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“Khanservatives” Are Wrong About Big Tech

“Khanservatives” Are Wrong About Big Tech

May 1, 2024

The “Big Tech” antitrust debate is reaching a fever pitch on the right. While a tiny minority of conservatives have long expressed a desire to weaponize antitrust against Big Tech, more and more so-called “Khanservatives” are calling for aggressive enforcement to punish Big Tech for its supposed sins. For example, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) wrote a whole book in 2021 about The Tyranny of Big Tech. In a hearing earlier this year, Republican senators alleged that Meta was “killing people.” Just a few weeks ago, senator and potential VP candidate J.D. Vance (R-OH) called for Google to be broken up on the grounds that it is a “threat to democracy.” And, in response to the Justice Department’s recent antitrust lawsuit against Apple, a number of leading conservative organizations, including the Claremont Institute and representatives from both the Heritage Foundation and the Ethics & Public Policy Center, submitted a letter to DOJ supporting the case.

Conservatives typically make several arguments against Big Tech that go beyond mere allegations of anticompetitive conduct. First, conservatives have claimed that Big Tech is insufficiently loyal to American values and all too willing to cozy up to adversaries like China. For example, in their letter to DOJ, the conservative organizations argued that Apple “has built deep economic ties with the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP), leveraging their closed ecosystem to facilitate the CCP’s human rights abuses.” But the reality is that American companies compete globally and have no choice but to abide by the rules that are set for them by foreign governments. In other words, they must respect national sovereignty, which is typically seen as a virtue for national conservatives and the anti-tech “New Right,” and which creates a role for the U.S. government to forcefully advocate against problematic foreign regulations and practices—not penalize its most globally admired firms.

Of course, punishing Apple will do nothing to change the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, but instead only strengthen it. Amidst an ongoing technology race in key areas like artificial intelligence and robotics, the scale enjoyed by large American technology companies is essential to underwrite the billions of dollars in investments needed for the next-generation innovations that will keep the West technologically on top. As we at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) explained in the most recent edition of our Hamilton Index, the hour is already later than many realize: “China was the leading producer in seven of the ten strategically important industries” with “[i]ts gains coming at the expense of the United States and other G7 and OECD economics.” Indeed, in robotics specifically, ITIF has found that China is spending billions to make sure its firms are leaders in this critical industry, and it already leads the world in robotics patents and adoption rates.

China, ever the “fast follower,” also recognizes how antitrust policy can further its ends. For example, while China is busy scaling up its own technology firms through mergers and state subsidies, as Lingling Wei and Asa Fitch wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, China’s antitrust regulator “is holding back its required green light for mergers that involve American companies as a technology war with Washington intensifies.” All the while, the Biden administration has issued its own merger guidelines, which create further roadblocks for U.S. firms seeking to gain scale. In other words, while Xi Jinping, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, and now the New Right all appear to share the goal of preventing Big Tech and the rest of corporate America from achieving the scale and dynamism needed to win globally, it is only China who ultimately wins.

Another common refrain from many conservatives alleges that Big Tech is not too removed from American affairs, but too embroiled in them. For example, some argue that companies like Google bias search results in favor of Democrats, censor conservative speech, or release “woke” products, as was claimed with Google’s Gemini AI. Similar claims are made from the left, as Facebook has long been criticized as favoring conservatives and even helping to elect Donald Trump, while X (formerly Twitter) is accused of enabling an online right-wing renaissance. And yet, Big Tech companies are first and foremost out to make a profit. Indeed, hostility to conservatives is best explained not by company policies, but by individual employees acting on their own or by the outsized influence of third-party groups advocating their views about how tech companies should operate. Moreover, breaking up firms like Google would not only come at the expense of the network and scale that make its search engine work—regardless of any political slant—but spinning off products like YouTube would do nothing to address concerns about alleged bias.

Finally, rather than being overly political and in favor of Democrats, some conservatives have accused Big Tech of ignoring the consequences of their technologies on public morality, such as the effects of social media on children. To be sure, concerns from the right about technological change on the existing social order are not new. Before video games and television, even the printing press was a tool of revolution and subversion. But conservatives must acknowledge the fact that the rise of social media and Big Tech have made the marketplace for ideas far more open to conservative viewpoints than it was when the media was essentially controlled by six largely New York-based conglomerates. Indeed, the breakdown of this old media echo chamber, infused with the liberal-progressive values of the new countercultural elite, is perhaps the greatest opportunity for conservatives to gain ground in the “culture war” that for decades they have been badly losing.

Even if these political and moral concerns against Big Tech were legitimate, the sort of politicization of the antitrust laws or heavy-handed regulation needed to address them will ultimately backfire for conservatives. As the progressive antitrust “neo-Brandeisians” have already hinted, a political approach to antitrust will not just be deployed against Big Tech, but in the words of one FTC Commissioner, “play a role in racial equity” and “combat systemic racism”—not just in the United States, but globally. For instance, last year the OECD released a Gender Inclusive Competition Toolkit to provide “a comprehensive framework for integrating gender considerations” into antitrust law. But, rather than further empower regulators, dismantling the already considerable administrative bureaucracy and state apparatuses is an official promise of conservative organizations like the influential Heritage Foundation. That is, when taking to account what future Democratic administrations would do with enhanced state powers, including antitrust, their calculation is simple: Big government remains far more dangerous in the hands of Democrats than it is beneficial when under the control of Republicans.

“Khanservatism” is having a moment. But instead of making a Faustian bargain with neo-Brandeisians, conservatives must come to grips with what the neo-Brandeisian movement really is: a revolutionary assault on corporate America operating under the guise of “protecting democracy.” Allying with that cause would effectively break the coalition between social and business conservatives that has long defined the American Right. In so doing, conservatives would dash their chances of effectively pushing back against what they view as out-of-control progressivism. Conservatives must reject the antitrust Jacobins and rally around America’s first principles not just of order, but also liberty, if the fate of America and the New World is to fare better against the revolution than that of Europe and the Old.

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