Should Government Implement Net Neutrality?

This is a slightly modified version of a speech I gave in a debate on Net Neutrality that I did with my partner, Louis Saintvil on January 18, 2018. The debate was sponsored by MicGoat and was an Oxford-Style debate. My partner and I won by swaying more of the undecided vote: our side began with 4 votes and ended with 9, while the opposition began with 9 votes and ended with 11.

You can see the debate on Youtube here.


I want to begin with an ethical explanation for why Net Neutrality is not valid legislation. As with any ethical discussion, a proper context is required. To that end, we need to define and understand three key concepts: the nature of man, the nature of government, and the nature of individual rights.

Let’s look at the first of these: the nature of man. In the words of Aristotle, man is the rational animal. He survives by the free exercise of his reasoning mind. A man may feel hunger on instinct, but only his reason will tell him how to distinguish food from poison. A man’s body may suffer from infection without his thinking about it, but only his thinking about it can produce medicines to counteract the disease.

What is it that prevents man from exercising his reason? Physical force. Coercion. You can’t think if someone else brandishes a gun your way or threatens to break your legs should you come to the wrong conclusion. Force is anti-mind and anti-reason.

To summarize this point: man uses reason to survive and force is opposed to reason.

The next concept to examine is the nature of government. What is government? Government is an organization with a monopoly on physical force in a given geographic area; coercion is the essence of government. If you think otherwise, try ignoring a call from the IRS or disobeying a traffic cop sometime to see just how voluntary government mandates are.

To summarize this point: the essence of government is force and a moral government seeks to prohibit the exercise of force in civilian life.

What is government’s proper relationship with man? To answer this, we must discuss our third key concept: individual rights.

Rights are principles that define an individual’s freedom to act in a given social context; they are a bridge between ethics and politics. The theory of individual rights recognizes that an individual’s life is his own, and that the individual is not to be expropriated by those who would sacrifice him to the ends of the group, the tribe, the race, the class, “God” or “society”.

Legitimate rights are concerned with freedom of action, and are not guarantees for free goodies. This is worth repeating: rights do not entitle a person access to the products or services created by others on the grounds of need or whim. Rather, rights secure what a person creates by his own effort and allows him the freedom to trade with others.

There is no right to a “fair” wage, only a right to hire someone on the basis of agreed employment terms.

There is no right to a “competitive” price, only a right to produce and negotiate the terms of sale.

There is no right to happiness, only a right to the pursuit of your own happiness by your own effort.

Rights provide us with an objective means of rating a government. If government protects citizens from those that initiate force it secures their rights and is a critical ally of man.  If government initiates force against man so to exploit what he creates, it becomes even worse than the two-bit thugs that hold him at gunpoint.

History is littered with governments that used force to oppress the people in its borders. Examples include the absolutist monarchies in Europe, the current theocratic states in the Middle East, and the totalitarian states of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the late 18th century when the American founding fathers discovered the proper role of government and gave birth to the United States, the first government that was limited by design.

To summarize this point: rights are principles that delineate individual action in a social context, and government is at its best when it protects man’s rights.

So how does this viewpoint apply to the issue of Net Neutrality? Whenever we examine a government policy, what we need to ask is: is this a proper place to use a gun instead of a comment card, a boycott, or a rational argument?

In the case of Net Neutrality, the answers to these questions is a resounding “no!”

Net Neutrality legislation is based on the idea that cheap internet access is a right. In the words of the Orwellian “media watchdog” Free Press:

“What we want to have in the US and in every society, is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility. We want an Internet where you don’t have to have a password and that you don’t pay a penny for. It is your right to use the Internet.”

Like all phony rights, Net Neutrality is an attempt to guarantee people access to something that they didn’t produce without first asking: at whose expense?

Internet service is not something that simply exists in nature, ripe for redistribution and smarmy government guarantees. Net Neutrality legislation treats this expensive infrastructure as a given. It evades and invalidates the rights of the internet service providers (ISPs) who make the internet possible.

Advocates for Net Neutrality will counter that Net Neutrality protects free speech. If you want to post controversial blog posts or Facebook comments, proponents of the law argue, then what stops Verizon or Comcast from preventing that from occurring on their networks? Or even worse, what if your ISP decides to block access to certain websites on the grounds that it objects to the content there? As stated by the ACLU, ” freedom of expression isn’t worth much if the forums where people actually make use of it are not themselves free.”

This argument is based on a flawed conception of free speech. All rights are contextual; that is, there is a context in which one’s freedom to act can be limited by the rights of others involved, and this includes property rights. One person’s right to free speech does not mean that others must provide them with the means to express their ideas. Rather, free speech ensures that you are free to spread your views by whatever means you have earned in trade with others.

Free speech allows you to publish content in your own newspaper; it does not entitle you to publish content in someone else’s newspaper. Free speech holds that you can freely rent a lecture hall to speak, not that you are entitled to the microphone at an event that someone else has paid for. Content providers today such as Google or Facebook reserve the right to remove posts from their media at their discretion, and that is their right. By the same token, your right to free speech does not impose any obligations on those that deliver such content to you in the first place.

Even so, say Net Neutrality spokespeople, what about corporate influence in America? It is a long-accepted bromide among the political left (and some on the political “right”) that corporations collectively benefit from screwing over their customers and monopolizing whole industries for the sake of “greed.”

This attitude is generally misguided, but in the case of the internet it is totally out of touch with reality. To bring the internet to your home requires myriad cables, satellites, wireless transmitters, servers and other expensive, electronic equipment. ISPs have labored for decades to innovate and produce quality service to their customers, moving us from dial-up to DSL to fiber optics and beyond. From 2011 to 2013, the top 3 providers alone spent over $100 billion on improving their service. From 2005 to 2015, average broadband increased by a whopping 1150%. All this, without government mandates to enforce Net Neutrality. So much for the mustache-twirling businessman.

The fact is that Net Neutrality is not only unnecessary, but it is unjust and immoral. The internet is an important part of life in today’s world; I do not deny this. Precisely because it is so vital, however, the least we can do for those who make it possible, rather than try to regulate them out of existence, is to say if only once and as a whisper: thank you.

Make Debating Great Again!

Advice on how to make debating with others more fun and constructive.

As we approach the holiday season after a contentious election year, many will feel themselves embroiled in dinnertime discussion with friends and family. There will no doubt be many fights that break out over champagne, apple pie and Christmas presents: brother against brother, father against child, daughter-in-law against wacky aunt. Those who seek to preserve a harmonious atmosphere will try to observe the conventional wisdom that it is rude to discuss religion and politics over supper but when the booze flows, the tension grows. Thus, the dreaded “holiday political debate.”

Debate can oftentimes generate more heat than light; rather than illuminate a particular issue, people get burned when others disagree with them. Debate serves a vital purpose, though: it allows a person to present their case before a skeptical audience and to thereby confront the premises that they may take for granted. Anyone interested in their own intellectual honesty should not be afraid to participate in a debate with honest opponents. Instead of avoiding debate, I propose people learn to engage in it constructively and get better at it.

I am interested in addressing three distinct questions when it comes to debates:

  1. What are the essential characteristics of a debate?
  2. How should one conduct oneself in a debate?
  3. What is an objective measure of success for participants in a debate?

Let’s answer the first question. A debate centers around a single issue and involves at least three distinct parties: two presenters and an audience. The presenters represent two opposing views on the issue in question and the audience represents those that are not fully committed to one of the two views. It is crucial that we have these three ingredients and if any one of them is missing, then the nature of the conversation changes and it is not longer a debate. If there is no audience and each person is giving their own take, then you have a discussion among equal participants and the necessary persuasion element is gone from the situation. If there is only one presenter, then you have a lecture where one person is educating or explaining a topic that they are knowledgeable about to an audience that is mostly listening and absorbing material.

Note that the size of the audience is irrelevant to the classification of something as a debate: so long as there is a third party to listen and be convinced, it does not matter whether the audience fills a stadium or a kitchen table. Note further that there may be more than two individuals serving as presenters per side, and there may in fact be hidden presenters lurking in the audience. What I mean here is that the moment a person advances an argument in favor of one side or another, they have moved from the audience to one of the presenters’ camps. This is typical of informal debates, when two people start the debate and bystanders start “ganging up” on one of the two presenters. In this instance, the presenters must honestly acknowledge that any person buttressing the arguments of one side at the expense of the other are no longer members of the impartial audience. In extreme examples, the “debate” may actually not be a true debate since there is no audience and everyone is already more or less dedicated to a particular position.

Shouldn’t we expect the audience to shrink as the debate progresses and people are convinced one way or another? I believe the answer to this question is no, because opinions on weighty issues are not formed overnight and people have varying degrees of certainty in their beliefs. When we take a particular issue, each audience member will likely be inclined to one side or another; this is to be expected. Audience members can have an opinion at the start of a debate and sympathize with one of the two sides. However, it takes a certain amount of conviction to be able to enunciate one’s position and advance arguments to support it in the face of a challenge.

There is a clear distinction to be drawn, in other words, between a person that simply agrees with a particular position and a person that agrees with a particular position and can rationally defend it in a debate. It is likely that the person who presents arguments to support a position has been in the dialogue and has at least a cursory understanding of the opposing position, whereas a person that merely agrees may be open to persuasion when they hear the other side. This is what distinguishes an audience member from a presenter: a presenter is confident enough in their belief to put forward an argument while an audience member is not.

Now, onto the second question: How should one proceed as a debate participant? As an audience member, it is important to raise questions and challenge those arguments that are unclear or seem incomplete. As a presenter, there are several guidelines that I think merit observation. Not only will these rules make a person a more respectable presenter, but it will also lead to fewer emotional outbursts and fights.

The first rule to observe when engaging in debate is the so-called “principle of charity” which states that one ought to interpret ambiguous arguments from opponents in as rational a manner as possible. That is, when a presenter in a debate makes an argument that could potentially have multiple meanings, we are to take the meaning that is most rational, consistent and free of falsehoods and fallacies. In this way, we avoid caricatures of the opponent and ensure that we are arguing against their actual position and not a straw man.

To consider an example of this principle, suppose Alice and Bob are arguing whether it is proper to use corporal punishment on children that misbehave. Alice may argue that it is immoral to hit children as a form of punishment and Bob may argue that spanking a child when they have done wrong on occasion is crucial to getting the child to respect authority. The principle of charity dictates that both Alice and Bob should assume that the other person has the best interests of the child in mind when they discuss whether corporal punishment is useful or not to raising children, unless there is clear evidence that this is not the case. The point in disciplining a child in the first place is to aid in his development, so the rational presenter would argue their case with this goal in mind.

The second guideline in debating properly is to recognize and respect the free will and intellect of your opposing presenters, and to let this shape your expectations. Individual presenters have a choice to participate in a debate or remain silent as members of the audience. Nobody can force a mind to operate; arguments can only be marshaled by a thinking consciousness, and people need some amount of courage to effectively present a position in front of an audience, no matter how small or familiar it is. When a person is willing to participate as a presenter, it is incumbent on their opponents to assume that they have at least some familiarity with the issue outside of their own position and that it is likely arguments will not convince them overnight.

This point is so crucial it merits repeating: do not expect to convert opposing presenters with your arguments in the heat of a debate. For each argument that you offer, your opponents have either heard it or they have not heard it. If a given argument was known to your opponent before you advanced it, then it was not sufficient to convince them before and so there is little chance it will convince them now. If a given argument was not known to your opponent, then it will take some time for them to digest the argument and come to accept the full implications of it. Thoughtful people who care about ideas need to integrate new arguments and data with their previous understanding of the world, and this takes time and reflection. People are not often willing to engage in reflection in the presence of an audience that is judging their performance as a presenter.

This leads naturally to the third rule to follow as a presenter: aim for the undecided audience with your arguments. Treat the audience as though it were a group of students, hungry for your instruction on the subject at hand. Provide the clearest case for your position, and point out the holes in your opponents’ arguments. Furnish the audience with resources they can google if they wish to learn more, such as books or articles. One encouraging indication that you have performed well as a presenter is if you get questions from the audience, because asking questions is a sign of an active mind. You should answer audience questions to the best of your ability and admit when you are not sure what the answer may be, because people who are eager for the truth appreciate genuine effort that is free of pretense and arbitrary assertions.

Finally, when a debate is over how do you gauge your success or lack thereof? Objectively, we have established that it is unrealistic to convince opposing presenters during a debate. The audience should be your target, not the opposing presenters. To this end, compare the audience after the debate with the audience before the debate. How many people changed their minds? How many people started in agreement with your opponent, only to have one of your arguments plant a seed of doubt? How many people asked questions and were genuinely interested in the implications for accepting your position? These are all important questions to ask and are the proper way to objectively assess your performance in a debate as a presenter. If one considers a situation where you are the only advocate for your position and there is no audience, it makes sense to set your expectations for immediate converts low.

To summarize, one should not view debate as something unpleasant and aggravating. Instead, one should view it as an opportunity to learn something new or to further test your own understanding. Do not evaluate your performance in a debate by whether you persuaded your opponent to surrender, but rather on whether you were able to effectively articulate your case to those undecided people. Not only is this an objective way to assess your debate performance, but it is also takes the edge off of “winning” and respects the intellect and free will of your opponents.