Chokepoints


Quick placeholder here to identify a concept that comes up repeatedly.

Governing (in the very broadest sense) is partly about principle, and partly about practicalities. You can decide you want something to happen, but it might be easy to act effectively, or difficult. You can pass a law, but it might be easy to enforce, or difficult.

Those practicalities are affected by what the normal behaviour of people is.

One example: if most people are employed by one company or another, government can have a lot of influence by attaching rules to that employment relationship — it can collect income taxes, ensure minimum welfare, regulate safety, etc. The employers can be conveniently be made agents for the govermnent — information-gatherers, or providers or enforcers.

There are many other examples. If goods come into the country through a few ports, government can exert a great deal of control easily by closely regulating those ports. If people all go to the same church, the government can monitor and influence their views by acting through that church.

However, behaviours like this change. In the case of the employment relationship, as one example, it has in the last decade become much easier to work short-term. The canonical example is Uber: Uber can provide a lot of the function of an employer — giving a worker a fairly steady stream of work for different end consumers, doing marketing, payment handling, paperwork — without actually being an employer. Youtube makes TV programmes without employing producers and presenters. The influence that government used to have at that “employment” choke point is gone in those cases.

The most topical example of this wider phenomenon is of course media. If news and entertainment came from a small number of newspapers and broadcasters, those were choke points that allowed government to amplify its control.

When a valuable control point, such as TV broadcasting or long-term employment, dissolves away, government has a serious problem. It has four choices:

  • Expend more resources to achieve the same amount of control
  • Give up control
  • Find new choke points
  • Try to force people back into the old choke points

There’s no value judgement here. I’m not an anarchist, government needs to govern, and the optimal mechanisms for governing, at any point in time, are affected by the affordances provided to the government by common patterns of behaviour.

Whenever you see controversy around technology — because technology changes the way people interact and moves choke points — it usually comes down to this question.



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