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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, April 30, 2021

TGIF: Bust the Conservative "Trust Busters"

When right-wing leader Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently declared that "liberty and monopoly do not go together," I fantasized that he had become a free-market anarchist. When I hear monopoly, I think government because what's the most literal of monopolies (or source of monopoly power) than the state?

Imagine my disappointment when I realized that, quite the contrary, he was embracing expanded government power over consensual interaction in the marketplace. He was introducing his aggressively named Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act. Hawley wants to be the our day's Theodore Roosevelt, also a Republican but no friend of individual liberty and free-market interaction.

Hawley says would like to break up Major League Baseball, Big Tech, Big Telecom, Big Banks, and Big Pharma, as well as limit or prohibit what other big companies can do, such as merge with or acquire other companies. It's quite a comprehensive serving of government powers from a guy who probably tells himself he favors limited government. That's how things are. Conservatives have long had higher priorities than defending peaceful interaction in all spheres. Hawley is no friend of liberty.

Like any good conservative, for Hawley many things outrank individual liberty: protection of the culture from the left, for example. In other words, when the left proposes government power as a solution to a real or imagined problem, Hawleyites propose some other expansion of government power, for example, regulation of social media and search engines on behalf of conservative groups. Mentions of liberty are mostly lip-service intended to keep some imagined coalition together.

Hawley's news release says his "new legislation [is designed] to take back control from big business and return it to the American people. Senator Hawley’s bill will crack down on mergers and acquisitions by mega-corporations and strengthen antitrust enforcement to pursue the breakup of dominant, anticompetitive firms."

As we'll see, this approach assumes that the anticompetitive power of business is an independent variable, rather than something derived from political power in countless ways. If all the intended and unintended anticompetitive laws and regulations were repealed, the Federal Register would be considerably thinner and we'd all be considerably freer. Competition would thrive. That's why I call corporate power "the most dangerous derivative"--it's generated by the government and wouldn't exist without it.

The release says, "A small group of woke mega-corporations control the products Americans can buy, the information Americans can receive, and the speech Americans can engage in. These monopoly powers control our speech, our economy, our country, and their control has only grown because Washington has aided and abetted their quest for endless power."

This is a gross overstatement, even with all the laws on the books. But to the extent Hawley is correct, it's too bad he fails to understand that he is indicting the interventionist state--that is, politicians and bureaucrats--and not of the market process, which when left alone has built-in safeguards against anticonsumer activities. It's called competition, but it must be left unmolested by the state, many of whose interventions enable firms to grow bigger than they would be in a free market. (See Milton and Rose Friedman's chapter "Who Protects the Consumer?" in Free to Choose.)

"Woke corporations want to run this country and Washington is happy to let them. It’s time to bust up them up and restore competition," the release states.

The word woke here indicates that culture is what drives Hawley and his allies. I don't mean that anything labeled "woke" is innocuous (far from it), just that Hawley wants to punish companies that take what in his view is the wrong side of today's raging political-cultural issues. He is incensed that Major League Baseball pulled its all-state game out of Atlanta because it disapproves of Republican-favored election-rule changes in Georgia. For Hawley, moving the game is an illegitimate attempt to influence public policy. His solution? Subject MLB to antitrust law. (He's joined by fellow Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.) That doesn't sound like the proposal of a small-government man.

Here are some things Hawley's bill would do:

  • Ban all mergers and acquisitions by companies with market capitalization exceeding $100 billion;
  • Empower the FTC to designate “dominant digital firms” exercising dominant market power in particular internet markets, which will be prohibited from buying out potential competitors;
  • Prohibit dominant digital firms from privileging their own search results over those of competitors without explicit disclosure;
  • Reform the Sherman and Clayton Acts to make clear that direct evidence of anticompetitive conduct is sufficient to support an antitrust claim, which will allow enforcers to effectively pursue the breakup of dominant firms and prevent antitrust cases from devolving into battles between economists;
  • Replace the outdated numerically-focused standard for evaluating antitrust cases, which allows giant conglomerates to escape scrutiny by focusing on short-term considerations, with a standard emphasizing the protection of competition in the U.S.;
  • Clarify that “vertical” mergers are not exempt from antitrust scrutiny;
  • Drastically increase antitrust penalties by requiring companies that lose federal antitrust suits to forfeit all their profits resulting from monopolistic conduct

That's quite an undertaking (an appropriate word in both senses) for any government, considering that the mortals who would enforce such a law would lack the essential knowledge and incentives needed to do the right thing. The history of antitrust is a history of cronyism and special pleading, but what would you expect?.

The bill would expand the Progressive-era Sherman and Clayton acts in several ominous ways. For example:

In any case alleging a violation of this section 5 or section 1 in which a plaintiff establishes by a preponderance of the evidence (including direct evidence) the existence of substantial market power or the anticompetitive or otherwise detrimental effects of particular practices, a plaintiff need neither define the scope of a relevant market nor establish the share of such a market controlled by the defendant.

Even if one wrongly grants the legitimacy of antitrust law, it is absurd that the relevant market or market share of the defendant would not need to be defined by the government or other plaintiff. How would one know that a firm was monopolistic? (Years ago the government sued the major ready-to-eat cereal companies for monopolistic  activity on the basis of a narrow definition of the breakfast-food market that excluded all the alternatives to cold cereal.)

No acquisition shall be presumed not to substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly only because the parties to the acquisition do not compete directly against one another at the time of the acquisition.

Again, even many people who favor antitrust distinguish between horizontal acquisitions, in which a firm buys another firm that makes the same product, and a vertical one, in which a firm buys another firm that makes the first firm's inputs or buys its products. Hawley wants to go an extra step to insure that no company valued at more than $100 billion could change a market through an acquisition. That's true conservatism!

The bill would also have new rules for what it calls a "dominant digital firm," which would be any company that is accessible through the internet and "possesses dominant market power in any market related to that website or service." Here conservatives propose to enlist the state to go after the social networks and search engines for real and alleged mistreatment of ... conservatives presumably. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), another  creature of the Progressive movement, would be given the power to designate a person, partnership, or corporation as a dominant digital firm," at which time new rules apply. Oddly, this is the one section that acknowledges that government puts its thumb on the scale in economic matters: in determining a firm's "market power," the FTC would consider "the extent to which the firm benefits from government contracts or other privileges." That is an important point, but the solution is to withdraw the anticompetitive privileges, not to impose new restrictions.

None of this means that big business deserves nothing but praise. With some rare exceptions, many business people, as Friedman often pointed out, have long seen the government as a convenient way to get what they couldn't get through free competition. That's why antitrust was so often used not to protect consumers, but to protect less-efficient firms that fared poorly in the market. (See D. T. Armentano's classic, Antitrust and Monopoly: Anatomy of a Policy Failure.)

Moreover, we all should be bothered that the social network owners think it's right to mediate what is true and false in their customers' conversations and feeds. Social networks are private firms, but that doesn't make anything they do a good thing. Besides, we may justifiably wonder how much of what they do in this regard is done to stave off government regulation from progressives. They know the eye of the state is upon them. Further, we may also suspect that the big networks have calculated that when regulation comes, they, the experts, would be called on to write the rules--as long as they are seen as behaving well.

The argument against antitrust law is that it misconstrues the market. When free it is not a static condition but a process in perpetual motion, in which entrepreneurs are always trying to profit by better serving customers. In an unmolested market the threat of potential competition would do as much to keep a single firm on the customers' side as actual competition. So quantitative indicators are misleading. As D. T. Armentano says, high profits in an industry with one or two firms is not a barrier to new competition but an engraved invitation. Moreover, even a cartel agreement among a few sellers couldn't prevent "cheating" by parties to increase revenues; nor could it prevent new entrants from taking advantage of the dominant firms' disregard of consumer welfare.

Hawley's bill declares, "It is the policy of the United States that the principal standard for evaluating the permissibility of practices under this Act is the protection of economic competition within the United States.’’ But "competition" is too abstract a thing to protect, and history shows that such a goal opens the gates to complaints from inefficient firms (or their advocates in the regulatory bureaucracy) that claim they are victims of efficient firms' "anticompetitive" actions when in fact they are victims of their own inefficiency. 

Instead of protecting competition (aka weak firms), let's protect individual liberty for everyone.

The bill's chances of passing a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party are nonexistent of course. But this isn't because it would grant new controls over peaceful activities. Rather, it's because Hawley's motive is to rein in "woke" corporations. No doubt the Democrats will have their own antitrust bill before long.

Friday, April 23, 2021

TGIF: Does Nearly Everyone Favor Industrial Policy?

Over the years I've heard countless arguments about which word best describes the American economic system. Some insist it is essentially socialist, while others favor the word fascism. (Fascism is socialism with a private-property and market veneer.) Still others describe the system as a mixed, or interventionist, economy.

We need not decide among these because the huge system has many facets, at least some of which at some time or other have fit one or more of these terms.

One term we might all agree on, however, is industrial policy. That's because it is general enough to cover almost anything except the market unmolested by the state. And yet it's a good term for the whole basket of objectionable policy sets. It fits most people along the conventional political spectrum, even if they differ in degree.

Think about it: in the current system virtually government activity can be defended on the grounds that it's good for the "the economy," including locking it down in the name of public health. This goes for both more and less government intervention. So even reducing government control in a particular matter might be favored by an interventionist under particular circumstances, with the understanding that if circumstances change, control would be increased. We're talking about an policy orientation and motive more than any particular measure. Industrial policy is frequently equated with "picking winners," which it is certainly part of it. But picking winners will then be defended as a way to make the economy healthy, notwithstanding obvious crony-serving features.

You can see this engineering orientation in trade policy. Even some people who are usually on the free-trade side of the spectrum can see free trade as a government policy, not the absence of policy. This even was true in the early years after the American Revolution. The Articles of Confederation did not empower the central quasi-government to regulate trade, and since it had no power to tax, it could not levy revenue tariffs. Of course, the Articles were replaced by the Constitution, which explicitly gave Congress the power to regulate trade and to tax. Those issues were important in propelling the movement to scrap the Articles in favor of a far more powerful central government. (See my America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.)

For the governing class the power to regulate trade was indispensable to the policy arsenal, even if free trade was favored at any particular moment. Rulers could imagine many circumstances in which they would need to impose tariffs, quotas, or sanctions on other countries "for the good of America," which always included economic concerns. As George Will wrote long ago, free trade is not a principle; it's an expedient"--but not necessarily always. (Will may think differently today.)

Trade is certainly not the only area where this engineering mindset is at work. The country's infrastructure is another popular area, as we can see today. Nearly any government requirement can be imposed in the name of upgrading roads, bridges, and the rest. Crazy levels of spending, borrowing, and taxation can be supported as necessary to the health of the economy even if the resulting legislation actually has little to do with the infrastructure. We can also see where trade and infrastructure intersect: President Biden, like past presidents, has a "Buy American" provision in his infrastructure bill, which would push the price tag higher than it would be without that provision,

Immigration is another area where more or less restriction will usually be defended in the name of American economic well-being. The issue is hardly ever related to individual liberty for aspiring immigrants and Americans. This should need little elaboration.

At the root of this mentality is the pretense that "the economy" is a machine. Any machine needs tending; it cannot be left to run itself indefinitely. Ergo, the economy needs tending by government officials. If pressed, people who think this way would have a hard time clinging to the trope, but that does not stop them from operating as though the economic system were literally a machine. Notice how often they talk about an economy's potential for overheating, stalling, cooling down, braking, and so on.

But if an economy is not really a machine, why is it useful to pretend that it is? I'll venture a guess. When one speaks in those terms, it's easier to obscure the fact that it's not a machine that will be tended; rather, it is people who will be monitored, controlled, and penalized for disobeying government directives. If the economy just a machine that is being regulated, no one need worry about rights abuses. You might criticize the regulators on competency grounds, but not on moral grounds.

Yet when you walk around, you see no economy. It is not a thing like a machine, a building, or a vehicle. When we say economy, we mean individual persons acting in a series of continuing and more or less regular relationships that involve money in transformation of stuff from less-useful to more-useful forms, as consumers view things. Government officials don't regulate an economy; they regulate individuals--us!--thereby interfering with our lives, liberties, purposes, and pursuit of happiness.

That's the moral case against industrial policy. The technical case involves the familiar public-choice and Austrian knowledge-related critiques of central planning: namely, that the politicians  and technocrats, first, can't know what they'd need to know to regulate our activities for our own good, and, second, even if they had that knowledge, they couldn't be counted on to act appropriately, given that they are human beings with personal interests, for example, power, prestige, and career advancement. (Hence, the familiar mission creep.)

That one-two critique has never been satisfactorily addressed. We must oppose industrial policy in all its forms.

Friday, April 16, 2021

TGIF: Should Libertarians Join Organizations?

A few weeks ago YouTube suggested that I watch a 1988 episode of William F. Buckley's PBS TV show, "Firing Line," featuring Ron Paul, who at the time was the Libertarian Party candidate for president. I had to chuckle right at the top when Buckley introduced Rep. Paul by striking an ironic pose: while "libertarians specialize in non-organization...," Buckley said, "to run for president of the United States, which Dr. Paul is doing on the Libertarian ticket, does require organization, to be sure uncoerced." (Emphasis added.) Buckley flashed his trademark impish smile while his guest remained silent looking bemused.

This wouldn't be worth mentioning except that I've heard people make similar comments over the years. I have no doubt that Buckley was trying to be funny. The tip-off is in his final words, "to be sure uncoerced." Buckley was too smart and too knowledgeable not to know that libertarians--and this includes free-market anarchists--have no principled objection to organizations per se. Uncoerced is indeed the key point.

Amazingly, not everyone seems to know this. Many times I've heard people wonder how libertarians could have a political party or any other organization for that matter. It is one thing to wonder about a libertarian party, but quite another to wonder about all organizations. Maybe some of the questioners were trying to score a cheap debating point, but I suspect that for others, sheer misunderstanding was at work, as if libertarians favored self-sufficiency and social isolation. (They don't.) At the least, it is a sign of insufficient thought.

Why did Buckley say, "libertarians specialize in non-organization"? Specialize? Please! One of thing that libertarians do specialize in is enthusiasm for markets as an essential part of a free society. Markets are filled with organizations, if by that term we mean purposeful associations. (With respect to F. A. Hayek, we can distinguish organizations from institutions, the word he reserved for spontaneous, bottom-up social and economic regularity with accompanying expectations.) The overall market order, which is highly complex, is such an emergent institution rather than a designed organization. It was not constructed with a single conscious purpose, but within it are countless organizations that one or more people created for specific purposes. That's what a firm, a co-op, and many other kinds of groups are. The unplanned order of the market, which is an arena for purposeful conduct that has no end explicit in itself, is full of planned associations. What libertarian would reject them in principle? We'd be a lot poorer and certainly no freer without them. Again, the standard is consent. Organizations can be good, and so individuals ought to be free to choose with whom they will associate and for what purposes.

What's said about the market is also true of society in general. Obviously, people form associations for all kinds of reasons, not just to make money through production and trade. Tocqueville noticed this on his visit to the young United States and reported on it in Democracy in America. Americans, he said, formed organizations whenever they wanted to accomplish things they couldn't do individually. To hear him tell it, Americans were organization-happy. In those days, keep in mind, they were in large measure radically and classically liberal in temperament, yet that did not stop them from doing things together whenever it suited. They understood that organizing per se infringed neither their liberty nor their integrity. No surprise there: human beings are social animals.

I don't mean to say that organizations pose no risk to people. Risks and temptations lurk everywhere. Leonard E. Read, founding president of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote a remarkable essay long ago titled "On that Day Began Lies," in which he pointed out that the danger of even private organizations lies in the temptation of individual members to believe that are not responsible for the acts of the group they participate in them--as though they could merge into a mass without personal accountability. Think of a mob, which is not typically thought of an organization but whose members act in concert toward a particular end. One can see how those members might distance themselves from their own actions by regarding the mob as an agent.

Read headed the essay with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

Read then asked: "Is it possible that there is something of a wholly destructive nature which has its source in councilmanic, or in group, or in committee-type action? Can this sort of thing generate lies that actually cause the loss of 'millions of human beings'?"

He noted that personal integrity and honesty are key to avoiding trouble and suggested that this will determine the moral quality of any group. He asked:

What makes persons in a mob behave as they do? What accounts for the distinction between these persons acting as responsible individuals and acting in association?

Perhaps it is this: These persons, when in mob association, and maybe at the instigation of a demented leader, remove the self-disciplines which guide them in individual action; thus the evil that is in each person is released, for there is some evil in all of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an abstraction which, without persons, is what the mob is.

The organization certainly seems to provide the temptation for members to distance themselves from "its" actions, even though the mob cannot act if no member acts. Mobs are not alone in this phenomenon. Read went on:

Persons advocate proposals in association that they would in no circumstance practice in individual action. Honest men, by any of the common standards of honesty, will, in a board or a committee, sponsor, for instance, legal thievery—that is, they will urge the use of the political means to exact the fruits of the labor of others for the purpose of benefiting themselves, their group, or their community.

As we can see, Read didn't mean political associations only. Private associations also can challenge less-than-conscientious members' integrity. In this connection, he had much to say about how majority rule and the call for group consensus can tempt people to shift personal responsibility to the disembodied group.

In sum, Read wrote:

It ought to be obvious that we as individuals stand responsible for our actions regardless of any wishes to the contrary, or irrespective of the devices we try to arrange to avoid personal responsibility....

How to stop lies? It is simply a matter of personal determination and a resolve to act and speak in strict accordance with one’s inner, personal dictate of what is right. And for each of us to see to it that no other man or set of men is given permission to represent us otherwise.

In other words, do not associate with a group that does or advocates things you as an individual would not do or advocate. Being outvoted does not get you off the hook.

Read touched on a related theme in "Conscience on the Battlefield," in which he argued that even soldiers are responsible for the actions they are commanded to perform, including killing.

The upshot is that people of character can avoid the dangers of association without avoiding associations entirely. A separate question is whether a libertarian political party is good idea, but that's not my concern here. My message is that nothing about the freedom philosophy rules out voluntary participation in a wide variety of organizations.

Friday, April 09, 2021

TGIF: The Fraught World of Second-Bests

When discussion turns to how to make government "better," however any particular person would conceive that condition, libertarians understand that we are in the fraught world of second-bests. In other words, because of the nature of the state, no solution that merely attempts to reform it will be or could be truly satisfying. The system will continue to feature exploitation, rent-seeking, public-choice and knowledge problems, and worse.

We have an example of this in a recent Soho Forum Debate in which political scientist Terry Moe of Stanford University and Gene Healy of the Cato Institute argued over whether Moe's proposal for federal legislative fast-tracking, which is intended to enable presidents to eliminate congressional obstruction, is a good idea. I think Healy, a long-time critic of "the cult of the presidency," won the debate, but that of course doesn't mean that leaving things as they are is a good idea. Healy would agree.

Moe would add a feature to how Washington does things. His constitutional amendment would empower presidents to put legislation on a fast track. Thus within, say, 90 days after introduction, both houses of Congress would have to vote up or down on the president's bill--no committees, no amendments, no filibuster. Legislation could still be handled the old-fashioned way. Members of Congress could introduce bills that would go through the committee process of both houses and would be subject to amendment. Presidents could still veto those bills. Any prevailing filibuster rules would apply. Moe would simply put another arrow in a president's quiver.

Why does Moe want to do this? (It's not unprecedented, as Moe acknowledges: Congress has legislated that trade bills can be fast-tracked in this manner.) Simply put, he thinks the federal government is failing the country and has been doing so for a long time. The system set up by the framers of the Constitution, he says, is obsolete: they were operating under far different conditions from today's, and it's long past the time for change. Specifically, the system has too many "veto points" at which legislation can be derailed, resulting in paralysis and a dire failure to address important matters. (He offers immigration reform as a prime example.) The system all but assures that nothing happens, Moe insists, and we simply can't go on this way any longer.

One can readily acknowledge that things are not good now without embracing Moe's or any other particular reform. After all, it's always possible to make thing worse. 

I guess if your priority is the passage of legislation--any legislation--Moe's proposal would be appealing. But who judges Congress merely by how many bills it passes? (Come to think of it, some newspapers apparently do.) Quality is more important than quantity. Different people will evaluate the difficulty in passing bills differently depending on what they think the government would do with a free hand.

For people who love individual liberty, the first thing to notice is that legislative obstacles are bad only if the likely legislation would reduce government power and expand government respect for freedom. Gridlock, however, is good (with qualifications below) whenever it blocks government interference with peaceful private conduct, whether "personal" or "economic." (I regard this distinction as pernicious. Economic liberty is personal liberty; making and spending money in pursuit of one's life projects are as personal as human activity can get. Dividing liberty into two spheres, an idea endorsed decades ago by the Supreme Court, has been catastrophic. The courts scrutinize limits on freedom of speech and religion far more stringently than they scrutinize limits on the use of property. See my What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.)

The reverse is also the case; libertarians would applaud fast-tracking for bills that would remove restrictions on liberty, but oppose it for liberty violations. The problem is that exclusively pro-liberty fast-tracking is not likely to be adopted by the powers that be. Since bad bills easily outnumber good ones, fast-tracking would be no welcome reform.

This might suggest that gridlock is the best we can hope for in the current world. I have tended to think that is the case, but I things aren't that simple. As Healy points out, the libertarian preference for gridlock must be tempered by the fact that stymied presidents can turn to executive orders to get what Congress refuses to given them. Recent presidents have done this often. So the situation looks bleak. Reformed or not, the government will produce violations of liberty most of the time.

To be sure, Healy scored direct points against Moe's amendment during the debate. For some matters the proposal terrifies him. For example, George W. Bush wanted a much broader authorization for the use of military force after 9/11 than Congress gave him. Had fast-track been the rule, Bush would probably have gotten his way because members of Congress would have been afraid to vote against him after the horrific attacks. Could the government's war record since the start of the century been worse as a result? Maybe.

On the other hand, Healy suggested that Moe's amendment might not change things all that much. With fast-track the houses of Congress could defeat a presidential bill, then introduce something similar in the traditional manner, allowing amendments, etc. It occurs to me that presidents hoping for legislative success might informally negotiate with members of Congress to arrive at a bill that has a good chance of being fast-tracked even through houses in the other party's hands. Thus fast-tracking might accomplish much less than Moe expects.

We should be surprised by none of this. That the state--an irredeemably flawed and predatory organization--cannot be satisfactorily reformed is unremarkable. Conceived in sin and conquest, the state is based on the principle that some people should be empowered to coerce other people simply for living their lives in peaceful yet disapproved ways. Thus the only true reform is abolition.

Friday, April 02, 2021

TGIF: Targeted Advertising Violates No Liberty

Last week I modestly attempted to show that no injustice takes place when A sells B the opportunity to pitch its product to C. This is the principle behind print, television, and radio advertising, and it is no different in the era of social networks like Facebook. In principle, the commercial act I've described is similar to many other commercial acts. Someone has a megaphone and rents it to someone else, who then uses it to convey product messages to others. Where's the objection?

But this does not dispose of the matter because many people are bothered that the social networks collect information about their members, which advertisers may buy in order to tailor and target their merchandising campaigns for maximum effect. The thing that bothers critics seems, certainly a first glance, to make a lot of sense for all concerned. A car company quite sensibly would want to make its pitch to people who have already shown an interest in buying a car. It could waste a lot of money trying to sell cars without that information. Advertising is always iffy, so anything that increases the chances of success, however small they remain, may be worthwhile. On the other hand, people who want to buy a car could well appreciate that car dealers are seeking to direct commercial messages to them, and some (though not necessarily all) people not looking for a new car could well be glad to be free of such advertising, which they might regard as a nuisance.

The point is that when advertisers acquire information about potential customers and narrow the pool, they benefit others besides themselves. We need not start off suspicious of such a practice. One thing markets do best is produce information, and generally speaking, access to consumer information is a good. 

Of course wanting and acquiring market research is nothing new. What's new is the sophistication of the tools in the information age. However, it is easy to overestimate the efficacy of those tools. We too easily think that the ability to acquire information is equivalent to the power to manipulate. That is wrong.

Before the information age, gathering market data was a more crude operation. When Chevrolet advertised on TV's "Bonanza" decades ago, General Motors had at least a rough idea about who was watching the western each week. The networks did research--does anyone remember the Nielsen survey?--and that information was available to advertisers. There was no point in trying to sell Chevys to 6-10-year-old children. I suspect most people were not bothered by such research, although principled opponents of the market surely were.

But today's advanced online marketing research bothers many people because of how it is gathered. It's understandable. When we visit websites and or use social networks, we leave electronic trails unless we undertake efforts to avoid doing so. Everything we do online expresses our preferences to some degree, subject to recording; for a long time we've been on notice that this is the case.

We are also on notice that for a price such information may be made available to people who want to sell us things. We are free, though it may not be costless, to avoid leaving trails by using web browsers that protect privacy, such as DuckDuckGo or Startpage. Also, users may eschew social media if they find their privacy options inadequate or nonexistent. Granted, reading user agreements and navigating the privacy settings can be perplexing, but the market addresses that problem through online experts who often advise lay people on how to protect their privacy on the social networks. We live in a world of trade-offs, and we try to choose the mix of costs and benefits that best suits us as individuals.

Most people understand the trade-offs and are willing to give up some information in return for the convenience and fun of online activities. But others are upset to the point where they want the government to regulate or even stop the social networks and other platforms. Advocates of liberty would have to object to government interference beyond redress for fraud and breach of contract. As a general matter, making data from market research available is not only unobjectionable but ought to be welcome.

Let's not forget that placing an online ad before a group of people is no guarantee they will click on it, and clicking on it is no guarantee that they will buy the product. Consumers are in control. Why do critics of the information age insist on portraying us as puppets?

To sum up, research and targeted advertising is generally good in a variety of ways. Advertisers can waste less money. Entrepreneurs can refine their estimates of which consumer needs have been overlooked. And consumers can minimize their exposure to annoying and irrelevant ads. People wishing to opt out can find ways. 

One downside to the preoccupation with research-based online advertising is that the real threat to privacy--the government--gets too little attention. In the morality play, social networks and advertisers are bad and government regulators are good. But we've long known how little government at all levels respects our privacy. Information-age technology has aggravated that situation by orders of magnitude, as Edward Snowden showed us some years ago. Yet Congress keeps reauthorizing the executive branch's authority to spy on us (and people abroad) with impunity. Something's wrong when this is of less concern than Amazon's ability to tell me that it has what I was looking for last week.

What's the bigger threat: a company that buys information we've given up in order to sell us things, or the state, which ultimately seeks to control us?