David Brooks made a peculiar observation in his recent column on the rise of a "peer-to-peer" economy. His focus was on social networks that enabled people to rent cars or temporary living space to one another. These represent a welcome trend for Brooks, the emergence of an economic sector based mainly on social trust. This sector doesn't depend much on government regulation, Brooks notes -- and he finds that ironic or paradoxical in some way, because he presumes many of the people who participate in these networks to be "political progressives." For such people to rely more on unregulated trust networks, he writes, is to "vote left, but click right."
Brooks is one of the house conservatives on the New York Times editorial staff. By most standards, he is a moderate conservative, as is arguably demonstrated when he implies that the essence of conservatism -- to "click right" is to do business on a casual level without requiring government oversight. But perhaps he's revealing more about what he takes to be the essence of liberalism. Shouldn't liberals or "progressives" want these peer-to-peer networks regulated by the state?
Brooks is smart enough to partially answer his own question."We’re probably entering a world in which some [economic] sectors, like energy,
retain top-down regulatory regimes," he writes, "Other sectors, like bake sales, are
unregulated. But more sectors, like peer-to-peer, exist in a gray zone
in between." He tries to work this down to a formula: "As mechanisms to establish private trust become more efficient, government plays a smaller role." This is sensible, but does that make it Right? Only if you presume that Left means the state must have an eye on every transaction between individuals. If anyone, only the most extreme communists have desired such a state of affairs.
Earlier, Brooks makes a distinction that might have clarified his attempt to distinguish "left" from "right" attitudes. He observes that many people are turning to peer-to-peer networks because they "have actually lost trust in big institutions." They're more willing to trust "strangers" who are also "peers" by virtue of their participation in these networks. Brooks sees this as part of an individualist, "personalistic" trend, which partly explains why he sees it as a "right" phenomenon even if the most ardent participants don't. He recognizes, however, that this trend is at least as much a rejection of corporate institutionalism as it is a revolt against a regulated economy. If these young people are as progressive, yet individualist, as Brooks believes, it's most likely that whether a business or an economic sector should be subject to government regulation is a matter of scale or proportion. Put most simply, it would make sense that an economy that truly functions on a "peer-to-peer" level, including the sort of peer review many of these social networks provide, should require minimal regulation, while an economy where the participants are not peers, and in which disparities of power are potentially if not inherently abusive, would require more state attention. Here is an important distinction between an American progressive and some communists. For the last century, since the time of Teddy Roosevelt, economic regulation has meant the regulation of economic power, on the Progressives' assumption that the consolidation of economic power, however inevitable or even necessary to a modern society, is at least potentially harmful both to working people and the body politic. In a peer-to-peer sector, the same danger simply doesn't arise, and no one is abandoning any progressive or "left" principles by letting it try to run itself.
At the same time, Brooks's hopeful prediction of a smaller role for government in the advent of private trust networks reminds me slightly of Karl Marx's promise that once true communism were achieved the state would wither away. I don't mean to suggest that Brooks's utopia of private trust networks is akin to Marx's dream of communism, but the two seem to have one important thing in common: the absence of what we recognize as capitalism. Conservatives might idealize peer-to-peer economies as free enterprise in their purest form -- and as long as they don't equate "free enterprise" with "capitalism," we might even concede the point. So if Republicans and (more likely) libertarians are also taking advantage of these peer-to-peer networks, are they voting right and clicking left?