E-commerce with strong encryption, some have argued, will prove impossible for governments to tax, and the Internet will undermine governments' power to censor information. Some theorists have confidently predicted that the nation-state will become obsolete. How can you rule people and things that won't stay put?
In an ironic parallel, the 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of mobile, stateless aggression. Trade and coercion are opposite modes of human interaction. Yet as global trade expanded, so did the global reach of terrorists, from the Marxist Carlos the Jackal to the Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden. They increased their capacity to kill and destroy by using the same new-economy tools—cell phones, financial networks, cheap travel—that businesses used to create wealth. While financiers were moving capital to countries with the strongest commitment to freedom and the rule of law, terrorists were moving their training camps to the least free, most dictatorial countries. Terrorists formed multinational consortia whose executive and operating units moved fluidly across borders. And they posed a problem for governments whose citizens they harmed: How can you fight a war against an enemy with no address—no capital city, no territory, no army in the field?
That was the question on everyone's mind when President Bush declared war on terrorists after September 11. Now we have the answer. The borders they crossed so fluidly can be patrolled. Their training camps can be bombed. Their cell-phone calls can be intercepted. Their funds can be frozen. And their leaders can be found. To be is to be somewhere, and even if the elusive bin Laden escapes the manhunt in Afghanistan, he and his lieutenants are on the run.
Freedom must still be defended the old-fashioned way: by persuasion, and politics, and eternal vigilance.
By the same token, governments have proven all too capable of controlling speech and commerce when they choose to exert the will. Since September 11, the United States government has sought new controls on banking, airline travel, immigration, and Internet communications--measures that, even if justified, have rightly alarmed friends of liberty. No one is currently arguing that such controls are of no concern because technology will render them unenforceable.
Elsewhere, as Patrick Stephens noted recently in Navigator ("The Internet in Closed Societies
," July-August 2001), authoritarian countries have found ways to censor Internet speech by controlling access-providers. The Associated Press
recently reported that Chinese authorities have shut down more than 17,000 Internet bars for failing to block Web sites considered subversive or pornographic, and ordered another 28,000 to install software to block restricted Web sites and keep records of user activities. Like the terrorists, the innocent and productive rely on infrastructure that can be controlled: phone lines, computer networks, Internet access providers, airports.
We can be relieved that the mobility of terrorists has not, after all, made them immune to retaliation. They have not reached escape velocity from the force of government. But neither have those engaged in honest speech and commerce. The ability to flee an oppressive government has always been a bulwark of freedom—but only when there was a freer place to go. That is still true. Cyberspace offers no escape from the necessity of being somewhere—which is to say, within reach of some government. The new economy may swell the tide of freedom where it is already on the rise, but freedom must still be defended the old-fashioned way: by persuasion, and politics, and eternal vigilance.
This article was originally published in the January 2002 issue of
Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to
The New Individualist.