Arbitrary positions

Why I arbitrarily support Net Neutrality, and why I'd never be able to convince anyone else to do so

November 11, 2014
Jonathan Libov

If someone asked me about my position on Net Neutrality, it might go like this:

Me: "Normally I oppose government regulation, but with the current environment I expect that a world without the proposed Net Neutrality legislation would too greatly disadvantage internet businesses and innovation on the internet."

Friend: "But aren't you arbitrarily abandoning your anti-regulation principles because as a professional you benefit from the success of startups? And because as a person you really believe that the internet is good for people?"

Me: "Yes."

You can hopefully glean from this exchange why being open about the arbitrariness of one's positions won't convince anyone. The political mind craves narratives, and a pithier narrative one will always win out over one that twists and turns.

This is unfortunate because we take arbitrary positions all the time. I support abortion during the first trimester but not at the end of the third for totally arbitrary, emotional, value-driven reasons that I can't articulate. Back in a Bioethics course I took in college, I tried to identify a specific event in the life of a pregnancy that I thought should mark the end of the abortion-eligible period, but I realized that, even if I had found one, it was merely an exercise in post-hoc rationalization.

This is one of the reasons we have political parties: the parties write the narratives for us. Even if they're arbitrary. The fact that Democrats (purport to) endorse liberal social policies and a larger role for government in economic matters (and vice versa for Republicans) is completely arbitrary. Party platforms, however rationally arbitrary they may actually be, feel consistent and satisfying, which is why many endorse them wholeheartedly.

In the absence of parties, platforms, and narratives, we'd be left to fend for ourselves on every single issue. That would be exhausting. So instead we join one of a few groups to make our choices easier, and we all gloss over the arbitrariness because picking it apart all the time would also be exhausting.

This is probably why Net Neutrality has predictably devolved into a Left-Right issue: It would be unsettling to the normal course of policy debate for positions not to align along party lines. It would feel weird.

And there's the rub: Straining to make things fit a consistent, rational narrative somehow feels right, when in actuality leading with our often arbitrary feelings would be the more rationale course of action.