The Chinese government has blocked its citizens from viewing youtube. This is not the first time China has banned a website for political reasons. Often the ban is a temporary response to politically sensitive content. After a period of time, access to the site is usually restored minus a targeted block of the offending media.
On Hacker News, a commenter writes:
The hard thing to bend my mind around is the fact that many people in China are in favour of Internet censorship. I have witnessed the same thing here in the UAE - even from young Western-educated locals.
I suppose that if you grow up in a society where heavy-handed censorship is widespread in all media and even conversation, you'd accept it as normal and perhaps necessary. Self-censorship is even more effective and omni-present. (...snipped for brevity...)
This comment gives us what we would expect from an average person in our society - implicit disapproval of China's actions and explicit wonder that anyone could approve of them. I respond:
China is less than a lifetime away from its last civil war. I can see how that would make people fearful and cautious.
Allowing populism to run a muck could lead to revolution, especially in a young and poor nation like China. Contrary to the romantic ideal of revolution we have in the West, in practice it is a bloody, miserable, and violent thing.
Call me a fascist, but I can understand the Chinese authorities' attempts to short-circuit anti-government movements. I can also understand popular support for such actions, given that the current Chinese government is more competent than all but a handful on this planet.
Also - I'm just trying to understand and explore their side here. I do enjoy living in a free society where I can support market anarchism and make frequent anti-government comments. I'm just not so much of an idealist to believe that American-style democracy is optimal for all places, times, and situations.
For example, I can understand why the Germans chose to ban Nazi publications in the wake of World War II, free speech be damned.
I grant that I sound like a bad guy. Nobody in this modern-thinking age would ever dare give a nod to censorship. I certainly do not sound like a libertarian.
But I am glad I explored this topic, as it led to some interesting results. Normally I think of libertarians as some of the most vociferous proponents of civil liberties and freedom of information. However, after mulling it over for awhile, I thought of a way that libertarians can support "oppressive" censorship, such as that undertaken by China.
Perhaps I should keep it to myself, like Godel's infamous discovery of a path to dictatorship in the US Constitution which he tried to blurt out at his citizenship hearing. But we are mature people. We can handle a little critical exploration of the philosophy that we hold a common fondness for.
It is good practice to begin our wanderings in uncontroversial territory. Most libertarians approve of newspaper owners or website proprietors censoring what articles are allowed to appear in them. In fact, libertarians would take issue with calling it "censorship", since such content filtering is not conducted by the government, but by the owners of a private means of communication.
This fits with one common conception of libertarianism - libertarianism as "propertarianism". According to this conception, libertarianism maximizes personal freedom within the constraints imposed by property ownership rules, and "freedom" means being free to dispose of your property as you wish as long as you don't violate the rights that other people have in their property.
Along the same lines, libertarians would throw a fit if a municipal government decided that the Democratic and Republican parties were allowed to solicit votes in their city, but banned the Libertarian party from doing so. In the public sphere, libertarians are fierce proponents of fairness, equal rights, and free speech. However, this is not true in the private sphere. They would not lodge an ethical complaint if a privately owned housing development were to exclude the operatives of some political groups but not others. After all, it is the owners' property, and they are allowed to do with it as they wish, even if we don't agree with them. That's what "liberty" means.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Patri Friedman, the world of private governments aboard floating seasteads is rapidly approaching. This is a good time to bring back on stage the evil, oppressive Chinese regime and its campaign of internet censorship.
Suppose you are the owner/manager of a large, prosperous seastead. One day, you discover a nascent communist conspiracy on your seastead, and its numbers are growing. Its members communicate and recruit by means of an internet forum and a physical newsletter. The conspiracy advocates overthrowing the manager (you), probably killing you in the process, and replacing you with a democracy of the proletariat.
As the CEO of FreeWaters Seastead Community, what do you do? Do you (1)play the good liberal, and resolve to beat your opponents in the "marketplace of ideas"? Or do you (2)ban their website, burn their newspapers, and keel-haul a few of them for good measure? Which option feels more libertarian?
I know which I am leaning towards. It's been centuries since the world has seen a good keel-haul. And before you ask, yes I am available for Seastead CEO positions, if the right amount of money and wenches is offered.
What is striking about this example is that libertarian thought allows option (2) for private seastead owners, but not for China. This is not entirely arbitrary. Presumably seastead residents were made to sign a contract before they moved in, a real-life Social Contract!, that detailed their rights, responsibilities, and how to avoid keel-hauling. Thus, libertarian ethics frees the manager to make the decisions that maximize customer satisfaction and return to shareholders, including the persecution of the occassional communist conspiracy.
However, libertarian ethics are much harsher on the current managers of poor old China. They had the misfortune to inherit a legacy system that installed itself through non-propertarian means. There is no signed contract. Thus, libertarians consider their regime illegitimate, and they are constrained from making decisions that they think are best for their residents, such as shutting down websites of democratic conspiracies seeking to overthrow the government.
The point of this meandering monologue is that we can start with libertarian rules and get governments that do things that most libertarians won't like.This is surprising, but there is a good reason for it.
Libertarianism is a philosophy about means. It describes a set of allowed and prohibited ways of interacting with other people. If you describe yourself as a libertarian, you believe that these means of interaction are wise and just. I tend to agree with that sentiment, so I call myself a libertarian.
Many libertarians treat the term "classical liberal" as a synonym, but that is not true at all. Liberalism is a philosophy about ends. It says that people ought to have the freedom of speech, of the press, and of organization. They ought to have fair trials when accused of a crime, and not be deprived due process before any punishment is meted out.
Modern libertarianism is a muddled mess of an ideology because its adherents don't understand this difference. They assert that libertarianism and classical liberalism are one and the same, that libertarian means necessarily result in classical liberal ends. But that is not true. I just showed one counter-example whereby libertarian means can result in very illiberal ends through the intermediate step of private governments. Like any complex set of rules, there are edge-cases, grey areas, and Godelian loop-holes.
It's okay to hold separate ethical ideas about means and about ends. But sometimes in order to achieve your ends, you will have to violate the means-constraints you have set for yourself. Conversely, following your means-constraints will sometimes lead you to sacrifice your end goals. There is no God that made a just world where good means and good ends always coincide. We live in a messy, evolved place where we must sometimes contradict ourselves and work against ourselves if we strive to be good people.
When private governments arrive, I predict that the people that live under them will be happier and more prosperous. Moreover, I believe the force of competition will make the average person happier and more prosperous even if he chooses to remain under a legacy government. However, I also believe it will slough off people from the libertarian movement. We will have to rethink what ethical constraints people ought to be bound by once private governments have met all of our criteria to get permission to act as they will.