Hooray! Internet Service is a Public Utility (or: Why the Unregulated Free Market Just Doesn’t Cut It)

Awesome.  I try to keep this blog more practical than theoretical, and throwing more echoes into the chamber is probably pointless, but thank you, FCC, for doing the right thing.

It has been a good day for the American government.

As usual, critics of this movement play the “government is the problem” card, and that’s about it.  Just remember, We The People are the government of the United States of America; if someone tells you that “government is the problem,” that person is telling you that you are the problem.

Take the opportunity to educate, and keep yourself civil.  Issues such as these deserve widespread understanding and support for the sake of our country.

A Response to Anti-Regulatory Critique

In an attempt to make this post more interesting, allow me to present this:

One of my (libertarian) friends directed me to an article which he believes to be accurate. My take is (perhaps unsurprisingly, once the source is identified) markedly different.  In fact, it’s kind of strange to me that the article seems to be as terrible as it is.  Unfortunately, I find the promotion of an “unfettered free market” as made by the article quite representative of the position taken by America’s political right when it comes to the economy.  An economic layman such as myself shouldn’t be able to shred it so easily, and that gives me pause, but nonetheless, my conclusions are as follows:

First, the author of that article seems pretty dishonest in a way common to the “government is the problem” crowd.  One of his initial claims is a comparison between broadband access in the US and Europe wherein he suggests that our better broadband access is somehow due to less regulation. He ignores the fact that our government has contributed immensely to the reach of Internet access in this country with programs such as the National Broadband Plan, among other initiatives.  Without such programs, particularly in rural or low-income areas, private corporations simply did not act to bring access to people.  The invisible hand just didn’t cut it.  This is a rhetorical strategy typical of proponents of economic deregulation: utterly ignore all the benefits of governmental intervention and focus entirely on downsides, no matter how disproportionate the relationship between the two.

The most fundamental failure of the article (and indeed, many a politician’s economic outlook) is the assertion that the free market is “inherently democratic.”  This should ring obviously false to everyone.  If it were true, our lives would be a hell of a lot easier, but it is false.  It is a lie bouncing around the echo chambers of neo-cons and libertarians alike, and it really doesn’t take much to see through it:

The free market is influenced by the expenditure of wealth which varies greatly between individuals, granting them highly variable influence on the market.  Without regulation imposed to prevent it, economic proficiency on behalf of shrewd selfish greed will inevitably result in the stockpiling of wealth and command over its distribution.  This leads to an extreme and horribly iniquitous income disparity and therefore a system with extreme and horribly iniquitous influence disparity.  Without means for intervention on behalf of the victims of this process, the cycle becomes autoexacerbating, wherein corruption begets and reinforces corruption and resources are increasingly stockpiled until a relatively small set of economic fiefdoms exert near-total control over the world’s resources.

A democracy, on the other hand, seeks to prevent this sort of systemic death spiral by consistently treating individuals equally when it comes to their influence on the system.  I doubt many would disagree that the American government does a far better job of allowing for equal influence between voters than the American market allows between purchasers.  It is for precisely this reason that the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United is so dangerous; equating money with speech creates the dangerous situation in which a very few have extremely powerful voices while very many are made incomparably weak.

This should be a well-understood, likely inevitable consequence of an “unfettered free market.”  A set of economic rules enforced by law sets the playing field.  If those rules in any way fail to control and correct for unreasonable power imbalances, such imbalances will manifest and grow until a few players on the receiving end of nearly unstoppable economic inertia come to dominate the field.  Without counterbalances such as a steeply progressive tax and the prevention of huge inheritances, the free market becomes little more than a very powerful tool for oppression.

It is here that I believe one of my most important philosophical/political/economic insights of young adulthood rests:  The market was made for man, man was not made for the market.  We use our economic system to share goods ideally based on moral principles of basic reciprocity; people should be rewarded for good, honest work.  The market is subject to moral obligations, as is every other man-made system.  We mustn’t lose sight of this and become fooled into believing that the market creates our moral obligations rather than serves those obligations.

So, if you allow the author to claim that the free market is the true arbiter of democracy, then you will likely follow him into his attempt to subjugate our government to the market rather than the other way around. He argues that the government is tyrannically imposing control over the democracy of the market when, in reality, our government is the actual representative of our democracy, and not our economic system.  In the case of Internet neutrality, the FCC is the representative of the people and it is its duty to prevent the market from permitting the abuse of the people it is intended to serve.  This must be the case lest we revert to a simplistic “might makes right” philosophy through deregulation, boiling our economic structure down to such a minimal level that it does little more than support a quick and efficacious return to the horrors of feudalism through a plutocratic melee.  One need look no further than the industrial revolution for an example of the unregulated free market in action.  A utopia it was not.

We should all remember this when discussing political and economic policy.  When certain political actors assert that “government is the problem,” we should remember that We The People are the government.  These charlatans are telling us that it is we who are the problem, and that if only our democratically agreed-upon behavioral constraints were lifted, those whose power is made all the greater thereby would lead us to salvation.  The economically powerful threaten that they will simply stop creating jobs, as though it is by their grace alone that others are employed.  They seem not to believe any longer that others are required for their often grotesquely extreme wealth, but rather that they are monolithic titans of self-reliance who rightly own thousands of times more than the plebeians who threaten to restrain their gluttony.

So be not cowed by the harbingers of doom.  The FCC is simply classifying Internet service as a public good and preventing its commercial exploitation in ways that threaten to limit the benefit we all reap from this amazing technology.  It’s a good thing; it prevents my Internet traffic and yours from being deprioritized and slowed because we don’t have as much money as other people.  It’s good for business, too, since startups no longer have to fear being outpurchased by rivals when it comes to the speed and ease with which their customers access their services.  The only people for whom it is a constraint are those who would like to squeeze more money from those who depend upon the great value of this technology.

As an IT professional working specifically in free and open source software, my professional opinion (for what it’s worth) is aligned with the vast majority of IT professionals in thinking that the FCC has made the correct choice here, and it is a very good day for the American people.  I look forward to a future in which more and more goods and services are brought under the democratic control of the American people and everyone’s lives are made better thereby.

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