Periscope Depth

screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it

In light of the pending passage of SOPA, several friends have circulated a VICE article titled, “Dear Congress: It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How the Internet Works“. I was about to work up a good head of steam and post a counter-rant, but Marie C. linked me to a great response: “Dear Internet: It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works” that says about 75% of what I would have said:

What you have to understand is that Congress is saying that they don’t understand the Internet isn’t a failure of Congress. You may think these guys in Washington are foolish — even too stupid to really understand the “mysteries of the Internet.” but look at how our members of Congress talk about the biopharmaceutical industry: I haven’t used the word “biosimilar” once in my life, but Congress used it 70+ times in a single month.

If Congress is complaining that they don’t know about something that you care about, the right answer isn’t to tell them to go get educated. The right answer is to educate them. Congress mentioned the word “biologics” 75 times in a month because a lobbyist spent a long time doing their job: educating members of Congress on the needs of its industry.

Right now, if you want effective legislation around your industry, then you need to pay the right lobbyists, make the right campaign contributions, and write the right legislation at the right time in order to get it out of Washington.

To which I have nothing to add save this:

The complaint, as I understand it, is that legislators in Congress are not experts on the Internet. They are, in fact, extraordinarily ill-informed on the subject and have no desire to get smarter. Now if your message is that “members of Congress are brutish failures living unexamined lives,” I’ll sign your petition and buy you a drink. But among my more outraged friends, I sensed this growing chorus of enraged disappointment. There was a consensus that Congress could, or should, do better.

Guys, Congress is not comprised of experts on any subject. That’s the point. That’s how a constitutional republic is supposed to work. Rather than letting the experts on health care (doctors) determine the cost of health care, or the experts on engineering (engineers) decide where bridges are built, or the experts on logistics (generals) decide where the army gets deployed, the people elect a series of stand-ins to make these decisions instead.

The fear was that if you leave the experts in charge, they will arrange affairs to benefit themselves. And that’s not an unreasonable concern! Quoting James Madison in Federalist #10:

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? and what are the different classes of Legislators, but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine?

So no, legislators are not experts on the subjects they write laws about. That’s the whole idea. Legislators are separate from the factions they govern, in order to preserve objectivity. What the VICE article is describing is not a bug, it’s not a feature, it was the god-damned selling point.

And lest you think I’m taking silly outdated ideas like “bicameral legislature” out of context, consider the healthcare reboot that rammed its way through Congress in 2010. Back then, the concern was passing the bill before the Opposition Party could bog it down in committee. Nancy Pelosi advocated for “passing the bill so that you can find out what is in it” (her words). Sam Baucus, one of the principal architects, proudly claimed not to have read every page (“it’s statutory language [...] we hire experts”). The Ruling Party urged the passage of a bill known to be imperfect through “prompt, decisive leadership,” and letting adjustments to the law come later. Everywhere the emphasis was on speed, not on results.

In other words, the goal was not to craft an ideal piece of law, but to hurry a bill through the process as quickly as possible.

Well, congratulations! This is what you wanted. This is the process you championed: a process where MPAA lobbyists can bring about the end of unregulated Internet speech by rushing a bill through Congress. This is what happens when a body of legislators is invested with immense power: they might use it to do stupid things. Every law that you think is a good idea is the result of a bunch of uninformed self-promoters taking lobbyist money, trading favors and slapping each other on the back. All of them. The bad ones, too.

The problem is not that power is being used for evil. The problem is not that power is in the wrong people’s hands. The problem is that the power exists at all.

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