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Friday, April 12, 2024

Josh Hawley’s ‘Big Tech’ Book Overthrows the Tyranny of Reality

When Josh Hawley was last in the headlines, it was for spearheading the effort to challenge the Electoral College certification of Joe Biden’s victory on January 6. The main legal theories behind the objections were specious and contradictory; it was a deeply cynical effort. And in The Tyranny of Big Tech, Hawley has produced a deeply cynical book. The Missouri senator raises valid concerns about the technology industry, and he proposes solutions worth taking seriously. But he embeds these ideas in a broader argument that is so wildly misleading as to call the entire project into question.

Hawley’s substantive critiques of Silicon Valley will be familiar to anyone who has watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix: Smartphones are addictive. Behavioral advertising is manipulative. Social media is bad for children’s mental health. The biggest tech companies together spend tens of millions of dollars each year to buy influence in Washington. Facebook, Google, and Twitter wield too much power over communication. And they use it, Hawley says, to discriminate against conservatives. (Likewise Simon & Schuster, the book’s original publisher, which dropped Hawley after the Capitol riot—evidence, Hawley writes, of corporate America trying to silence him. The book eventually found a home with Regnery Publishing, a conservative imprint.)

Where Hawley’s book departs from the standard anti-tech treatise is in his attempt to tie the current moment into a grand theory of American political history. In Hawley’s telling, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are the direct ideological descendants of the original Gilded Age robber barons. Their dominance is the culmination of what he calls “corporate liberalism,” a philosophy in which, he writes, the state and big business conspire to deny the common man his independence and self-government. According to Hawley, corporate liberalism became entrenched a century ago in both major political parties, and today, “Big Tech and Big Government seek to extend their influence over every area of American life.”


And so Hawley spends a large portion of the book recounting these historical roots. The hero of his narrative is Theodore Roosevelt, whom Hawley views as the champion of a small-r republican tradition dating back to the nation’s founding. “He believed that liberty depended on the independence of the common man and on his capacity to share in self-government,” Hawley writes. “He believed concentrations of wealth and power threatened the people’s control and thus their freedom.” Roosevelt established those bona fides by bringing a successful antitrust case against financier J. P. Morgan in 1904. But his republican vision met its tragic demise in the election of 1912, when Roosevelt lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, whom Hawley calls “the nation’s first prominent corporate liberal.” Where Roosevelt championed the common man, Wilson favored government by corporate aristocratic elites. Once in office, he put an end to the anti-monopoly movement, settling instead for friendly cooperation with big business. “This was the Wilsonian settlement, the triumph of corporate liberalism that would dominate America’s politics and political economy for a century and reach its apotheosis with Big Tech,” Hawley writes.

It’s an interesting story, and Hawley tells it well. The trouble is that it gets almost every important thing wrong. In the 1912 election, it was Roosevelt, not Wilson, who favored cooperation between government and business elites. After the 1904 showdown with Morgan, Roosevelt had decided that “good” trusts were fine, as long as he got to regulate them. This arrangement was much more palatable to the tycoons. George Perkins, a partner of Morgan’s at US Steel, was a leader and major funder of Roosevelt’s Progressive Party during the 1912 campaign. Morgan himself donated more than $4 million in today’s dollars to Roosevelt’s 1904 reelection bid. Hawley does not mention these cozy relationships.

Wilson, on the other hand, was the real anti-monopoly candidate of 1912. His “New Freedom” platform was heavily influenced by Louis Brandeis, generally considered the godfather of anti-monopolism; as president, Wilson would elevate Brandeis to the Supreme Court (a connection Hawley only briefly acknowledges). To portray Wilson as the pro-corporate candidate, Hawley pulls his words so far out of context that they take on the inverse of their actual meaning. He cites a speech, for example, in which Wilson said, “Big business is no doubt to a large extent necessary and natural.” But if you follow the footnote, you will find that this is part of an argument against monopolies. “What most of us are fighting for is to break up this very partnership between big business and the government,” Wilson declared. “I take my stand absolutely, where every progressive ought to take his stand, on the proposition that private monopoly is indefensible and intolerable.”

Hawley’s account of Wilson’s tenure in office is just as misleading. He writes that the Clayton Act of 1914, for example, established the Federal Trade Commission. In fact, the Clayton Act did not establish the FTC—that was a separate piece of legislation. More importantly, it did not codify a narrow reading of antitrust into law, as Hawley also claims. Rather, the whole point of the statute was to enhance the government’s power to restrain monopolies. Before the Clayton Act, for example, the government had no authority to block mergers. Suggesting that the Clayton Act was a gift to big business is like saying the Violence Against Women Act was a gift to wife beaters.

Ultimately, what Hawley gets wrong is less important than what he leaves out—namely, the rest of the 20th century. Here is the extent to which Hawley acknowledges the period after Wilson: “Presidents after him would take up the antitrust banner from time to time; Franklin Roosevelt did so notably in his so-called Second New Deal. But these later antitrust efforts would not be linked to republican ideals and were rarely sustained for any length of time.”

Political history did not freeze at the end of the Wilson administration, only to be unthawed now by enterprising young senators. Nor did the anti-monopoly movement fizzle out for good. Quite the contrary. FDR was much more of a warrior against corporate titans than his cousin Teddy had been. His administration put plutocrat Andrew Mellon on trial for tax fraud and brought a massive price-fixing case against Mellon’s Gulf Oil and other companies. According to Matthew Stoller’s 2019 book Goliath, Roosevelt’s crusading antitrust chief, Thurman Arnold, brought nearly as many antitrust cases in five years as had been brought in the previous 48 years combined. Under Harry Truman, the government broke up the A&P supermarket chain, the Walmart (or Amazon) of its time. The Eisenhower administration took on the likes of General Electric, DuPont, and RCA.

And so on, and so forth. The amount of antitrust enforcement and legislation during the middle four decades of the 20th century could fill a book—indeed, it is covered in great detail by other recent books about the anti-monopoly movement, including Antitrust, by Hawley’s Senate colleague Amy Klobuchar, and Stoller’s Goliath. The key point is that this stuff worked. During the long period of bipartisan commitment to anti-monopoly policy, the economy became less concentrated. Inequality plummeted, as the poor and working class, including African Americans, saw their incomes rise faster than those at the top, while the richest Americans’ share of the pie collapsed from its 1920s heights. Antitrust action against tech giants like IBM and AT&T, which forced them to open up their patent vaults to competitors, helped spur innovation and competition in the tech sector, accelerating the birth of the modern internet.

What really cut the antitrust movement off at the knees was not a Democratic president in 1912, as Hawley claims, but a rising school of economic thought in the 1970s. Led by figures including the archconservative legal scholar Robert Bork, a group of economists and lawyers known as the Chicago School persuaded political leaders—and, crucially, the Supreme Court—that aggressive antitrust enforcement was economically irrational. According to what Bork proudly described as “simple” economic models, most monopolies would actually benefit the consumer, since their efficiencies of scale would lead to lower prices. Under Bork’s influence, courts and antitrust enforcers narrowed the scope of what antitrust law could accomplish. During the Reagan presidency, antitrust suits dwindled and mergers soared, a trend that continued through all the Republican and Democratic administrations that have followed. Perhaps relatedly, corporate profits and the incomes of the richest Americans soared too.

And so, if you zoom out far enough, Hawley is quite right: Today’s tech giants have been allowed to take over the economy thanks in part to a bipartisan shift away from antitrust enforcement. This is why it is so utterly mystifying that he leaves out any mention of the long period during which the government did fight corporate concentration. Later in the book, Hawley argues in favor of antitrust lawsuits against the tech giants. In the Senate, he has introduced ambitious legislation that would dramatically restrict corporate mergers. So why, in trying to make the case for a renewed commitment to anti-monopoly politics, does he fail to mention the time when the country tried it and it worked?

A generous answer would be that Hawley is trying to reach a conservative-leaning audience that might be turned off by any friendly words about Franklin Roosevelt. A less charitable explanation is that Hawley is not actually trying to make the case for a policy agenda—that his true goal is to blame the alleged sins of the tech giants on “liberalism” and present himself as the best person to bring the fight to Silicon Valley and the left. (Railing against the sins of Big Tech and “woke capital” has certainly become a reliable ticket to the Fox News circuit, as Hawley and others have discovered.) Perhaps that would be a trickier act for him to pull off if characters like Wilson, FDR, and Bork were placed in their proper historical roles.

The book is stronger when Hawley finally gets around to Big Tech itself. His criticisms are not original, but he delivers them with gusto. In a passage about Google’s privacy practices, he writes: “Soon enough, customers got so inured to the invasive tracking they started buying Google-branded listening devices and GPS trackers. You may know them as Android phones.” And the senator’s humanity shines through when he discusses technology from the perspective of a phone-addicted grownup and the father of three young children. He has, he writes, instructed his older two kids to shout, “Dad, put that phone down!” if they catch him looking at his screen at the dinner table, much to their delight.

But then Hawley’s casual approach to the facts reemerges. He devotes a great deal of attention, for example, to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law protects platforms from being sued over content posted by users, while also giving them free rein to take down objectionable material if they’re acting in good faith. Hawley writes that, since the law’s passage, “courts nullified the ‘good faith’ requirement,” allowing companies “to take down content without needing to show good faith in the least.” This, he argues, lets platforms get away with removing content purely for expressing conservative viewpoints.

I have spent a fair bit of time researching Section 230 recently, and I was unfamiliar with case law erasing the good faith requirement. So I checked Hawley’s footnote. He cites two cases to back up the claim. One of them, Barnes v. Yahoo!, is a lawsuit challenging a company’s decision to not take down posts, and has nothing to do with good faith removal. The other case, in which a company sued after Google removed it from search results, stands for, yet again, the opposite proposition from the one Hawley is making. In it, a judge rejected Google’s argument that Section 230 didn’t require good faith. “The Court is unwilling to read the statute in a way that renders the good-faith requirement superfluous,” the judge wrote.

This mistake is not on the same order of eliding a century’s worth of antitrust history, but it does seem to fit a similar pattern: Hawley the author is at his least trustworthy when he is trying to tie the Big Tech tyrants to liberals, or liberalism, writ large. Historically, opposition to monopoly power has not been an inherently partisan issue. Taming the power of today’s corporate titans, in tech and beyond, will almost certainly require that Democrats and Republicans in Washington put aside their differences to pass new laws. That sort of thing tends to work better when everyone is operating in good faith.

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