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I was not an early adopter of Facebook. And I joined for commercial reasons. For a short time a few years ago, all the smart people in book publishing were saying that social media was the future of book promotion. Of course, at that point, the smart people in every industry were saying that social media was the future of promoting any product or service. Some of those smart people may have been in the employ of Zuckerberg & Co.

That conventional wisdom, like most such, turned out to be an exaggeration of a minor observation. My firm’s efforts at promotion through Facebook have yielded modest results. (The well-worn triad of direct mail, author spots on local talk radio, and carefully-chosen display ads remains the most effective way to promote books.)

Despite this, I still use Facebook. And may use it more than ever. It’s a pleasant diversion, a low-maintenance way to stay in touch with family, friends and a group of “Facebook friends” — acquaintances from high school, college and other points in my life. It offers the interactivity of a chat room with the promise of enough vetting to keep out the most egregious cretins and child-molesters.

It’s also an interesting laboratory for measuring people’s attitudes about sports, politics, pop culture and the news.

One thing that I’ve learned is how presumptuous — and erroneously presumptuous — people are about the means and motives of online entertainment. Many of my acquaintances presume that there’s some system of consumer-protection law that applies to their dealings on Facebook. This applies especially to matters of “privacy.”

Facebook is, like Google, an advertising company at heart. The business model is to create an online space that people will visit regularly — and then to sell access to those people. Many of the activities on Facebook are designed to capture information about users likes and dislikes, so that Facebook can create detailed consumer profiles and sell precisely-calibrated access to advertisers.Yet multitudes of Facebook users rage childishly when this or that detail comes to light about how the site collects information.

Another lesson (and the real reason for this Reflection): the politics and beliefs of most Americans are so ill-formed and erratic that it’s difficult to engage them in a meaningful way.

Recently, several of my Facebook friends posted approving comments about Warren Buffett’s “integrity” and “bravery” in calling for higher taxes on the wealthy. I pointed out — as I have in this space — that there’s no integrity or bravery in Buffett. At least on this issue. He’s acting in self-interest, and being cagey about it. His company’s holdings include several life insurance companies that sell annuities and other tax-avoidance mechanisms. The higher the federal tax rates, the more his products sell. He’s like an arsonist who owns the fire-extinguisher shop across the street from a theater that he sets afire during a sold-out performance of La Boheme.

Despite the ugly truth, some of my Facebook friends insisted that Buffett looks out for the working man. So, I pointed out that he is also a large shareholder in the Washington Post Company — whose highly-profitable Kaplan Education unit destroys the lives of working-class idiots by selling them worthless degrees financed by costly student loans that aren’t dischargable in bankruptcy.

At this point, a friend of one of my Facebook friends — who could read the comment thread through his connection to my friend (such is the nature of a social network) — commented that my use of the term “working-class idiots” was offensive. And that he knew better than I how predatory Kaplan Education is because he had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to get a useless certificate in 3D animation from that very company. And that, several years later, he remains unemployed. But he wasn’t as angry at Kaplan or Buffett as he was at me for describing his ilk unkindly.

The What’s the Matter with Kansas wing of the American Left argues that presumedly right-leaning corporate interests brainwash the middle class into voting against its own interests. But that brainwashing isn’t a Right/Left phenomenon. The same argument could be made of the presumedly left-leaning Warren Buffett and the unemployed friend of my Facebook friend.

We who value liberty have a long way to go in explaining our case to the American masses. We have to assume our fellow citizens know nothing. Or, worse, we have to assume that most of what they know is affirmatively false. And we have to do it nicely.

I use Facebook as a tool to sharpen my skills in this effort.




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Comments

Erik in Sweden

Great article. This point is spot on:
"We who value liberty have a long way to go in explaining our case to the American masses. We have to assume our fellow citizens know nothing. Or, worse, we have to assume that most of what they know is affirmatively false. And we have to do it nicely."
Now replace "American masses" with "self entitled Swedes"... that's my daily struggle. It's hard to do it nicely :)

Visitor

I understand that for the internet to be "free", as it were, some kind of advertising or other method funding is an acceptable reality, just as in television. This is actually one of the few "perks" available to people like me - the "gullible" get to fund my programming. As long as the "programming" of the internet and the "advertisements" on it remain separate things, I have no problem. However, the commercial interests continue to find ways of mixing the two, with Facebook being a prime example. This is very discouraging. One would think that users would be enough turned off by such manipulation so as to say %&@* this, and back off. But I've already mentioned "the gullible".

As part of the commercial information gathering activities, Facebook is providing clients the opportunity to answer questions about their friends. One idiot relative friend of mine is apparently doing it. At least Facebook has the courtesy of informing me of this.

Mr. Walsh, you mention loans that aren't dischargable by bankruptcy. I didn't know how available or permitted that was. What other kinds of debts may be placed beyond bankruptcy?

Thanks for the article.

CrackerBarrel

As someone who sometimes tries to engage people in serious dialog (as opposed to just innocuous, if well-meaning fluff) on Facebook, I am also appalled by the economic beliefs of so many there.
After one very lengthy debate (a term that cedes unwarranted arguing skills to my opponent), I began to wonder if it was worth the effort. This person was convinced that government creates all markets, that the state has (and should have) a monopoly on violence, and that without a strong government, society would decay into violent hopeless chaos. He liked high taxes, too.

I couldn't agree with your penultimate paragraph more.

Favorite quote of an old acquaintance of mine: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."

CB.

Jim Henshaw

re this: "This person was convinced that ... the state has (and should have) a monopoly on violence"

All governments DO assert a monopoly on violence, and seek, with varying degrees of success, to imprison or otherwise punish those who try to defy this ban.

And, the overwhelming majority of people, including perhaps a majority of self-described libertarians (i.e., minarchists) do concede the alleged necessity of this monopoly, and just argue about the degree of coercion that the state should be allowed to exercise.

I'm a member of that tiny minority of anarchists who don't agree with any degree of forcible monopoly whatsoever.

Jason Calley

Hey Jim, you say, "And, the overwhelming majority of people, including perhaps a majority of self-described libertarians (i.e., minarchists) do concede the alleged necessity of this monopoly, and just argue about the degree of coercion that the state should be allowed to exercise."

As a minarchist, I would respectfully disagree with this.

No doubt you are correct to say that the majority of people in general support a state monopoly on violence, but most of the minarchists that I have ever met support the idea of a citizen militia where the means of violence is held in a distributed fashion among all the individuals of a society. Such a rule as the Second Amendment was an attempt to ensure that the means of violence did NOT become a state monopoly.

Observation of current events certainly shows that the effort to restrict government was not successful in the long run. More generally, whenever the members of a society -- whether minarchy or anarchy -- fail in their duty to restrict the use of violence from accumulating to a small group, tyranny will spring up.

CrackerBarrel

I shouldn't have posted so quickly. Maybe we just disagree on the scope of control connoted by the term "monopoly." To me, it's complete.

CB.

CrackerBarrel

Thanks for your comments, Jim.

I don't think that most governments, including ours, have secured a complete monopoly on violence yet. It's still possible for me to defend myself against an aggressor with an (admittedly limited) assortment of weapons. Pennsylvania, where I live has just liberalized its "castle laws" somewhat. In most countries, the police are incapable of or restrained from patrolling so overwhelmingly as to prevent all crimes of violence. Maybe it's different in, say, North Korea. We libertarians and anarchists all want more freedom than we have now. We recognize that government is the reason that we don't. But in the U.S., government's control is limited, and not quite a complete monopoly. Some of us want a drastically limited government. Some of us want no government at all. A lot of the arguments for anarchy make sense to me, but I'm not won over to that side yet. In any event, as seen from where we are now, anarchists and limited government libertarians look to be far away, and close to each other.

Best wishes,
CB.

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