Big Tech’s Had a Rough Few Weeks. So Have Its Populist Critics.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and other disruptions in the tech sector show how populist attacks are misguided.
One of the more telling (and depressing) shifts among folks on the right in recent years has been their populist attacks on “Big Tech,” which has become a sort of “get out of principles free” card for everything from speech to taxation to antitrust (but especially antitrust). As I’ve explained here repeatedly, I find this shift to be wrongheaded on substance and strategy—in large part (and in both cases) because of the dynamic nature of the U.S. tech sector. In short, it made little sense to me for right-leaning folks to abandon economically and ideologically sound principles (and to join fellow travelers on the populist left) to thwart today’s invincible corporate bogeymen because—given the long history of tech disruption—they’ll very likely be gone (or at least weakened) tomorrow.
Little did I know, however, how quickly events would prove my point.
Oh, Elon …
The biggest development in this regard is undoubtedly Elon Musk’s probable (we think?) acquisition of Twitter, which blunts several common populist shots at Big Tech. Most obviously, that an “unwoke” billionaire could—backed by a cadre of institutional and other investors—acquire a major social media company with the express objective of changing its “woke” policies and personnel shows that the good ol’ free market still can check “Big Tech” without government help. The alleged impossibility of such changes, in fact, was a core part of the new “conservative” argument for regulating Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech companies allegedly biased against the right’s views: The brute force of government was required in this special case because “free markets” simply couldn’t solve the problem of ultra-powerful (and ultra-woke) tech giants. Things like “network effects” (the value users assign to a product because it has so many other users) and the uniformity of liberal thought in Silicon Valley, so the argument went, revealed libertarian arguments like “just build your own Twitter” to be laughably naïve. Drastic government action was therefore needed to address the (supposedly) grave, near-term threat that Big Tech presented.