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On Milton Friedman, Comment Spam, and the Amorality of the Market

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Famed economist Milton Friedman died this week, and in pondering how best to eulogize the Andy Warhol of post World War II economics, I was reminded of another recent death -- that of the comment spam that plagued my personal blog on and off for most of the past two years. For if Friedman is a father figure to free market advocates everywhere, then spammers, comment or otherwise, are surely his rightful heirs -- the logical online manifestation of a selfish and mean-spirited ideology that looks to Friedman for its economic scholarship and Ayn Rand for its moral philosophy (such as it might be.)

From the moment the blogosphere exploded into existence, harnessing the power of the Internet to create an historically unparalleled marketplace of ideas, the spammers descended, guided by pure, individual self-interest, aggressively seeking to exploit this new market for personal, economic gain. This is in many ways a perfect illustration of an unregulated free market at work, a market in which comment spammers seeking to up the Google ranking of say, a bukkake video website, would willingly bring the entire blogosphere to its semen-drenched knees... if only they could find a way around the latest anti-spam measures.

In upgrading my blog last week I effectively stopped the spammers... for now. But this isn't the first time I've managed to achieve the upper hand, and it won't be the last time I'm forced to do so. I have spent untold hours filtering, deleting and combatting spam -- hours I once billed out at lucrative rates to lavishly funded dot.coms, before that market collapsed under the weight of its own manipulations. The spammers have cost me time, they have cost me money, and they have caused me much hard work and frustration... all in pursuit of a vocation for which I receive little or no monetary reward. This is a war of escalating innovation, in which spammers relentlessly develop increasingly sophisticated techniques to evade bloggers' increasingly sophisticated defenses.

Now some might argue that this "competition" is an example of perfectly balanced forces at work creating a more efficient market, but then these are the same sort of people who would ridicule me for complaining about the volume of email spam I receive, arguing that if I'm foolish enough to publish my address then I "get what I deserve." (As if encouraging my readers to communicate with me privately reveals some sort of Darwinian weakness.) Yes, these are same sort of people who deride victims of identity theft for not being more responsible with their personal information.

But the main problem with the notion that competition always leads to greater efficiency is that it is wrong. Blog software developers could be devoting all of their energies to creating better platforms for engaging in public debate, but instead must divert valuable time and resources towards fighting the thousands of spam-bots that threaten to flood our threads with ads for payday loans and penile enhancement products. And there is absolutely nothing efficient about the fact that during the time it's taken me to write these first five paragraphs, 47 new comments have been snagged by my filter, and that I must now manually scan through a list of spam hawking "big black cocks" and "online Texas hold'em" in order to rescue the occasional legitimate comment that gets inadvertently caught in the dragnet.

Comment spam should be illegal, whatever the prospect of actually enforcing such laws. Hell, if anybody deserves to be handcuffed and repeatedly tasered it's the sick, vicious bastards seeking the top Google ranking for the phrase "dad fucking daughter."

But no, there are those free market purists -- those who lionize Friedman as some mythic hero -- who would argue against any sort of government regulation or interference, however economically distorted or dehumanizingly cruel the market may be. Multinational corporations market powdered baby formula to new mothers in nations that lack a safe drinking water supply. RJ Reynolds, fully aware of the toxicity of its product advertised that "doctors prefer Camel." My local filling station drops the price at the pump by 75 cents a gallon in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's election, only to raise it 20 cents in the days after, even as crude oil prices fall. If there's something wrong here, we're told, the market will sort it out. The market is always more efficient than the government, and always corrects itself in the end. Or so the theory goes.

I'm sure there are those who are prepared to argue that my analysis is a gross misreading of Friedman's work, but... well... I've hardly read Friedman at all. The truth is, it doesn't really matter what Friedman wrote or what sort of economic policies he actually advocated, for in striving to become the most famous economist of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, Friedman's influence has been mostly symbolic. Indeed, if we were to judge Friedman's impact purely by the lasting economic policies he directly shaped rather than those he merely advocated, history would long remember Friedman primarily from his Keynesian days, as "the father of federal tax withholding."

But that's not the Friedman eulogized by his most ardent admirers, many of whom have never directly read his work either, and who would lack the economics training to properly understand it if they did. No, the Friedman they eulogize is the one of popular culture, the Prometheus of free market ideology... the patron saint of Enrons everywhere.

It is this Friedman that free marketeers look to for inspiration as they fight government regulations of all stripes. It is this Friedman a comment spammer might point to in defending his right to grind my blog to a halt if a buck can be made in the process.

Our nation's Calvinist ethos survives today in a cult of the market that seems to equate individual economic prosperity with the will of God. But it must be remembered that the unfettered "free market" these ideologues passionately advocate is in theory amoral at its very best, and often deeply and disturbingly immoral in practice.

It is this ethos that fills our mail boxes and comment threads with spam, and as such, is as appropriate a tribute to Milton Friedman as any.

[Read more from David Goldstein at HorsesAss.org]