Cross-posted at Substack
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” – James Madison, Federalist Paper 51
As the flood of users from Elon Musk’s Twitter to Mark Zuckerberg’s Threads has reached Biblical proportions, I’ve observed some comments about how the whole experience – in which Musk demolished Twitter and Meta provided a much-needed escape from it – somehow made Zuck and his businesses “more likeable”.
Let me consult the wisdom of our Founders to help explain why this whole affair isn’t at all about either man’s likeability or niceness or trustworthiness. By all means, flock to Threads if you please (as I have), but don’t let your guard down about Zuckerberg and his data-hoarding Meta/Facebook/Instagram universe. As a cartoon Mafia boss might say, it ain’t personal, it’s business. It’s all about checks and balances, yin and yang, Ford vs. GM, Marvel vs. DC Comics, and so on. It’s not about good guys vs. bad guys.
Remember that the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was to replace the personalized rule of a king (and all those rotten dukes, earls, etc.) with the comparatively impersonal, professional administration of a government and legal system. As an author put it a century before the Revolution, the ideal of good government is about replacing the concept of “Rex, Lex” – the king is the law – with that of “Lex, Rex” – the law is the king.
It’s not that our leaders aren’t individuals or that the character of these individuals doesn’t matter – it matters greatly. It’s that the system was wisely designed, and must be maintained, based on concepts independent of the personalities of anyone involved. A boast like Trump’s in 2016 about the problems with our government – “I alone can fix it” – is the exact opposite of the attitude that a democratic republic requires. Our whole system is designed to not require a Caesar, as the appearance of one threatens the American republic no less than it destroyed that of Rome.
So how to create a system that won’t promote or allow for a Caesar? This is the brilliance of James Madison’s Federalist Paper 51. The key to maintaining freedom, he writes, is “by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”
He continues: “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others…Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
And there you have it. It’s not that any of the branches of government – the executive or legislative or judicial, or for that matter, the local or state or federal government – will be our savior. Our salvation lies in pitting them against each other, so they are too busy competing with one another to come together and unite against us.
Madison duly notes that these principles go well beyond that of government design and administration: “This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.”
And this takes me back to Zuck and the Musk Rat. While it is human nature to personalize our institutions (as marketers well know – just ask Ronald McDonald or Flo of Progressive Insurance), I’m encouraging you to resist the temptation. Feel free to like whomever you want (in the traditional sense or the Facebook sense), but please understand that the Twitter-Threads battle, though not one of governmental institutions, is very much about the balance of power.
As Elizabeth Warren and others have emphasized, the big problem with Big Tech is how its major businesses have built up the equivalent of monopoly power within their sectors or subsectors. Elon Musk acted like the owner of the only pizzeria in town, who could make his pizza as crappy as possible and treat the employees and customers as poorly as he wanted, just because there weren’t any alternatives around.
In such a situation, when a second pizzeria opens up in town, it’s a cause for celebration – even if the owner happens to be a jerk. Let each owner’s ambition counter the other’s ambition and you have the recipe for better pizza and a nicer place to hang out.
That doesn’t mean that you have to invite the second pizzeria owner to your wedding or that you needn’t call the Health Department if you see a furry critter in his restaurant. And by no means should we let Zuckerberg and his businesses off the regulatory hook for his vast theft of our personal data. Throw the book at him, without a moment’s hesitation.
If and when Threads proves to be God-awful, let us hope that another alternative pops up to balance it out too. Every Caesar must be cut down to size.
In the meantime, I’m excited to once again have a social media site to go to with blue checkmarks that actually mean something…