Private vs. public property

by Russ Roberts on June 8, 2009

in Web/Tech

My desire to restructure (maybe) the comments on this blog and change the commenting culture has generated a lot of responses. Most of them have been suggestions for ways to nest comments. Almost all have been enthusiastic about changing the comment culture.

But one reader wrote me to say he would never be reading Cafe Hayek again. He said I had betrayed my libertarian principles. I was no different from someone wanting government regulation to get his way.

I've seen this reaction before. It usually comes when I delete a vulgar comment or close comments. The charge is censorship.

Censorship? My caring about how the comments are made on my blog is akin to wanting government regulation?

I am a bit bewildered. The only way I can understand this is to assume that people see the internet and this blog as public property.

When I decide not to write something at Cafe Hayek, this is not censorship. It's authorship. I can delete all the comments I want. It's my blog. Or more accurately, it's ours, Don's and mine. It might not be wise or prudent to delete comments. I think not. I only delete spam and remarkably vulgar or hateful comments. I've deleted maybe three comments in the years this blog has been published. But that isn't censorship. It's our blog. We put the work into it. We pay for the service that puts it on the web. I care deeply about my audience or I wouldn't do this. But it isn't yours. It isn't yours in the literal sense. But to treat it as yours is to endure all the problems with communal property. It gets misused.

Private choices are not coercion. They're not censorship.

But if you disagree, you're free to leave. Don and I can run our blog as we see fit. We can't force you to stay or read it. That's just one more reason our choices aren't the same as government regulation.

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{ 50 comments }

Ike June 8, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Your complainer, if he was indeed true to strict libertarian principle, would have left long ago because Cafe Hayek isn't a Wiki.

Adam June 8, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Bravo sir! In that spirit, I offer you Eric Raymond's post on how to get banned from his blog.

Adler Colleague June 8, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Russ,

You are absolutely correct. One of the tenets of the libertarian view is several property. The blog is your property. For further info to those who would like a primer on the importance of private property rights, I suggest Richard Pipes "Property and Freedom".

Keep up the great work.

dg lesvic June 8, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Prof Roberts,

I'm sure that most of the people here are deeply grateful for the privileges afforded us here, and as concerned about their abuse.

T Rich June 8, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Someone who would complain about you doing as you see fit with the comments section of this blog either 1.) does not read the blog much, or 2.) has problems with reading comprehension. There are a few commenters names that jump to mind for possibility #2.

I have commented before about my appreciation for the extra work that Drs. Roberts and Boudreaux do in bringing us this blog. I am in full support of you doing whatever you please with your private property which you kindly share as a public forum.

Rick June 8, 2009 at 5:41 pm

Russ Roberts for President!

John Galt June 8, 2009 at 5:45 pm

I see "Bravo!" has already been said. You can say that again!

Fred June 8, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Those who use free speech, censorship, and "Help!, I'm being oppressed!" as hot buttons are just trolls. If they are not getting their way then there must be something wrong with you.

Bill June 8, 2009 at 5:55 pm

I continue to be frightened by the sheer number of people who can't seem to grasp the distinction between the actions of private parties and the actions of government. I fear we are doomed.
Then again, there's always the choice of the invisible heart- I know it's price…

brotio June 8, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Hooray for pointing out the difference between editing and censorship! And, thankyou for your restraint when editing the Cafe.

This Cafe embodies libertarian ideals quite well. The trolls are still trolling because we patrons (myself included) keep feeding them. But, we patrons are guests on someone else's property. If the hosts don't want us to drink, smoke, or cuss – then we either don't drink, smoke, or cuss; or we leave.

True_Liberal June 8, 2009 at 6:01 pm

A. J. Liebling said "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." Doesn't this apply to the blogosphere as well?

Econ June 8, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Russ, I would like to thank you for this change in the structure of comments. I have been discouraged from posting comments when others use the space to engage in a debate. Keep up the good work.

Joshua Kelly June 8, 2009 at 6:13 pm

With all the libertarian clatter here I think we risk forgetting a second principle of liberal societies that's not antithetical to the control of one's property.

While it's true that you have editorial control (and are fully within your rights to exercise such control), there's something intrinsically libertarian about allowing for unrestricted discourse in your conversations.

Again, I don't see these as antithetical – but one is of character moral character perhaps? Perhaps not, I'm just working out an idea.

JohnW June 8, 2009 at 6:17 pm

I think these sorts of misunderstandings can be minimized by making the rules that you intend to operate the blog on clear. Perhaps you could put a permanent link to your explanation on the front page?

Also, I think that it might help to make it clear when and why you sometimes close comments on a blog post. I actually wanted to make a few suggestions after reading your previous post, but I was a bit put-off by your closing the comments there — I did not feel comfortable emailing the comments — and so I did not comment.

jdcllns June 8, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Hear, hear!

Chris O'Leary June 8, 2009 at 6:30 pm

"Private choices are not coercion. They're not censorship."

People are confusing libertarianism with anarchy.

IMO, Libertarians want as few laws as possible, but no fewer. The existence of trolls, and other sociopaths, is a simple fact of life. Lightweight rules, policies, and laws have to be put in place to deal with this fact.

That's just the way it is.

Lonely Libertarian June 8, 2009 at 6:36 pm

The nature of what is private property is not very well understood – equally troubling is an increasing lack of respect for the joint or public property we share. Note the increasing use of "i" by the President when "we" would have been more appropriate -and more suggestive of his rightful role as caretaker – shepherd – not owner.

Jeff June 8, 2009 at 6:40 pm

I can't believe that people don't make the public vs private distinction. It shows how positive and negative rights have become obscured into a soupy admixture of gray obscurity.

Well, I didn't get to comment on the Restructure Comments thread. So, here goes. YouTube has a comment feature that only allows a few comments, then it blocks you for about 15 minutes. Then you can make a few more. And so forth.

Maybe that would help.

Jeff June 8, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Did I write this sentence? "It shows how positive and negative rights have become obscured into a soupy admixture of gray obscurity." Yes. I did. Here's the less redundant version.

It shows how positive and negative rights have been swirled into a soupy admixture of obscurity.

Still sounds pretentious, But, eh.

Methinks June 8, 2009 at 6:51 pm

I see I'm not alone in not understanding how this is a violation of libertarian principles. This blog is private property and you get to set the rules. Full stop. You could go as far as Mankiw and disable comments altogether if you wished. I'm grateful that you haven't because I have a habit of passing along not only your posts to everyone I know but also some of the comments posted.

Personally, I think nesting comments is an excellent idea. In fact, if I understand nesting correctly, it actually gives readers and participants in the comments section more choice. More choice is very libertarian, no?

Dan June 8, 2009 at 6:57 pm

The broader point is certainly correct, but it's odd to say it's not censorship. There is nothing objectionable about controlling the content on your own blog, but watching out for and then deleting vulgar or otherwise objectionable comments is clearly censorship.

Bill June 8, 2009 at 7:00 pm

If someone posted graffiti on your house and you cleaned it off with a solvent, that wouldn't be censorship.

Lonely Libertarian June 8, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Bill,

Yes, by the precise definition of censorship, what you propose would be just that – but the public – private property distinction is also in play.

Mark June 8, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Nesting is the way to go.

Though I cant say I very much agree with the blog dailykos.com, the method in which they nest comments is very nice indeed.

At that website, the user must click on a comment to see all the sub comments / nested comments. This is a nice feature because when conversations become long, it gives the reader the choice to look at the sub comments. However, such a structure encourages more commenting but also does seem to encourage venting. If go to the dailykos.com and read some of the comment strings, there is a lot of venting.

TrUmPiT June 8, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Rich people who own beach front property in Malibu want to own the beach and prevent reasonable use by the public. I think they have gone too far. I want to enjoy the sand and surf and walk my dogs along the beach and breathe the fresh salty air. Rich people usually go too far, and must be told where their place is. Money shouldn't control everything; it controls far too much as it is.

Perhaps the comments section of a blog is like the beach and people should have free access within reason. The government can simply pass a law that fines Rush and Don for censoring the comments section to exclude people with differing viewpoints. If they go too far and selectively eliminate opposing viewpoints, they can be made to do 12 years of hard labor in a North Korean labor camp. This idea of "It's my toy/blog and you can't have it," is for 2 and 3 year-olds.

The government needs to set up a censorship office to stop blog owners and other media outlets from censoring alternative viewpoints. Just because people think they own something is no excuse for their setting up a propaganda regime that tries to control and rule the world. Rupert Murdoch and Fox TV comes to mind. Free speech isn't free; it's big business for profit in this country. You want to practice your little monopoly on Cafe Hayek, and I say you shouldn't be allowed to sink to the abysmal level of a Joseph Goebbels. The fascist mind control must be rooted out wherever it rears its ugly head.

I want to walk along the beach with my dogs when the mood strikes me, and breathe some fresh air. I wanna make you let me.

Snarky June 8, 2009 at 7:37 pm

"But one reader wrote me to say he would never be reading Cafe Hayek again."

"Rich people who own beach front property in Malibu…"

Damn.

kingstu June 8, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Most Libertarians believe you have the right to do whatever you wish with your own property (including your body). For those who don’t seem to grasp this concept here are a few examples:

No homosexuals in a home you own/rent = OK
Government forbidding homosexuality = Not OK

No drugs in a home you own/rent = OK
Government forbidding people from using drugs = Not OK

No comments on a blog you own/rent = OK
Government forbidding comments on a blog = Not OK

I’m shocked more people can’t distinguish between the actions of two private parties (blogger and commentator) and one private actor and the government.

BoscoH June 8, 2009 at 7:41 pm

Russ, I learn a lot from this site, from both posts and comments. I hope you don't think that the one example email you referenced represents any significant chunk of the people here.

A suggestion: if you see something you don't like in the comments, edit the comment, and add Please don't (fill in the blank) at the bottom of the comment. It would give all of us specific guidance about what you think is or isn't appropriate in the comments. Your last two posts, by contrast, leave everyone wondering if they are out of bounds.

Michael F. Martin June 8, 2009 at 8:07 pm

What's a "private" choice? It's BOTH the fact that you're taking input from your readers and making a decision that reflects that input AND that your readers are free to leave that makes this non-coercive. If you weren't taking input, it would still be "coercive" within the margins of best alternative to reading.

vidyohs June 8, 2009 at 8:20 pm

Cafe Hayek is a forum, a space provided by "owners".

We have the natural right to free speech, but we do not have a natural right, nor a lawful right, to someone else's forum.

This "I have a right" thing is so misunderstood. Yes, you have a right, but your right does not override my rights.

I hope someone savy will explain this nesting idea, as I have no clue.

dg lesvic June 8, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Not a peep out of Daniel?

Just watch. In a day or two, he'll be right back, with his intellectual crab grass crowding everything else out.

gappy June 8, 2009 at 8:48 pm

First, I believe that posts influence the comments. When the post is sneering, the comments are sneering. When it is positive, so are the comments. I am in favor of positive comments. The recurrent insults and diatribes are unpleasant, and carry no information.

Second, I like the idea of nested comments. Angry Bear has a horrid graphic theme, but an excellent comment system: nested, with notifications by email when you receive a reply, etc. I know it runs on the blogspot platform.

vikingvista June 8, 2009 at 8:52 pm

You should start your restructuring by banning any buffoons who label as "censorship" YOUR management of YOUR blog.

You could improve the comments section by 150% by banning just two vacuous posters whose voluminous posts serve only to dilute any thoughtful commentary.

Sam Grove June 8, 2009 at 8:54 pm

We can't force you to stay or read it.

Or to subsidize it.

Eric H June 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Too little government is almost indistinguishable from too much. If the comments aren't moderated, or censored somehow, Russ, and most of us, will get less of what we want, because coherent discussion will be crowded out.

Too much censorship results in the same thing.

You're on the right track Russ, and you shouldn't feel you have to qualify, or even defend, your actions in the slightest. Readers of your blog are enjoying one of the ancillary benefits of your career. Your professionalism and generosity are giving us the benefit is your years of study, thought and writing for free. It certainly isn't very libertarian to complain about how a voluntary benefactor dispenses a free good.

James Hanley June 8, 2009 at 9:01 pm

On my own blog, and others I read, one of the things I enjoy most is watching the way the conversations in the comments take on a life of their own. I recently claimed that good readers can't ever "hijack" a thread, because the collaborative process of writing makes them participants in the creation of the blog itself.

But I think my kind of mindset, taken too literally, is what confuses some commentors. Because they literally are participants in the creation of the blog through their participation in the comments, they come to feel a level of personal ownership in it.

I can understand this feeling, but of course feeling that way does not mean that Roberts and Boudreaux have created an actual public forum. Rather, they have a private forum in which they allow participation within bounds.

David Gagnon June 8, 2009 at 9:58 pm

When you host a party, not everybody is allowed to invade you living room.

The owner of the house have the right to denied the access to everybody he doesn’t like.

LowcountryJoe June 8, 2009 at 10:03 pm

I'm glad that you've only removed about three comments so far. I've felt that I've crossed the line a time or two (or dozen) and would not have had any heartburn with a decision on your part to scrub them in those instances.

However, with that out there, I'm not entirely clear what you're now gunning for in the comments section if the dialectic between persons of different ideologies (and the snark that comes with that) is something that you're finding frustrating.

Chris O'Leary June 8, 2009 at 10:17 pm

"When you host a party, not everybody is allowed to invade you living room.

The owner of the house have the right to denied the access to everybody he doesn’t like."

Worst case, if you're a boor you're not going to be invited back.

That may be censorship, but sometimes that's what it takes to keep a society functioning smoothly.

I have seen far too many good sites destroyed by trolls.

TrUmPiT June 8, 2009 at 10:37 pm

vikingvista,

You are nothing but a nasty superfluous troll who adds nothing to this blog by continuing to ask that I be banned. You are the one who should find another bridge to troll under. Censorship is so Third Reich, and so are reeducation camps, concentration camps and labor camp Gulags. You obviously have no real purpose in life other than to harass me and feed off society or your parents' trust account. I've put up with your lowbrow, thuggish kind long enough. Join your buddies in Pyongyang. You have a lot in common with Kim Ill Junk. Each time you insult me or ask that I be banned, I will call you out on it and demand that you find a new bridge to troll under and foul up. Enough of you already, and your intimidating, bullying tactics. I'd call you a intellectual pygmy surrounded by an intellectual giant (me), but that would be an insult to pygmies everywhere, so troll will have to be your rightful epithet.

vikingvista June 8, 2009 at 10:48 pm

"banning just two vacuous posters whose voluminous posts serve only to dilute any thoughtful commentary"

Without me having to name anyone, someone has just identified my above description with himself.

MU789 June 8, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Threatening to leave a blog is like Cleavon Little threatening to shoot himself in Blazing Saddles.

Won't hurt anyone but yourself.

TrUmPiT June 8, 2009 at 10:56 pm

99% of the time, I make one comment in a given thread. I don't usually engage in back and forth commenting. I read others' comments if they have a good point to make. I try to learn from people. Rarely, I agree with people around here to any great extent, so why bother trying to change their minds? It's the youth of America that I'm trying to reach. I make my point and you can make yours. If you don't like my "vacuous" comments, don't read them. It's easy; all you do is scroll past them.

indiana jim June 8, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Russ wrote: "It's our blog. We put the work into it. We pay for the service that puts it on the web. I care deeply about my audience or I wouldn't do this. But it isn't yours. It isn't yours in the literal sense. But to treat it as yours is to endure all the problems with communal property."

Yes its your blog; yes you put "the work" into it; no it isn't "ours" "literally".

But remember, as I reminded when you guys shut down comments, YOU are the ones who advertise "where orders emerge".

If you want "followers" count me out (I am not simply an "audience" that you are entertaining or informing). If you mean what you say and want orders to emerge, count me in.

I come here like a pure Randian ready to trade. I contribute to the conversation in response to the posts of you and Don and others.

This is TIT-FOR-TAT in my view: It is mutually beneficial. Yes I am benefitting from the conversation, but so are you. Again, I am not a follower nor a member of an "audience". I like a good show as much as the next, but this is not that unless I am mistaken. If so, please delete this post.

I have found the disucussions of "emergent order" here informative and engaging. Occassionally, the posts of people commenting are more useful to me than the intitial post by Russ or Don. When this occurs I express my gratitude not to Don or Russ but to the commentor, so what?

Russ is right if he is saying the "where orders emerge" isn't where communal property prevails. But, as Russ knows well, communalism and mutually beneficial voluntary exchange are two different things. The sponsors of a blog that advertises "where orders emerge" cannot remain credible if they fail to see the benefits they are getting as well as those they are providing.

indiana jim June 8, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Russ wrote: "It's our blog. We put the work into it. We pay for the service that puts it on the web. I care deeply about my audience or I wouldn't do this. But it isn't yours. It isn't yours in the literal sense. But to treat it as yours is to endure all the problems with communal property."

Yes its your blog; yes you put "the work" into it; no it isn't "ours" "literally".

But remember, as I reminded when you guys shut down comments, YOU are the ones who advertise "where orders emerge".

If you want "followers" count me out (I am not simply an "audience" that you are entertaining or informing). If you mean what you say and want orders to emerge, count me in.

I come here like a pure Randian ready to trade. I contribute to the conversation in response to the posts of you and Don and others.

This is TIT-FOR-TAT in my view: It is mutually beneficial. Yes I am benefitting from the conversation, but so are you. Again, I am not a follower nor a member of an "audience". I like a good show as much as the next, but this is not that unless I am mistaken. If so, please delete this post.

I have found the disucussions of "emergent order" here informative and engaging. Occassionally, the posts of people commenting are more useful to me than the intitial post by Russ or Don. When this occurs I express my gratitude not to Don or Russ but to the commentor, so what?

Russ is right if he is saying the "where orders emerge" isn't where communal property prevails. But, as Russ knows well, communalism and mutually beneficial voluntary exchange are two different things. The sponsors of a blog that advertises "where orders emerge" cannot remain credible if they fail to see the benefits they are getting as well as those they are providing.

vikingvista June 8, 2009 at 11:14 pm

"If you don't like my "vacuous" comments, don't read them."

I don't–apart from the last two, and a couple posts when I first arrived several months ago. You're the one identifying himself with my comments.

And I do thank you for keeping your posts short, and easy to screen.

LowcountryJoe June 8, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Yes, why bother trying to change minds (otherwise known as attempting to influence); just post something so outrageous, over-the-top, and nonsensical on a blog where the ideas found there clash with your own. What's in it for you? I mean this all takes some of your time so your next best alternative for that time is what? Is this amusing to you? Seriously, what kind of emotion is behind the utility that you're deriving here, TrUmPiT?

Bill June 8, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Lonely Libertarian, then would you consider the following "censorship"? – A hooligan uses a knife to carve his initials on a young woman's face. The young woman uses a scarf to hide her scars.

vikingvista June 9, 2009 at 12:15 am

Dr. Roberts,

How about a weekly character quota for all commenters? Everyone would be treated the same. It would encourage people to take time to condense their ideas. This would make for better constructed posts, and diminish the type-first think-later attitude that seems to plague the most prolific.

It would also help the reader if the poster's name is at the beginning, rather then the end, of his post.

dg lesvic June 9, 2009 at 12:41 am

Perhaps we have been missing the point here, and knocking down straw men.

There has been a consensus that our hosts' critics didn't understand the difference between a private and public domain. But that wasn't necessarily so. They could have understood it perfectly well and still maintained that our hosts were petty if not totalitarian intellectual dictators, limited not by intent but opportunity, and as dishonorable as a Hitler or Stalin, within their limitations.

So it doesn't answer them to point out the difference between a private and public domain, and quibble over the word "censorship."

Whatever the term for restricting speech within a private domain, the question remains: was that our hosts intention?

Since there is no objective way to differentiate between editing and restricting content, and we're not mind readers, it's a matter of personal judgment.

Inevitably, some will think that our hosts are just bargain basement Hitlers and Stalins. That comes with the territory. But that's not all that comes with it. For there are some too, and I am one, who consider them the most honorable men on the face of the Earth, and a blessing to the cause of intellectual freedom.

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