By Ryan Ellis
Over the past week, conservatives and libertarians online have been fighting over whether it’s a good idea for the federal government to prosecute publishers of pornography. Elsewhere, conservatives such as Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri have called for greater federal regulation of online content providers such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has railed against big corporations buying back their own stock instead of investing in new plants and equipment (or wages). The Trump administration, for its part, continues to prosecute Obama-era “midnight lawsuit” labor cases against Big Tech and, in general, has no problem using the regulatory state against its political enemies.
What is going on here? Why are conservatives suddenly so interested in using the power of the federal Leviathan to enforce our view of the common good?
In one word, the answer is “frustration.”
Conservatives have spent a lifetime watching an ever-more aggressive Left march through the institutions of our civil society. Two generations ago, they took over the media, the universities, and the entertainment industry. More recently, they have taken over monopoly power in social media, human resources departments in the corporate world, and even professional sports.
As the Left has gotten control over these everyday aspects of life, they have gotten more extreme in their demands. It used to be that liberals wanted to enforce their worldview as normal or at least a version of normal. Now, the demand is that each of us must celebrate and get behind the Left’s playbook. You can be fired and “canceled” for not supporting a carbon tax or using the wrong pronoun in an email.
That brought us to the conservative fight earlier this year about transgender public library reading hours, which eventually transformed into calls for a federal government ban on internet pornography.
In the more mundane field of labor law, President Trump’s Department of Labor continues to pursue an Obama-era series of lawsuits against tech companies such as Google and Oracle. The department’s “Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs” is trying to get these companies to include more affirmative action quota hiring as a condition of getting federal contracts. There’s no actual evidence that’s been presented that these companies discriminate, but a leftover lawsuit from the Obama years has been utilized as a useful bludgeon against companies often hostile to conservative values.
Blatant ideological bias on the part of content companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter is what’s fueling regulatory calls from Hawley and continued legal action against Google from Trump’s Department of Labor.
This frustration is understandable. This frustration is merited. But this frustration is a fundamental strategic error on the part of conservatives.
Big Tech is vicious in its platform bias against us. The Left, in general, wants to shut down our churches, fire us from our jobs, close our businesses, and silence our speech. I get it.
But if there’s one thing that should unite conservatives, libertarians, and other flavors of rightward persuasion, it’s that the government is bad. If the government is bad in general, the federal government is really bad in particular. It’s our job as conservatives to reduce the size and scope of government (especially at the top) and to build up the civil society pillars that naturally should govern: the family, the church, fraternal and charitable organizations, and the like.
The government comes in and usurps these good things. When conservatives make the government bigger and more powerful because we temporarily have some of the levers of power, we have to be aware that we have permanently enlarged the long-term reach of the state. Trump will not always control the Department of Labor, but his choice to pursue an Obama-holdover lawsuit against Big Tech will give bipartisan imprimatur to that agency role forevermore. Next time, it may be the hiring practices of Catholic Charities or the United Way.
Followers of debates on pornography, or library reading hours, or suing Big Tech content firms might notice a pattern, and it isn’t the “conservatives vs. libertarians” dichotomy that the bigger government crowd would have you believe. In fact, online supporters of using government power to these conservative ends tend to be politically inexperienced (and frankly, naive) academic types. Those of us opposed to government action (though in no way supportive of pornography or left-wing thought policing) tend to be political professionals who have spent a lifetime actually working in this field, and who realize the live fire these writers and academics are playing with.
Conservatives should get back to the business of making the government smaller and everything else bigger.
Ryan Ellis (@RyanLEllis) is president of the Center for a Free Economy.