It Was Never Really Decentralized (The Confederate Fallacy)

It never ceases to amaze me when some libertarians, who are supposed to be in favor of small government (or even no government at all), point to the Confederate States of America as some sort of ideal, or at least better than the current US government. There are a couple of reasons why this is ridiculous. The first, and more important, reason is that the Confederacy was founded on the principle that some people had the right to own other people, which is as blatant a violation of core libertarian principles as one is likely to find. Sure, there are many who will claim that the Confederacy wasn’t really about slavery, but rather that its founding cause was “states’ rights.” This claim is easily debunked by reading the declarations of secession, which state in no uncertain terms that slavery and white supremacy were chief causes of secession. Some of these declarations even list the nullification of the Fugitive Slave Law by Northern states among their grievances, suggesting that the right of the states to defy the federal government didn’t apply to laws that benefitted those who enslaved people.

But there’s a second reason to be suspicious of the claim that the Confederate system represented the victory of “limited government,” and this would be the case even if the Confederacy really were about states’ rights. The reason is that those who claim the Confederacy represented limited government are conflating having less power with having power over a smaller area. The latter can just as easily coexist with an increase in government power. The Ottoman Empire, for example, by its waning days exerted very little power over much of its territory; when Kemal Atatürk took power over a much smaller independent Turkey, he exerted a much greater degree of control. Or, to take things to the extreme, imagine a small town run by Stalin, with no limitations placed on it by a larger government. Now compare life in this town to life in the present-day United States under a supposedly powerful federal government. Which is likely to be more free? Indeed, sometimes the restrictions placed by a federal or imperial government actually restrain the despotic tendencies of the territorial governments below them – as we see from the case of the federal government abolishing the system of enslavement that the seceding states wanted to keep. (This is not to say that power exerted by a higher authority is the only, or even the best, way to contain despotic smaller governments; I argue only against the claim that a government that claims a larger territory must necessarily be less free than one that claims a smaller one.)

What goes for “smaller government” also goes for “decentralization.” A lot of things that people describe as “decentralized” really just have a lot of strong local authorities, some of which are more powerful than the “central” authorities they’re contrasted with. For example, the “decentralized” web of the 1990s and early 2000s was made up of a lot of static personal web pages, WordPress blogs, and volunteer-run message boards running forum software like phpBB. Each of these was its own tiny walled garden, subject to the arbitrary rules of a single person, or at best a very small group. In the case of static web pages, all content was generated by a single person; in the case of forums and commented blogs, content could be submitted by outsiders, but was subject to moderation or deletion. Indeed, webmasters (now THERE’S a word we haven’t seen in years) could even instruct their web servers to block entire IP addresses if they didn’t want certain people to view their content. It was a web of a million tiny empires.

There was both good and bad in this old World Wide Web, but surprisingly, a lot of the nostalgia for this era of Internet history comes from those who are upset because they’ve been banned from Twitter and Facebook. And their nostalgia for this lost era comes not because they think the micro-walled-gardens of old were freer across the board, but because they know that a suitably sympathetic walled garden (such as many have found on Gab or Parler) would result in more freedom for them – including the freedom to ban accounts that parody right-wing politicians. Just as the Puritans who fled to the New World weren’t seeking freedom of religion, but rather religion their way, the Parler refugees want a place where they can call the shots, even if it’s less populous. Of course the trade-off is that these smaller walled gardens are, well, smaller; the users of Gab or Parler, or of the many independent racist forums that litter the web aren’t able to reach as many members of the general public as they are on Twitter or Facebook. That is, anyone can join these sites and read what’s there, but most won’t specifically be looking for them. The advantage of a mainstream social network is that most people are already on it, which gives one the opportunity to reach out to the general public to find sympathetic listeners, recruit those who are on the fence, and pick public fights with those who disagree. As a result, the users of fringe sites are still dependent on mainstream networks. They must walk a fine line: follow the rules of Twitter just well enough to hint at the type of people that they really want to reach, then make sure those people know to come to Gab or Parler for the real content they can’t get on Twitter.

What would a genuinely decentralized Web look like? We’ve already had a reasonable facsimile thereof, and it wasn’t pretty. I’m talking about Usenet. This is a truly decentralized discussion forum dating from the pre-World Wide Web days. Servers that subscribed to Usenet newsgroups would communicate with each other using the Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol; posts made to one server would be passed along to other servers in the network, with no central server controlling the whole process. While some Usenet newsgroups were moderated, the majority were not; an individual server could choose whether or not to subscribe to a given newsgroup, but could impose no editorial control on the network at large. As a result, Usenet became the last bastion of free speech, a driving force for political and social change that to this day is the Internet’s most popular and most beloved discussion forum.

I’m kidding, of course. Usenet was OK when the Internet consisted of a few government, academic, and scientific domains; while there was of course some level of toxicity among the denizens of these institutions, and an overwhelmingly white and male usership, the fact that the user base for Usenet was small, educated, and employed at organizations that might sanction anyone posting the most objectionable kinds of content helped enforce an informal set of community standards that kept discussion more or less civil. And then the September that never ended happened.

In the pre-dotcom days, it was often observed that the calibre of discussion on Usenet took a dive every September, when a new crop of college freshmen gained access to the platform but were not yet familiar with its informal social rules. Within a couple of months, social pressure from longstanding Usenet users had convinced most of them to either play by the rules or stop posting. But then the Clinton administration opened up Internet access to commercial enterprises, and the dialup mogul America Online started offering Usenet access to its members. Now anyone with a modem and an AOL account could post to Usenet, and the informal means of censure no longer worked. Even if you managed to convince one new AOL user to stop posting garbage, another three were logging on for the first time. Nor were individual posters the biggest problem; for the first time, companies (and scammers) began posting spam in large quantities to every newsgroup they could find, and most newsreaders did not include software for filtering out such posts. Usenet also took a far darker turn, as entire forums devoted to hate speech, bomb making, and child pornography began cropping up.

Nowadays, Usenet is effectively dead. It still exists, and some of its (moderated) groups are even somewhat useful, but the unmoderated groups are a vast wasteland of spam. Most consumers don’t even have software that can access Usenet (I think the Thunderbird email client still can, but most of its dwindling user base probably doesn’t even realize this feature exists). Google’s Usenet archives are around but not exactly well publicized, and, like most things Google, will probably be killed off at some point. It’s safe to say that the Usenet experiment in fully decentralized, completely unmoderated discussion was an abject failure.

What can we learn from this? One thing is that an unmoderated forum, if it can ever work at all, only works when there are community standards that can be enforced through social pressure. The larger and more diverse the membership of the forum, the harder it is to keep such standards in place. The flip side of this is that a restricted and homogeneous usership is, well, restricted and homogeneous. You’re not likely to find a lot of diversity of opinion there, and you know that anything that you say will reach at most a tiny subset of the population.

If we want an alternative to the modern Web that isn’t controlled by national governments or big corporations, but which is open to everyone, decentralization isn’t the way to get there. Nor are the pseudo-decentralized walled gardens of private forums or alt-social-media. We either have to accept the limits of decentralization, or find a way to make centralization work better.

Last modified on 2021-09-15