June 13, 2024

Balancing Can Be Harder Than It Looks

Reflecting on the recent argument about Howard Dean’s old smartcard speech, Larry Lessig condemns the kind of binary thinking that would divide us all into two camps, pro-privacy vs. pro-national-security. He argues that Dean’s balanced speech was (perhaps deliberately) misread by some, with the goal of putting Dean into the extreme pro-national-security/anti-privacy camp.

There is a special circle in hell reserved for those who try to destroy the middle ground on issues like this. Dean was clearly trying to take a balanced position, and it’s unfair to ignore the pro-privacy part of his speech to paint him as anti-privacy. Dean was advocating a reasonable balance.

But it’s not enough simply to want balance. You also have to figure out how to achieve it, or at least approximate it, by adjusting the available policy levers. And that can be difficult, especially if those levers are weak or hard to understand. Opting for balance is not the end of the policy process, but the beginning.

Rather than accusing politicians like Dean of wanting the worst for America, we can do much more good by helping them understand what the policy levers do and why it might not be such a good idea to pull that one they’re reaching for.


  1. “Cypherpunk”: Balanced rhetoric, with nothing else, can be said to be a balanced approach. But balanced rhetoric does not outweigh unbalanced *actions*. Dean’s done little to need “forgiveness” here – an obscure, vague, speech is hardly a major sin. By contrast, Bush and Ashcroft have major, major, policy *implementations* on their watch. To equivalence these vastly different situations is absurd.

    But on the main point, when a journalist pulls something like this (heck, I’ll name names, "Declan McCullagh"), I suggest it’ll make the politician very hesistant to listen to informed discussion, simple because so much noise has been generated about the politician’s views on the topic.

  2. Cypherpunk says

    I very strongly agree with the need to recognize a middle ground on controversial issues, and I’m glad to see calls for that here. There is indeed far too much polarization occuring in the online community.

    Of course Lessig undercuts his call for tolerance by going out of his way to gratuitiously badmouth the RIAA. I read the RIAA’s file sharing FAQ at http://www.riaa.com/issues/music/downup_faq.asp and it looks reasonably balanced to me. I don’t agree with his characterization of them as willful extremists; at least, no more so than Lessig himself.

    I would also like to see the online community extend to George Bush and John Ashcroft the same generosity and forgiveness that Howard Dean is receiving. I’m sure Ashcroft pays lip service to privacy while demanding the right to know where we travel and what books we read. If a rhetorical bow to privacy is good enough for the left-wing candidate it should be good enough for the right-winger as well.