Sen. Josh Hawley is not leading a Butlerian Jihad; I think he is trying to prevent one. For those not versed in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Butlerian Jihad is part of the backstory within these sci-fi classics.
Positing a previous war to eradicate all “thinking machines” allowed Herbert to create a sci-fi series without computers, artificial intelligence, or robots. Invoking the Butlerian Jihad and its commandment, “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind,” is irresistible for some writers, such as Ross Douthat of The New York Times, as they respond to the latest dystopian news from the tech world.
But while Hawley is taking on Big Tech, his proposals provide a framework for technological responsibility, not a battle plan to destroy technology. He has told tech companies not to act like highly partisan publishers while enjoying special government-granted immunity from the legal responsibilities of traditional publishers.
He has told them to stop selling in-game gambling to kids, and to reign in the development and use of features designed to be addictive. Hawley’s bills are meant to pressure Big Tech to reform and self-regulate, before the rest of us insist that the government do so to keep the tech oligarchs from dominating us completely.
The reaction to these measures illuminates current intellectual fissures on the right. Classical liberals and libertarians are horrified, while the loose conservative coalition that is emerging under the label of “new nationalism” welcomes the effort to stand up to Big Tech, although some question the particulars of these bills. The conservatives may have prudential concerns about Hawley’s proposed laws, but classical liberals reject them as a matter of principle.
There is overlap on prudential concerns, and classical liberals like David French can make some headway by addressing them. Conservatives must remember the risks of power; government is a crude instrument, susceptible to demagogues and vulnerable to exploitation. Even when not abused, government action may lead to tragic unintended consequences.
This knowledge of human fallibility and finitude is why the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition have conceded that even the best human governments will nonetheless permit many sins. We know the wisdom of Edmund Burke’s adage that we must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.
But the divide between conservatives and classical liberals is not simply the result of the latter being more attuned to the dangers of government overreach. It is philosophical. Classical liberals are committed to a preeminent natural right to individual autonomy. In this view, the oligarchs of Big Tech have a natural right to develop, market, and profit from products that are designed to be damaging and addictive, and people have a natural right to be self-destructive in their use of technology.
Of course, except for a few hardcore libertarians, most classical liberals are unwilling to advocate this position to the point of permitting “teenagers to buy fentanyl at their school cafeteria,” as J. D. Vance mockingly put it. But they are willing to allow much more than conservatives are inclined to, largely because of a philosophical rejection of government as an instrument of the common good.
French has, sometimes unfairly, been the target of choice for the emerging nationalist right, but his comments on the common good are revealing of the classical liberal mindset. In his view, “While governments should of course seek the common good, they do not and should not have the brute coercive force to ‘re-order’ the public square to achieve that good as they define it.”
This is contradictory. Any governmental seeking of the common good will necessarily involve the coercive ordering of the public square toward achieving it, for all government action is potentially coercive.
What French seems to mean is that the government can provide for the common good by “safeguarding liberty,” thereby leaving “the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes.” Government, in his account, seeks the common good by protecting “neutral spaces where Christians and pagans can work side by side.”
French has done excellent legal work forcing leftist institutions and governments to tolerate orthodox Christians, but this has not make them neutral. Legal threats may keep a university from kicking the Christians off campus, but this tolerance is not neutrality.
The viewpoint neutrality and proceduralism French champions are legal fictions. The classical liberal elevates them into ideals, but the conservative knows that they are, at best, useful illusions. Neutrality cannot be sustained, and tolerance is strained, when confronted by fundamental disagreement regarding the nature of life, love, art, and sex.
Government cannot, even in principle, be truly neutral between Christianity and paganism, or Christianity and secular progressivism. In practice, a government that is not even neutral between those who buy homes and those who rent apartments will never be neutral between opposing religious and philosophical viewpoints.
The government cannot, for example, be neutral about abortion. It may tolerate disagreements, but it either provides legal protection for human life in the womb or it does not—there is no neutrality.
It might be said in defense of classical liberalism that it provides tolerance for these disputes to be politically resolved without violence. However, this proceduralism provides no surety that the common good will prevail, or even a preference for good over evil. This is why proponents of classical liberalism so frequently resort to faith-based arguments in the face of the obvious evils and disruptions that the liberal order allows and even encourages—all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, if individual autonomy and economic efficiency are maximized.
This is not neutrality., and the mechanics of classical liberalism ensure that ways of life that do not prioritize personal autonomy and economic efficiency will be handicapped and harmed, even if they are tolerated. Conservatives recognize this, which is why we are not horrified at the prospect of regulating Big Tech. We may or may not find Hawley’s proposals effective and prudent, but we are willing to consider them, rather than rejecting them on behalf of a rigid ideology.
Butlerian Jihad? No, not yet. Increased regulation of the oligarchs and monopolists of Big Tech? Let’s talk.