The Social Networking Contract

The following is an unpublished piece that I wrote for The News.  As with my last post, I haven’t vetted this fully in several months, so I again reserve the right to amend my remarks.


I want to apologize in advance for beating a dead horse with this piece.  Or more accurately, resurrecting a horse that has already been brutally murdered and beating it with a sledge hammer.  I know that after a special program, several special school meetings and several articles on “reputable” national news outlets, Choaties are sick of hearing about internet privacy.  We’re sick of being preached to about the dangers of sharing information online, the potential scams into which we could fall, the risk of colleges and employers having access to sensitive personal information.  So I’m sorry, but a conversation that I had over spring break compelled me to think about the implications of the internet age.  It occurred to me that Facebook, Twitter and the like aren’t just providing us a social networking service:  they’re fundamentally changing the way we live our lives.  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and big-screen badass nerd, has consistently held that Facebook is dedicated to the pursuit of a more open world, and I, for one, believe him.  But that world does have consequences.  Every personal detail that you give to Facebook is embedded in a data base somewhere, just like all of your Google searches, all of your Tweets, etc.  That data base will never go away, meaning that you have essentially given over your personal information in perpetuity to corporations who profit from your willingness to tell them next to everything (remember those “Terms and Conditions” that you ignored?  That’s what they said; Facebook owns everything).

None of what I said above is new.  We all know the risks.  We all know the implications.  That’s why I told The News in November that I felt the Special Program regarding internet scandals was useless (a quote that The Daily Beast was all too eager to contextually boggle).  So what am I telling you that’s new?

I think all of the privacy advocates, all of the adults who are worried about us, all of those who are outraged at the questions about the ways in which Facebook/Google/whoever uses our information are fundamentally missing a key point:  We all signed up for this.  We chose to use the internet.  And, by extension, we chose to give up certain personal information.  At the point where we have voluntarily handed over personal information to a corporation, what right do we have to question how they use that information?  A comedy group from UMBC recorded a (hilarious) YouTube video entitled “Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Apology”, in which the actor playing Zuckerberg quips, “I’m sorry that when you handed over personal information to us, we then had that personal information”.  It sounds silly, but that is literally what the arguments I’ve heard boil down to.  If you give me a dollar, you have no right to tell me how to use that dollar.  Similarly, we have given content to Facebook by our own free will, and that content is now available to Facebook.  What is the problem with that?  Why should we care how Facebook uses our data?

But Evan, the worried parties counter, don’t you feel insecure knowing that Facebook has all of your personal information on a permanent database?  Don’t you worry what they might do with that information?  Quite frankly, no.  If I really cared that much, I would stop using Facebook.  There is a tradeoff.  A more open society is by definition a society with fewer barriers to the accessibility of information.  We all have a choice:  join Facebook and voluntarily sacrifice some of the privacy we feel we have for the opportunity to use the service, or not join Facebook and feel secure knowing that, as the UMBC video kids, “nobody will know our top five movies, no matter how much they want to.”  Nobody is forcing us to use Facebook.  Nobody is forcing us to use the Internet.  Nobody is forcing us to give particular information to particular parties (indeed, in order to join Facebook, one only needs to give an e-mail address, and if your email address is private, it probably doesn’t do much good for you).  When you join Facebook, you enter into what Rousseau would properly term a “social networking contract”:  Just as men sacrifice natural freedom for the protection of government, we now sacrifice a degree of privacy for the opportunity to make connections and play FarmVille.

I don’t mean to ridicule those who would prefer to keep their information private; there is nothing inherently wrong with this position.  All that I’m saying is that these services exist only by choice:  love it or leave it.  If you want to join Facebook, great.  If you don’t, that’s fine as well.  But it’s erroneous to claim any sort of malevolence on the part of Facebook or any other social networking website, as they clearly don’t extract any information without our consent.  If you’d prefer that Mark Zuckerberg not know your favorite quotes of all time, then Facebook probably isn’t for you.  But if you don’t mind him seeing your pictures from Holiday Ball in exchange for the chance to join a community of over 600 million, welcome aboard!  You’ll find that the Internet can be a very friendly place.


One obvious caveat, which may or may not be mentioned above:  the arrogation to individuals of responsibility for the security of their personal information does not apply in cases where a company affirmatively lies to its users.  The “social networking contract” can only operate on the basis of fully informed consent (I realize that there is substantial difference in opinion on the subject of whether privacy policies adequately facilitate informed consent).

Categories: Uncategorized

Responsibility and Retribution: Juvenile Murderers and Capital Punishment

The following is an essay that I wrote last year for a course at Choate.  It describes and analyzes the Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, a 2004 case holding that the execution of juveniles is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, and is thus unconstitutional.  In the essay, I argue that this decision was wrong, and that, insofar as we allow capital punishment (which I would, generally, argue that we should not), there is no reason to exclude anybody from a system of capital punishment purely on the basis of age.  I should caveat that I haven’t read this in over a year, and thus will reserve the right to recant and amend any of my statements, though likely not my thesis.  I think this is a critical capital punishment issue in our society, constitutionally, morally and politically.


The death penalty is, and without a doubt has been, one of this country’s most contentious issues for decades.  The very nature of the issue demands that it be so, as it quite literally deals with the arbitration of life and death.  People on both sides of the spectrum bring viewpoints wrought with passion, citing arguments of religious, political, economic, moral, and social natures in order to support their positions.  The complicated nature of death penalty cases makes it a difficult issue to break down, to sift through the complexities and see the issue as black and white.  Indeed, the issue is not black and white; there are many who support the death penalty only in certain cases or when it is applied in a certain way.  There are very few who would claim to be categorically for or against the death penalty.

The intricacies of this issue are reflected in the death penalty jurisprudence of the Supreme Court.  Beginning in 1972 with the case Furman v. Georgia, where the Court ruled that Georgia’s application of the death penalty was unconstitutional, the Court has ruled on a number of the idiosyncrasies of capital punishment.[1]  However, the Court has never given a definitive answer as to the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.  The closest that it has come is in the 1976 decision of Gregg v. Georgia, in which the Court ruled that the state of Georgia had rectified the prior flaws in its capital punishment system that had rendered the system unconstitutional, thus implicitly condoning the death penalty within constitutional parameters.[2]  Aside from this decision, however, the Court has only ruled on what those constitutional parameters are.  For example, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court ruled that mental retardation is a mitigating factor, which exempts a defendant from the death penalty.[3]  In another case, Stanford v. Kentucky, the Court ruled that a sixteen-year old defendant could be executed.  At issue in the case of Roper v. Simmons was again the age of a potential executee.  The question presented to the Court was thus:  “Can a defendant who is convicted of a murder committed before he was eighteen be executed?”  The Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that he could not be, thus making age another mitigating factor in a capital punishment case.  However, for reasons to be enumerated below, this decision was wrong.

Roper v. Simmons, a landmark 2005 Supreme Court Case, is one of the major cases establishing the standard for capital punishment in America.  Sparked by the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court to commute Christopher Simmons’ death sentence to life without parole, at issue was whether a juvenile could be executed.  Simmons, who was seventeen at the time, had created a plot, in conjunction with his friends Charlie Benjamin and John Tessmer, who were fifteen and sixteen respectively, to “find someone to burglarize, tie the victim up, and ultimately push the victim off the bridge”.[4]  Simmons and Benjamin (Tessmer decided to stay home) carried out this plan at the home of Shirley Crook, an old woman with whom Simmons had been involved in a car accident, breaking in at two AM, abducting her from her bed, and putting her into the trunk of Simmons’ car.  They then drove to a nearby bridge and pushed Ms. Crook off.  The next day, Ms. Crook’s body was found, Simmons was taken into custody, and he confessed immediately and was sentenced to death.  After going through the lower courts, Simmons’ appeal finally came to fruition in the Supreme Court of Missouri.  The Court found that since Simmons was a juvenile, his Eighth Amendment rights (the right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment) had been violated, and thus commuted his sentence to life without parole.  At this point, the State of Missouri appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who took on the case.  Roper v. Simmons did not present a debate on the morality of capital punishment itself.  Rather, at issue was whether or not a juvenile can be executed for a death-penalty level offence after receiving due process.  To use a term coined during the oral argument of James R. Layton, at issue was whether youth is a mitigating factor in a capital punishment case.

Layton, in his twenty minutes of oral argument, tried to paint the picture of a corrupted youth who deserved to pay for his crime.  He pointed out that the Missouri Supreme Court “jumped beyond the question of maturity to the arbitrary distinction of age”[5], speaking in relation to the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia Layton argued that while Atkins was directly related to “a component of culpability”[6] in mental retardation, the bright line drawn by the Missouri Supreme Court in Simmons was arbitrary.  Layton chided the state for “depriving legislators and juries of the ability to evaluate the maturity of 17-year old defenders”[7].  The greater part of his argument can be summed up in his response to Justice Scalia that “there are 17-year-olds who are equally culpable with those who are 18…years of age”[8].  Layton attempted to show that age was an arbitrary factor when considered in a capital punishment case.  He clearly believed that Christopher Simmons’ age had been used as a crutch by his counsel, and that his maturity should be the true determining factor.  Further attacking the term “adolescence”[9], Layton claims that it in itself is arbitrary, and thus cannot be used as a determining factor in a capital punishment case.  To sum up, Layton’s argument is based upon the notion that while age can be a mitigating factor (he cites Stanford v. Kentucky[10] as creating a baseline guide for execution without establishing a rigid bright-line), it is much more important to analyze culpability and maturity on a case by case basis, rather than to adhere to a strict and potentially arbitrary bright line created in a court room.

The oral argument of Seth Waxman was predicated on a very different notion.  Waxman attempted to show that, though the age of 18 may be an arbitrary bright-line, that it’s necessary to implement some arbitrary bright-line in order to ensure that the Eighth Amendment is upheld.  Waxman began by noting that America was one of only two counties in the world that allowed the execution of minors (Somalia being the other), saying that “we are literally alone in the world even though 110 countries in the world permit capital punishment…. every one of them renounces it for juvenile offenders”[11].  This, he warrants, is not “game, set, and match”[12], but he claims that it is a relevant fact, if for no other reason simply to demonstrate the moral dubiousness associated with the execution of minors.  Waxman goes on to discuss scientific evidence filed in amicus briefs by such bodies as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association.  This evidence, he claims, shows that there is “no way to identify them [juveniles as the ‘worst of the worst’] and there’s no way reliably to exclude them”[13].  Amidst some banter about whether the evidence could have been introduced at trial, Waxman’s scientific argument finds its main point:  That no scientific means exist to discover whether an offence committed by a minor is indicative of an overarching character flaw, or simply of juvenile transience.  He says, in response to a question by Justice Kennedy, “there is no way, even for a psychologist or a psychiatrist, much less a juror, to be confident [that the defendant is ‘the worst of the worst’] because of the inherent, documented transiency of the adolescent personality.[14]”  Waxman essentially contends that a jury cannot know for sure if a crime is motivated out of the type of hateful spite that usually garners the death penalty or simply by the kind of juvenile delinquency that merits a lesser response.  Of particular importance to this argument is the amount of time separating the offence from the trial.  Often, Waxman claims, adolescence will have changed the defendant such that an accurate gauge of his character at the time of the offence will be impossible.  He describes this as his “key point”[15], saying that it is impossible to determine if a crime “proceeded from enduring qualities of that person’s character as opposed to the transient aspects of youth”.  In this respect, Waxman says, the execution of juveniles is comparable to the execution of the mentally retarded addressed in Atkins. What Waxman’s argument boils down to is this:  It is impossible to know whether a juvenile is actually one of “the worst of the worst”, or if that individual is simply acting in an exacerbated manner of what one typically expects of adolescents.  Moreover, the isolation of the United States with regards to the issue of juvenile execution suggests a general consensus towards a feeling of moral repugnance towards applying the death penalty to those under eighteen, and thus the statutes should be amended to create a bright-line.  This bright-line may be arbitrary, but it is better than not having a bright-line at all.

Mr. Waxman’s argument is not only inadequate but also not effectively substantiated.  When pressed on a number of issues, among them the general use of eighteen as a bright-line for adulthood (Justice Scalia cites the driving age in 41 states, with no meaningful response from Waxman), the potential for abuse of a decision in his favor (Justice Kennedy quite rightly mentions that gangs would turn to juveniles as “hit-men”[16], in lieu of an adult who would be subject to the death penalty), and whether his scientific evidence holds up to strict scrutiny (it clearly did, since they won the case, but his oral argument was rather lacking, and his scientific arguments did not stand up to questioning by Justices Scalia and Rehnquist).  He relies too heavily on what he deems a societal consensus (an argument which, curiously, has several pages dedicated to it in Layton’s brief, but comes up only briefly in his oral argument) against the execution of minors, citing this, along with the scientific evidence, as one of the main reasons to rule in favor of his client.  However, this argument is lacking, for two reasons:  One, he presents no evidence to support his notion of the so-called societal consensus, none in the form of statistics, citations, or otherwise.  This actually becomes quite important because Layton argues that there is a consensus to the sixteen-year old age line, which he claims results from the Court’s decision in Stanford (which did not explicitly create a bright-line, but, according to Layton, created a “16-year old line”[17]).  But the more important reason is that society does not always chose the best or even the most moral option.  For example, until the 1860s, there was a societal consensus that enslaving Africans was acceptable.  Until the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, there was a societal consensus that interracial marriages were wrong[18].  Until 1964, there was a societal consensus that it was acceptable to fire someone simply based on his race.  Society has, throughout history, consented to countless immoral activities.  Thus, a societal consensus is not enough proof to rule in favor of Christopher Simmons.  To his credit, Mr. Waxman does have one fantastic argument, one that, had he presented it correctly, ought have won him the case, but he addresses it only in vague terms, without delving into the deeper implications.  This argument is regarding the period of time separating the murder and the trial.  This argument is solid, because it can undermine any kind of psychological testimony taken at trial simply by asserting that the significant transience of adolescence had turned the juvenile offender into a more mature individual since the act.  To disprove that line of argumentation is impossible, and at that point, the state would risk a tremendous uprising if they went ahead with the execution, as the potential execution of an immature adolescent would be abhorrent in every sense of the word.  Mr. Waxman hardly skims the surface with this argument though, leaving out the vital third step of any solid argument:  the impact.  Though he does, in response to a question by Chief Justice Rehnquist, assert that the person on trial two years later is, essentially, not the same person, he does not spend nearly adequate time exploring the impact of this contention.  Why does it matter if the person has changed since committing the crime?  Didn’t he still commit a horrible crime, and should he not still receive punishment?  It could be argued that he should not, since clearly one cannot identify the aggravating psychosocial factors two years after the fact, but if Mr. Waxman does not explain explicitly, he cannot possibly win the case .  Based solely upon the contentions presented in oral argument, Mr. Layton ought to have won the case.  He gives clear justification for his arguments, explaining why an arbitrary bright-line actually denigrates the capital punishment system, and indeed the entire judicial system as a whole.  If it is decided that a certain demographic of the population is exempt from one particular punishment, who is to say that they should not also be exempt from others?  Of course, it could be said that death is a particularly horrible affair, and that it is only for that reason that minors are exempt, but is life without parole not also a particularly horrible affair?  At that point, another arbitrary (albeit less arbitrary) bright-line is drawn:  that addressing the types of punishments to which minors can and cannot be subject.

It must be said, of course, that the death penalty is fundamentally wrong, for reasons too numerous to be elaborated on here.  However, as addressed above, the morality of capital punishment is not at issue here.  Neither side is arguing against the death penalty on principle.  Rather, we are arguing the specific implementation of capital punishment, and the morality thereof.  In a world in which the death penalty is moral (for instance, the world of the United States Supreme Court, where all law is taken from the Constitution), minors who can be proven to exhibit adult-like maturity and vicious intent behind their crimes ought be executed.  Mr. Layton is absolutely correct when he expresses discomfort with a system by which an “individual who murders at age 17, 364 days is somehow treated differently than…a less mature individual who is two days older”[19].

The Supreme Court, in the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy, held that “the State cannot extinguish his [a juvenile defendant’s] life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his maturity”[20].  Further, the Court found that executing juveniles was in direct contradiction to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.  But there are two main problems with this.  The first is that the purpose of the CCRC is not to protect heinous murderers who completely aware of their actions, but rather to protect those children whose crimes are clearly motivated by the “adolescent transience” described by Mr. Waxman.  Moreover, the United States had not ratified Article 37 (the death penalty clause) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and indeed still has not ratified the CRC. The second is that the ICCPR’s regulation on the death penalty in Article 6, Paragraph 2 is irrelevant here, given that the United States, in ratifying the ICCPR, did so with a reservation declaring their continued right to administer the death penalty according to their laws.  So one can clearly see that those two UN treatises are not relevant in this issue from a legal standpoint.

To again reiterate, the death penalty is immoral and ought not be allowed in this country.  However, that is not the issue here.  The issue is whether anyone who commits a heinous murder with a malicious intent and clear cognitive recognition of their actions and the implications therein should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, even if that individual is a juvenile.  Exactly what the fullest extent of the law should be is irrelevant in this case.  Given the philosophical justifications of punishment itself and the arguments presented in this case by Messrs. Layton and Waxman, it is altogether evident that the Supreme Court wrongly decided this case, and that the decision of the Supreme Court of Missouri ought be reversed.



















Additional Sources Used

“International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.” Office of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010.


“American Reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” International Justice Project. Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010.


Roper v. Simmons Case Summary.” Death Penalty Information Center. Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010


[1] “Oyez.” Furman V. Georgia (1972). Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 201

[2] “Oyez.” Gregg v. Georgia (1976). Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010.

[3] “Oyez.” Atkins v. Virginia (2002). Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010.

[4]Roper v. Simmons: Brief for Petitioner.” Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010

[5]Roper v. Simmons: Oral Argument of James R. Layton.” Oyez. Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11]Roper v. Simmons: Oral Argument of Seth P. Waxman.” Oyez. Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18]Loving v. Virginia (1964).” Oyez. Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 201

[19] Ibid

[20] “Opinion of Roper v. Simmons.” Cornell University Law School. Available from Internet; accessed 15 February 2010



Categories: Uncategorized

Casey Anthony and the Triumph of Due Process

So it’s too late for me to enter into a lengthy discourse on the death penalty, but in light of the resolution of a major capital case earlier today (the Casey Anthony case), I thought I’d share my views briefly on that case.


Admittedly, I haven’t looked exhaustively into the record, nor did I religiously follow the case, as did some.  But here are the relevant facts, in my view:  No forensic evidence, no eye-witnesses.  All the evidence presented by the prosecution was circumstantial, albeit substantially so, but no smoking gun was found, no plausible narrative advanced.  Don’t get me wrong; there are lots of factors that suggest that Casey Anthony did murder her daughter, but none offer proof.  We live in a society in which individuals are truly innocent until proven guilty.  It is not the case that 100% certainty is required for conviction, and thus a high standard, reasonable doubt, must be met before we as a society ought to willfully condemn a potentially innocent person.

Lots of evidence suggested that Casey Anthony committed murder, but that was not proven.  What was proven was that Miss Anthony is incredibly unstable, having had a traumatic past, and that she is likely in need of help.  It was proven that she was a bad parent, and possibly that she is a bad person.  These findings, while admittedly damning for her personally, do not constitute murder; it is not illegal to be a bad person, nor is it illegal to be a bad parent.  In a case surrounded by media attention and made into a public spectacle, the twelve jurors today resisted the pressures of the popular rumor mill, recognized their duty under the law, and fulfilled their obligations to the American justice system.  Say what you will of Casey Anthony:  she is not guilty of murder.


-Evan Goldstein ’12

Categories: Uncategorized

The Right to Die

June 29, 2011 12 comments

Hey all (by which I mean the 3-4 people who may read this), sorry for the long delay.  Last week work was really strenuous, so I never got around to posting.  Shame, too because last week’s topic was so juicy.  Oh well.  I was going to post on Saturday night but I had to spend two hours convincing Sarthak that people have a right to life (but actually…..).


Anyway, physician-assisted suicide is the question before us, and tonight I want to briefly deal with the question of morality in this scenario.  As per usual, I’ll be offering an insultingly cursory analysis of a nuanced issue.


We all acknowledge (including Sarthak) that there is a right to life; this right is fundamental in rights-based theories of ethics, because without a right to life, we have no other rights (we cannot have rights if we are not alive).  But do we have a right to death?  This is by no means the only relevant moral question on this issue (other questions pertaining to the rights and obligations of physicians are also important), but it’s the most fundamental.  No doctor ever has an obligation to perform a procedure that he or she feels is unethical (if this is a reasonable belief), so of course a doctor cannot be compelled to participate, but empirically we see that some doctors find this acceptable.  Thus, we must evaluate whether the patient has the right to request such a procedure, in order to even be able to move on to the next step of evaluating the doctor’s standpoint.


I think we generally accept that people have the right to do things that are personal.  In other words, I am sitting in my room right now, and if I wanted to do something that wouldn’t affect anybody except me, I have a right to do that without being prevented, whether or not that action is objectively good for me (ie, I could raid the fridge and eat all of the surplus food that my family doesn’t need).  Of course, this situation does not parallel exactly that of a potential physician-assisted suicide: obviously, other individuals have a stake in that as well.  But even though family members and loved ones may have emotional connections to the patient, nobody would claim that they (the family) have a right to the patient’s continued existence.  Thus, the emotional connection is not inviolable.  I submit that with consent, which is to say, a sincere and rational agreement between the patient and all relevant friends and loved ones, the emotional connections are, for ethical purposes, dissolved.  This is not to say that they are nonexistent, simply to say that they are not ethically relevant.  For example, if I wanted to smoke (which I don’t do) in a group of friends, it would be nice of me (though arguably not ethically required) to ask my friends for permission.  Some may say that it is immoral to smoke in the company of others without that permission, since their permission indicates their consenting to the potential ramifications that my smoking may have on them.  Having received permission, though, surely nobody would argue that it is immoral for me to smoke around my friends.  Of course, assisted suicide is several orders of magnitude more serious than a cigarette, but I believe that the ethical principle holds:  with consent, given with no mental reservation, from relevant (an ambiguous term) individuals, the obligations a suffering patient may have to others are dissolved from that consent, thereby allowing the patient to take an action that may be objectively ill-advised.


This is a simplistic view of the issue, but it feels right to me.  Obviously, though, there are lots of different ways to view the morality of physician-assisted suicide, as with any major moral dilemma.  Paternalism has many justifications, some better than others in one situation or another:  those justifications may or may not apply here.  Additionally, there may be pragmatic issues embedded in a legal codification of the above principles; issues of consent, rational analysis and prognosis are serious and need to be (and likely have been) considered by legislatures discussing this issue.  My treatment of PAS above is not the final word on the issue, but I think it’s a good start.  I’ll do my best not to get lost in work again but there are no guarantees.  Curing cancer is hard work 😛 (because of course, that’s what I’m doing….)



Evan Goldstein ’12

Categories: Uncategorized

Quick note

June 16, 2011 2 comments

Real quick:  I was just reading A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (great book, highly recommend it), and he offers a bit of insight to our question:  He says that intolerant sects (there are certainly those who would characterize certain elements of the media as intolerant sects) can have their freedom limited only when their actions directly threatens other freedoms enjoyed by people.  This is obviously a very broad statement, but I think I’d generally agree (of course, there are lots of details to fill in, but on principle, it makes sense; that’s why we’re not okay with teaching creation in schools, imposing religious law, etc).  Thoughts?


-Evan Goldstein ’12

Categories: Uncategorized

Capitalism and Democracy

June 16, 2011 15 comments

So again, I’ve begun a post with an incredibly preposterous title, and I’m certain to underwhelm.  But as I said a few days ago, I think it’s important to question whether certain fundamental aspects of our society ought to be left up the free market.  Don’t get me wrong; I would (surprisingly, probably, to some) characterize myself as a capitalist.  Let’s be honest; I’m applying to business programs, I want to be a businessman, perhaps even an investment banker, that most reviled and misunderstood of professions.  There’s nothing wrong with making money in and of itself, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with businesses taking such actions that are most likely to yield profits.  The question, though, is whether the government, and by extension society, ought to step in and restrit the freedom of markets under certain circumstances.

My answer is yes.  The fundamental premise of the free market is that it distributes all goods equally, that the goods that people value are produced in the quantity at which people value them for the price that people are willing to pay.  Pareto optimal is the magic word: a scenario in which no individual can be made better off without at least one individual being made worse off (for those who have taken Econ, think of points on the PPF).  But suppose that markets don’t always distribute goods efficiently when they’re free, that the societally optimal level of production isn’t reached.  Or, more pertinently, if the production of a particular quantity of good has attached costs to society; these costs are called negative externalities, meaning that the cost to society of production (which, in an efficient market, is simply the price of the good) exceeds the cost to the individual (or the price).  In this case, goods are overproduced since the true cost of production is not realized by the producer or the consumer, leaving neither with an incentive to curtail the equilibrium level of output.  To give a quick example, this is why the government makes environmental regulations (carbon tax, pollution laws, etc), since otherwise companies have no incentive not to pollute (since it’s cheaper), and consumers largely don’t internalize the cost of pollution (either because they don’t know, don’t care, or simply don’t factor it into their decision).  Thus, the government makes laws to internalize the external cost, making the market efficient.

The question is whether the media is a market that has negative externalities.  I don’t feel like launching into an extensive discussion, but I would argue that it does, given that it exerts a tremendous influence on the public conscience and has the ability to reach millions of people.  It’s sort of a tricky market, since the definition of production and consumption is unclear.  Additionally, those who watch TV are not really the consumers of the service provided by the networks, which primarily is advertising.  So it’s a really complex question and I don’t want to put out an argument that will inevitably be flawed; therefore, I thought I’d bring up the topic and open it for discussion.  This is the kind of topic that requires discussion; it’s not black and white, and it’s tremendously multi-faceted, so there are plenty of ways to attack the issue.  So let’s talk.  It’s certainly a question that our society, in this day and age, must face.


-Evan Goldstein ’12

Categories: Uncategorized

Media and Democracy

So I want to put the discussion of capitalism and media on hold for a second, because I think I should confront a more pertinent aspect of this issue:  is the penetration of the media, on balance, good or bad for American democracy?

That’s a really tough question, and I’m really tired, so I probably won’t do it justice.  After all, a real answer to that question has to begin by defining it:  What exactly is meant by “media” and what is meant by “good”?  Moreover, how can something actually be “good” or “bad” for democracy, excepting the possibility of a law that restricted the proliferation of democratic principles?  Is it possible that any organic institution, whether it’s a robust media industry or a robust financial services industry, isn’t necessarily good or bad for our society?

Possible, yes.  I don’t really buy that; after all, there’s good arguments to be made on why some lobbies are bad for democracy, or why inequities in the education system could be bad for democracy, etc etc.  The common thread is this:  those institutions, public or private, that directly influence the public conscience, and thus the public’s disposition towards certain political positions or ideologies, can impact democracy in a positive or negative way.  I think this proposition, while not self-evident, is fairly empirical, via American policy towards guns and Israel, the perpetuation of socioeconomic disparities and unequal representation along racial lines, etc.  Bottom line is, these institutions matter.

That being said, it’s difficult to say whether the American media has been basically good or basically bad for democracy.  Theoretically, a media that does is active in reporting the news in an efficient, detailed manner is manifestly good for democracy; the tools, such as social media and digital content, that allow the media to achieve a deeper societal penetration would only enhance the positive impacts of the media as a whole.  But does that happen in America, generally speaking?

After some consideration, I’d say yes, tentatively (I actually wrote a paragraph trying to justify the opposite and changed my mind).  This is, of course, not to suggest that the media has no negative effects on democracy; one has only to look to Fox’s “coverage” of the Tea Party movement in order to see how the media can be exploited for political ends.  But I’d argue that democracy needs people who contribute to a robust public discourse, which, surprisingly enough, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh actually do.  I want to be very clear about my argument here:  Manifestly, in principle, there is no reason why radical commentators like those noted above should have negative effects.  Even if they do have some negative effects, it is certainly preferable, from a democratic standpoint, to the converse:  having nobody express political opinions in public fora would stagnate the public discourse and disrupt the free exchange of ideas that is necessary in a democratic society.  Generally speaking, though, people with unpopular opinions are strong catalysts for democratic progress; they compel other citizens to reexamine their own views and move them to justify propositions that they previously believed to be self-evident.  Practically speaking, some people are stupid (harsh word, but it’s true) and will believe anything they hear without examining that; this is more a product of a poor educational system than an inherent flaw in the structure of the media.

I think it is an open question, though, and a difficult one.  The Founding Fathers could not have foreseen the media atmosphere as it stands in America today.  Philosophically, we have to evaluate how the principle of free speech is altered by mass distribution, if at all.  Is there a greater responsibility to temper political speech when that speech is viewed by millions on Twitter?  To what extent can commentators “interpret” facts, if millions will view their interpretations and accept them as true?  I would argue that free speech protections ought not change when speech is mass distributed, provided that commentators do not affirmatively lie.  But it is a tricky question, one requiring sound philosophical examination that I do not endeavor to provide right now.  It is, though, an extremely important question for us to settle, one that has tremendously significant implications for our society.


-Evan Goldstein ’12

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