU structure cuts in
the other direction. And the trend of European democracy is that
the dependents on the government are electorally dominant, able
to resist any reform of entitlements. The result, within a
decade, will probably be a revolt of the young, who will see
themselves as heavily taxed to maintain a welfare state that
will not exist for them, and that allows them very limited
opportunities to improve their lot. But the revolt cannot be
electoral, precisely because the young are outnumbered, which
means it must be anti-democratic. And probably nasty.

The U.S. as a democratic model? An interesting case, that's also
full of problems. The nation has an increasing political class
of government workers
(http://www.cato.org/pubs/tbb/tbb-0601-29.pdf), better paid than 
the private sector by 50 percent, and capable of combining with
other dependents to resist changes. It has increasing corruption
among politicians of both parties, who have gerrymandered
themselves into safe seats supported by massive pork, using
public money to buy support from both interest groups and
short-sighted corporations, and who are increasingly using
campaign finance controls
(http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110007867) to censor 
political opposition to this system.

>From an economic point of view, the whole U.S. is turning into a
massive anti-commons
(http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=224844), 
where everyone has veto power over every form of productive
investment. It has shut down much of its manufacturing and
extractive industries. A good symbol is that is a nation with an
energy crisis that cannot even find a spot to build a refinery
or an LNG terminal. It is now turning on even such innocuous
industries as Wal-Mart, for heaven's sake!

Democracy in the U.S. was founded on a sophisticated
interlayering of different types of governance in different
situations, with the types appropriate to the decisions and
interests involved. It is an irony of successful democracy that
the whole must be subject to democratic control, but within this
framework there must be many undemocratic decision processes,
ranging from representative assemblies to market-driven
businesses to law-bound adjudication.

The U.S. is increasingly in thrall to a kind of plebiscitary
democracy, often by public opinion poll,a residue of the
mindless 1960s, where every decision, right down to guilt or
innocence in a criminal case, should be decided by vote.

Furthermore, the disturbing trends are getting worse, not
better. The technologies of instantaneous communication are
rendering the whole nation increasingly vulnerable to that fatal
disease of democracy feared since the ancient Greeks --
demagoguery and rule by mass whim, a trend abetted by the
glorification of the mass mind and by slogans about the
superiority of the crowd. There is some wisdom in crowds, but
"it's hard to aggregate the wisdom of the crowd without
aggregating [its] madness as well."
(http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/01/digging_the_madness_of_crowds.html) 

Far from a model, the U.S. may be running on the fumes of its
human capital of gifted and entrepreneurial people, but is far
from clear that current trends will allow for the continuing
replenishment of this class. And the nation is pinning a lot on
high-tech, since it seems bent on suppressing other forms of
economic activity.

But China has gifted and entrepreneurial people, too, and we
also like high-tech while taking a more benign view of
manufacturing and extraction. Our rise will increase the already
severe future strains on the U.S. Will the U.S. be democratic in
50 years? History will tell.

So, what is a Chinese leader dedicated to the welfare of the
people to do, given this incredible uncertainty, and the lack of
convincing models? The wisest course seems to be: Focus on
perestroika above glasnost. Move cautiously. Avoid any threat of
losing control to demagoguery and mob rule, which inevitably
ends in re-authoritarianism. Develop the rule of law before an
extended franchise. And keep maneuvering in the fantastically
complicated situation involving the modernists, the PLA, the old
Mao-ists, the modern equivalent of regional warlords, the rising
demands of the new economic classes, and the restlessness of the
people who see that a better life is possible.

And given this Chinese view, what should Google do? Google
should do what Google does, which is search engines. Google is
not a Chinese leader, and it is not the role or duty of Google
to tell China how to rule itself, or to tell the Chinese leader
dedicated to the betterment of the people how to act, even when
what the Chinese government does goes against the grain of
American views of free speech.

In the end, search engines, even truncated ones, will contribute
to the economic and political development of China, as Hazlett
noted. The working out of this story will be one of the great
tales of human history, for tragedy or triumph, depending on how
it goes.

So Google should happily contribute to this effort, doing what
it does, and avoiding the hubris of thinking it is responsible
for China, or that it knows the answers. In this situation, good
and evil are not self-evident categories.

Berkeley economist Brad DeLong is fond of saying
(http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2005_archives/000077.html) 
that it is very important to the peace of the world that in 50
years school children in India and China are taught that the
West did everything it could to help the economic development of
these nations. Google should focus on being a lesson in these
textbooks.

- This article appeared in TCS Daily on January 31, 2006.

* James V. DeLong is a Senior Fellow at the Progress & Freedom
Foundation in Washington, D.C. This article represents his own
opinions, which may not be shared by PFF, its staff, or it
directors.
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