Our principles, not our tech, keep us prosperous and free
We live in an age when technology is worshipped. Entrepreneurs who create technologies that transform our lives become billionaires, seemingly overnight. Companies that do not adopt new technologies or adapt to their use quickly enough are put out of business. The term “disruptive innovation” has been added to the lexicon of business CEOs everywhere, an ominous warning for some, a thrilling opportunity for others.
As individuals, we’ve rapidly grown accustomed to the benefits and ease that the most modern technologies have brought to our lives: Smartphones incorporate features as disparate as cameras; video; fitness and sleep monitors; instant texting; maps with GPS; flashlights; and the ability to transfer money to anyone virtually anywhere. Digital copies of music are perfect. Online, print and audiobooks make this year’s Booker Prize-winning novel as well as great classics written centuries ago available to larger audiences than ever before. Social media enables the immediate transfer of news and information. Crowdfunding is a vehicle for startups and worthy charitable causes to collect small sums of money from large numbers of people for an enormous aggregate advantage. Drones and automated distribution chains deliver our goods within a day or two — and often, within mere hours — of our ordering what we want. Pundits, popular influencers and political candidates can use the internet and the media carried thereon to reach millions of people with their messages.
Even in Western Europe, the United States and other free nations, all of this technology is not without its downsides. But in oppressive regimes like China’s, the same technology that has immeasurably enhanced our lives is making life hell on Earth for those trapped there.
China’s surveillance state is notorious, violent and expanding. A video has gone viral that appears to show a Chinese man being interrogated by Chinese authorities for criticizing the police on social media. Earlier this week, it was announced that China will require facial recognition software with all new cellphone numbers. (China uses facial recognition technology to implement its punitive social-credit system as well as to identify and target protesters in Hong Kong.) China’s government has a murderous history (Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, and the one-child policy from 1980 to 2016 resulted in a reported 300 million abortions — many of them forced — and widespread infanticide.
The point is that technology is just a tool, and like all tools, it can be used for good or for ill. It is our principles that make us prosperous, keep us free and protect us from oppression — not our technologies. In the case of the United States, those principles are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, as are the historical, political, philosophical and, yes, even religious bases of those written principles.
So we should be immediately suspicious whenever a politician, or an academic or a media personality, advocates abandoning one of more of those principles, even when — actually, especially when — their purported reason for doing so appears to be to achieve some altruistic objective. After all, the world’s worst mass murderers (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot) didn’t rise to power by claiming that they wanted to inflict as much misery on as many people as possible. To the contrary, their message was always infused with altruistic objectives: ending conflict, eliminating poverty, addressing economic inequalities, redressing other wrongs. Even when they did expressly advocate for the elimination of human beings (as Hitler did with the disabled and mentally handicapped), it was always sold as being “for the larger good.”
We see threats of this abandonment of principles among the current (albeit shrinking) crop of Democratic candidates for president. Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced this week that she’d strive to eliminate the Electoral College. “Call me old-fashioned,” she said, “but I think the person who gets the most votes should win.”
I don’t call her old-fashioned; she’s either painfully ignorant or a deceitful panderer. The Electoral College was set up to prevent outright rule by a majority, and to give smaller, more rural and less populated states a meaningful say in the election of the president, just as the U.S. Senate structure gives the states a voice in legislation enacted by Congress. As a lawyer (and a law professor), Warren must know this. But she pretends to her fawning followers that abandoning the limits deliberately designed in the Constitution is better — because of her altruistic objectives, of course.
For his part, Sen. Bernie Sanders got into some trouble in September when he admitted that he supports population control efforts — including abortion — to combat “climate change.”
Sanders might not advocate for the kinds of population-control policies that were in place in China during my lifetime. But once the principles of liberty and limited government have been sufficiently eroded, the next leader, or the one after that, will have all the power they need to impose whatever policies they want – in pursuit of their altruistic objectives, as always. And I’ve read plenty of essays and tweets from even more radical leftists who would have) zero problem withholding medical care from or forcing abortion upon a family with “too many” children to avert “climate change,” “systemic racism,” “economic inequality,” “overpopulation” or whatever frantic cause du jour has their panties in a wad.
Without our principles to protect us, technology — no matter how advanced and brilliant — is just another weapon in the hands of a despot.
Laura Hollis is a nationally syndicated columnist.