The Left’s Technophobic Streak

by Benjamin Studebaker

Lately I’ve found myself making an observation about the modern political left–it has a tendency to fall into a rather unbecoming technophobia. On a slew of issues, from guns to drones to surveillance to GMO food to nuclear power, there is an increasing tendency for people on the left to attack the new technologies themselves instead of any specific use or consequence thereof.

This is not to say that I don’t have a left-leaning position on some of these issues. There is, for instance, substantial statistical evidence that the more guns are in civilian hands, the more instances there will be of civilians shooting each other, and for this reason, I generally oppose expanding civilian gun ownership. However, oftentimes, leftists do not make arguments of this kind. They often neither appeal to statistics nor target their arguments to the consequences of civilian gun ownership, but instead make the wider claim that guns are bad and we just should not have them or make them.

The drone issue works similarly. There’s a legitimate argument that continuing to hunt down and target terrorists in places like Afghanistan (whether with drones or boots on the ground–the statistics show the drones are actually less dangerous to civilians on the average) invariably causes harm to individuals and communities that have not yet been radicalized, increasing the hostility of the peoples of these countries to the United States. Indeed, there’s much evidence for this argument–approval for the US in Pakistan, which was already weak in the mid-aughts, has cratered:

But that’s not always what we hear from the left–oftentimes, leftists instead become opposed to drone technology wholesale, even domestic use of drones. We see anti-drone activists like Rand Paul (who, although generally ring-wing, takes a leftist position on this issue) speculate that domestic drones would be used within the United States in the same way that they are used in Pakistan. Paul cynically assumes that those who think that domestic drone use might be well-regulated are naive and foolish, and whips up fear among those who agree with him that the government is going to use drone strikes to hunt down petty criminals.

Many on the left take a similar attitude on surveillance–when Edward Snowden publicized the extent to which the federal government had implemented the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, many Americans assumed without any specific evidence that this implied that the surveillance technology was being used in an abusive or harmful way.

Similarly, many on the left assume that if food has been genetically modified, it must be less healthy than organic food, as if all genetic modification were akin to adding poison. There is a lack of nuance in this argument–some genetic modification improves the food’s quality, some is neutral (but allows the farmer to grow more food than he would otherwise), and some is undoubtedly negative (and should be banned by the FDA). Sweeping generalizations drive consumers into hysteria, making them fearful of buying food that is as good if not better for them and causing them to instead opt for inefficiently farmed and unnecessarily expensive organic alternatives.

In each of these cases, leftists imagine a theoretical worst case implementation for the technology and assume that because this worst case scenario is imaginable, it is not merely possible but inevitable. When a nuclear plant is built, the overwhelming probability is that it will safely generate lots of power, replacing existing or future coal, oil, and gas plants, reducing emissions, and otherwise performing in a way that is fully congruent with the rest of the left’s agenda, but this doesn’t stop a number of leftists from assuming that because they can imagine the plant having a meltdown due to poor design and/or poor maintenance, that these things are happening or will happen.

It is not sufficient to argue against a technology on the grounds that it is possible for that technology to be misused. There needs to be evidence that the technology is actually being misused, and that it is not possible to correct that misuse through better regulation. There is no intrinsic reason to believe that guns, drones, surveillance, GMO, or nuclear power will always be misused regardless of the circumstances or surrounding regulatory climate.

A certain level of cynicism and skepticism in political affairs is healthy, but when that cynicism is universalized and ceases to be context-specific, it becomes as naive and blind as the idealism it mocks. When we argue that a technology is being misused, we need to formulate that argument in a clear, context-specific way:

  1. Who is being harmed by the technology?
  2. In what specific way is this technology contributing to the above-mentioned harm?
  3. Are there effective regulations we could employ that would mitigate or eliminate this harm without themselves causing worse harms?
  4. If the answer to #3 is no, does banning the technology outright mitigate or eliminate this harm without causing worse harms?

We should be very careful in making the jump from #3 to #4. The overwhelming likelihood in most cases is that regulation can ensure socially beneficial use. In the case of something like GMO food, sound regulations would (and, in most cases, do) distinguish between harmful and safe modifications. The only reason we would have to doubt this would be a belief that the FDA or other regulatory organizations were corrupt and/or incompetent. That belief should not be held without evidence. To assume that all regulatory bodies are useless, that all regulations are inevitably circumvented, is to make a patently false assumption. The economy of today looks nothing like the economy of 1880, predominately because of the successful implementation of new technologies accompanied by appropriate state regulation.

Technologies grant us power over the surrounding environment. This power can be used to increase suffering, but it can also be used to ameliorate it, or even to add to human happiness. Power is not intrinsically corrupt or corrupting–its goodness depends on how human beings decide to use it and to regulate its use by one another. Or, as George Bernard Shaw puts the point at which I have been driving at throughout the piece:

Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.

When the left strays from this and adopts the position that technologies are inherently bad in and of themselves and ought to be altogether gotten rid of, it embraces a viewpoint that can only be described as conservative, even reactionary.

And yes, this is, incidentally, also a very good critique of the Amish.