Opinion

Conservatives turn on Silicon Valley — and the free market

Now the right wants to harshly regulate tech companies. Wait, what?

After the 2012 election, national Republicans made a concerted effort to hack into Silicon Valley. The Romney campaign had just been thoroughly outclassed by Barack Obama's technology team. The GOP also thought Big Tech could help push its agenda on items both sides agreed on, including corporate tax and immigration reform. And it couldn't hurt to have closer ties with a sector of vast wealth and cultural influence to fill the party's coffers and up its coolness quotient.

But things are a little different in today's​ Trumpublican Party. In a tweet yesterday morning, President Trump ​again ​attacked Amazon:

It was the 12th time since starting his presidential run in 2015 and the eighth time this summer that Trump has fired on the online retailer. And though this time the president didn't refer to the Jeff Bezos-led company as the AmazonWashingtonPost, it probably wasn't a coincidence that the Post had just published a tough editorial on Trump's train-wreck news conference.

In the past Trump has also raised the possibility of taking antitrust action against Amazon, leading to speculation that the Trump administration would block its recent announced purchase of Whole Foods.

It might be easy to write this conflict off as a Trumpian spat between billionaires with no larger implications. But that would be wrong. For starters, Trump may not actually be a billionaire, unlike the Amazon boss who is one 84 times over. More importantly, Trump is contributing to an emerging anti-tech attitude in the GOP. Last month, Trump senior adviser (for now) Steve Bannon argued tech giants like Google and Facebook should be regulated like public utilities. And in the wake of Google's firing of memo writer and amateur evolutionary biologist James Damore, Bannon's stance has been picked up by other influential voices on the right. Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative website Townhall, declared, "Conservatives must regulate Google and all of Silicon Valley into submission," citing the "fascist witch-burning of an honest engineer for refusing to bow down at the altar of politically correct lies." Then there's top-rated Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who opined Monday that the Damore incident along with alleged anti-conservative bias in Google's search algorithms means the company should "be regulated like the public utility it is to make sure it doesn't further distort the free flow of information."

This is an odd direction for a party that supposedly embraces innovation, free enterprise, and "creative destruction." Sure, the Silicon Valley community leans Democratic, ​perhaps ​even more so in the Trump era. And it is unabashedly collaborative, cosmopolitan, and globalist.​ That's hardly the Trump brand.​

But the right should consider that the sector — from "unicorns" like Airbnb and Uber to the big platform companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple — is probably the only big thing that has gone right in the American economy since the Great Recession. It is creating jobs and wealth, along with providing innovative products that consumers and business value. Take Trump's latest jab at Amazon. It misses the mark. Economist Michael Mandel notes that while brick-and-mortar retailers have lost 140,00 full-time jobs since 2007, e-commerce companies have added more than 400,000, including better-paying warehouse jobs in fulfillment centers.

As for regulating Google — or breaking it up, as some on the left favor — there's not much of substance here​ to the conservative argument​. While some on the right may worry about search-engine bias, this concern betrays their own lack of belief in one of conservatism's enduring principles: Recognition of the ​disruptive ​power of free markets. Imagine if Google were to suddenly to start systematically pushing "conservative" search results into obscurity. The company would basically be offering a product that no longer produced the most relevant search results. How many users would Google lose to Bing and other competitors? Despite its size, Google isn't immune to market forces.

But maybe conservatives have simply lost faith in the market they for so long claimed to love. Vice President Pence, after all, did say that when it comes to trade at least, "the free market has been sorting it out and America's been losing." Maybe they don't trust that tech progress driven by competitive capitalism will make America more prosperous in the long run.

The GOP and many conservatives have already abandoned many principles to embrace Trump. What's one more.

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