Mark Zuckerburg is getting the chattering classes chattering again. He delivered a speech to a bunch of academics and elite university students that was well-received. This, as everyone knows, is the hurdle that we have all been waiting with bated breath for a liberal Democrat to clear. Surely, no liberal who could go into such a hostile environment as Harvard would struggle to become President. Meanwhile, it was not a commencement, but a demise that should have held the attention of Democrats serious about diagnosing the party’s near-demise. The cancellation of “The Get Down” holds more lessons for those four or five people than Zuckerbug’s speech.
Mark Zuckerburg’s Utopia
I come not to bury Mark Zuckerburg so much as those who think he is the silicon celebrity to bring Donald Trump’s celluloid celebrity to obsolescence. But Zuckerburg did bring policy prescriptions to his Harvard address. The billionaire Facebook founder said, “We should have a society that measures progress not by economic metrics like GDP but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful.”
We’ll leave aside the fact that this adds to the confusion that Senator Ben Sasse documents in his new book between producing and consuming. The fact of the matter is, we already have a metric that does something very similar. We call it GDP. It measures how much meaning their fellow humans find in the role of the group being measured. But this was just a platitude to frame his support for “a Universal Basic Income to give everyone the cushion to try new ideas.”
Utopia Sounds Like a Good Place, but It’s Really No Place At All.
So, say we try a new idea like that. We take money from whatever corners of society have it. We give it to that small (often Harvard-educated) segment of society that we name “government” and give a monopoly on the legal use of force. That elite group then promises to turn around and give it to every single member of society (after a handling fee, of course).
Let’s posit the wild possibility – almost impossible for government programs – that it does not accomplish the entrepreneurial miracle Zuckerburg predicts. Let’s even be so brash as to suggest that maybe it would have the opposite effect. Government programs often hurt the very people they are designed to help, so a universal government program …. No, let’s just assume it doesn’t work for some completely unpredictable reason – like human nature. Would we be able to try a new idea after that? The long history of government’s new ideas says no.
The Lesson of “The Get Down”
Trying new ideas is not an inherently liberal notion. Liberals just want to try new ideas on top of the old failed ones. Conservatives, when we overcome our suspicion of new ideas, want to use them to replace the old failed ones. This is the lesson Mark Zuckerburg can draw from a fellow tech billionaire, Reed Hastings, who runs Netflix. Netflix cancelled “The Get Down” after one season. It bosted a highly touted new idea. A renowned genius directed and produced it. It had an up-and-coming cast of color. It had a subject matter praised by critics. The perhaps-record price-tag of $120 million is a huge commitment. If “The Get Down” were a government program, it would be completely untouchable.
But in the free market, you can’t do work – however meaningful you may find it personally – unless it is meaningful enough to enough people to fund it. So, Reed Hastings and Netflix saw that “The Get Down” could not meet that all-important metric and cut bait.
Unlike Mark Zuckerburg, I take it that the quite-liberal Hastings can transfer this thinking to his opinions on public policy. At least, inasmuch as he can apply new ideas to the failed ones surrounding public schools. “If public schools don’t adopt the same principles of competition and accountability as exist in the private and nonprofit sectors, they will continue to deteriorate,” says the charter-school advocate.
Assessing Failure Honestly
“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” So spake William F. Buckley, founder of National Review, himself a Yale man. One of the primary reasons I still believe that is because the first 2000 names in the Boston telephone directory probably belong to people who would end or reform a project after it has clearly failed. To ignore that simple wisdom is not only a kind of intellectualized foolishness. It’s anti-democratic for the sake of promoting Democrats. A movement can only sell democracy and deliver aristocracy for so long. For the four or five Democrats inclined to ponder their tide at its ebb, that’s all the answer they need.