Imagine that someone came up with an idea to solve the “problem” of information overload (a.k.a. “too much information”) by levying a tax on the technologies that have sparked our information explosion. Making it too expensive for many people to blog or otherwise send and receive information through digital and Internet-based technologies would not only reduce a lot of superfluous, self-indulgent electronic clutter, but would reverse the fragmentation of opinion threatening our democracy, the theory would go.
Well, someone has come up with just such a scheme. An environmental attorney named Dusty Horwitt published his incredibly outlandish idea in the Aug. 24 Outlook section of the Washington Post. (“If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?”) He proposes a “progressive energy tax” that would “make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread.”
Anyone who has the faintest sensibility about the free flow of information must find this notion not only preposterous, but repulsive.
Forget, for a minute, that such a scheme would be utterly unworkable. (How, for instance, would the government tax the electricity going into your computer differently than the electricity keeping the beer in your refrigerator cold?) And we’ll leave it to our economist friends like Harold Furchtgott-Roth to point out the fatal flaws from an economic standpoint.
From a First Amendment perspective, Mr. Horwitt’s proposal is simply horrendous. Restricting the means of disseminating information is tantamount to restricting information itself. And information is speech, almost all of which is protected from government interference by the First Amendment.
It is freedom of speech, and the free flow of information, that distinguishes the United States from China, totalitarian regimes, and most third-world countries. Restricting the availability of information is a totalitarian tactic that is the antithesis of democracy, not something undertaken in support of it, as Mr. Horwitt alleges.
Under Mr. Horwitt’s scheme, who would decide how much information was enough? Perhaps we would need a Ministry of Information to make those decisions. And if the quantity of information were regulated, would the regulation of content be far behind?
In an earlier age, maybe Mr. Horwitt would have favored a stiff tax on printing presses and newsprint. It’s no coincidence that the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment, because taxing the means of producing speech was a form of government coercion they found utterly repugnant.
And perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mr. Horwitt never mentions the First Amendment or acknowledges any constitutional concerns about his proposal. I don’t see how his scheme could possibly pass constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s O’Brien test, for instance. Taxing speech isn’t the same as taxing cigarettes or gasoline.
The technologies that Mr. Horwitt would like to tax into oblivion, or at least into submission, are the latest iteration of what Ithiel de Sola Pool famously called the “Technologies of Freedom.” Give me my newspaper and my traditional radio and TV, but also give me the rollicking, raucous world of the blogosphere, satellite and Internet radio, hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels, and the incredible wealth of information available on the Web. These are today’s “technologies of freedom” that make our democracy what it is.
How could anyone be fearful of “too much information”? Information is the lifeblood of democracy, and the more the better. The idea of restricting speech by taxing the messenger is repulsive indeed.