Sunday, January 24, 2010

Google vs. China, and America vs. Itself

Google’s confrontation with China over the freedom of access to information may evoke feelings of both moral and commercial satisfaction for residents of the free market West: Google simultaneously stands in for our disdain for Chinese political repression and for that country’s shortsighted understanding of the economic value of free information flows.

Tom Friedman suggests that a Chinese internal struggle, between “Network China” and “Command China” defines this dispute and may indicate something about the future of that country.

However we may frame it, the conflict should evoke for us as much introspection as satisfaction: We, too, currently struggle themselves to come to terms with the concept of “economy as network”: “a world in which the focus of value creation is effective participation in knowledge flows, which are constantly being renewed.”

Those who stand at the margins of this transformation call forth libertarian slogans in order to evoke a feeling of defiant individualism. They do not understand the dynamic of an economic system that demands the nurturing of relationships and the renewal of knowledge and that suggests that individualism does not flourish in a social vacuum. The more pragmatic brand of economic individualism favored by Wall Street lost all credibility in late 2008, of course, when financiers acknowledged their own dependence on the broader American social network.

Misunderstandings about the changing nature of our economy clearly extend beyond the right-wing: Democrats evince characteristic eagerness to conflate moral and economic arguments as they address needed health and energy reform. They thereby demonstrate a lack of seriousness with regard to the limited role the American state can play in correcting an economy newly susceptible to international capital flows and increasing foreign competition: America must enhance its ability to compete internationally if it is to address its social challenges sustainably.

We, just like the Chinese, require a new relationship to government for 21st century success. The old metaphor of government as a command center, whether encouraged by old guard communist leaders or well-meaning American reformers, or whether opposed by libertarians, no longer suffices. Government at its best will act as a node that has the potential either to complement or to hinder the flourishing of both domestic and international relationships. Understanding this reality, rather than adhering to old nostrums, will give us the greater measure of moral and commercial clarity.