Alexandra Petri recently had a gloriously snarky opinion piece in the Washington Post,comparing Elon Musk to her toddler. Titled “Things both my toddler and Elon Musk do that are signs of genius, apparently” it included things like “Constantly yelling at people to change things that cannot be changed” and “When presented with slow, patient explanations of why things are not possible, just screams louder;” and “Likes to seize nice things and ruin them because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are for.”
And of course, “Wants to be center of attention at all times.”
It’s disturbing enough when a man-child (“man-toddler?”) has enough money to buy and control what had been a significant mode of communication, but its terrifying to discover that this petulant child has the power to interfere in matters of global war and peace. As multiple media outlets have reported, Musk’s SpaceX refused to allow Ukraine to use its Starlink internet services to launch an attack on Russia last September–a decision that undoubtedly prolonged the conflict and benefitted Russia.
Musk has defended his decision as an effort to prevent possible nuclear war. Whatever your opinion of that excuse, or his action, the episode raises a profound question: should a single private citizen–even one less mercurial and self-aggrandizing than Musk– have the power to decide such questions?
We live in a very weird time. Government evidently gets to decide what I do with my uterus, but not how the U.S. will assist in the defense of its allies….
I know this will come as a shock to several self-satisfied “captains of industry,” but having a lot of money does not necessarily translate into superior knowledge or nuanced understanding. Musk is actually a poster boy for that disconnect–as David French (who spent years as a First Amendment lawyer) recently wrote in the New York Times,
Despite his loud and frequent protestations, Elon Musk may be the worst ambassador for free speech in America. To understand why, it’s necessary to look at X, the website formerly known as Twitter, which he owns and rules over like the generalissimo of a banana republic….
Instead of creating a platform for free speech, Musk created a platform for Musk’s speech — or, more precisely, Musk’s power. First, he has demonstrated that he’s perfectly willing to take action against people or entities that challenge him or challenge X. As my friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (where I used to serve as president) have detailed, he has used his authority to suspend accounts, to throttle (or limit the traffic of) competitors and reportedly to boost his own voice.
As French quite accurately notes, rather than making Twitter (now X) into a free speech paradise, Musk has turned it into the generalissimo’s playpen, where the generalissimo’s values shape everything about the place.
X is Musk’s company, and he can set whatever speech rules he wishes. But do not be fooled. When Musk defends his decisions by shouting “free speech,” I’m reminded of the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in the movie “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Musk isn’t promoting liberty; he’s using his power to privilege many of the worst voices in American life.
Power and privilege. Those two words are–or should be– at the heart of the public/private distinction. Once again, we come back to that fundamental question: what is government for? What functions are properly left to the private sector–to the individual, to the marketplace, or to the wide variety of nonprofit and voluntary organizations–and which must be exercised by a democratically-elected government?
Right now, that essential inquiry is mired in a host of very serious concerns about the declining health of democratic decision-making, and the increasingly obvious effort of MAGA Republicans to turn America into an autocratic, White Christian Nationalist state. If they are successful, American government will no longer be legitimate under any definition of that term, and the allocation of power between those privileged by the regime and the rest of us will be moot.
If we do manage to salvage democratic governance–if voters come out in 2024 and deal a sufficiently robust defeat to the MAGA Confederates still fighting the Civil War–we will need to turn our attention to the necessary divisions between public and private power.
Governments can and do make grievous mistakes, but that is no reason to allow individuals–even individuals considerably more mature and informed than Elon Musk–to usurp decision-making in realms that must be subject to public accountability.