The Government Shouldn’t Try to Manage the Communications Marketplace

Matt Yglesias takes my recent post gathering three links a little too seriously. Beyond their subject matter—the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile—the theme running through the links was that they were all to the TechLiberationFront blog, not that “the federal government should not try to manage the development of the communications marketplace.” My humor is a little odd. Not everyone gets to come along….

But it’s true that the federal government should not try to manage the development of the communications marketplace. So I’ll defend that, and first principles, which Yglesias claims to have reached their limits when it comes to communications.

First, I’ll refine my thesis: the government should not manage the communications marketplace.

What is a “marketplace”? The handiest web dictionary has the following two relevant definitions: “1. An open area or square in a town where a public market or sale is set up. 2. The world of business and commerce.”

To “manage” such a thing [“to take charge or care of: to manage my investments”] would be to have a hand in much or all of it—not just meta-rules about the terms of buying and selling, but what may be sold on what terms, often up to and including price and quality.

Given these ordinary meanings, I think “manage the communications marketplace” has a relatively broad connotation, and the argument that the government should not manage the communications marketplace is easy. The give-and-take of the market is a better way to discover consumers’ true interests and to apportion resources to serve them. For all the effort and smarts they put into it, government regulators are at a serious disability compared to the market’s manifold forces. More often than not, regulators serve the interests of the corporations that are well organized to win their succor, and they nurture their own interests in maintaining and growing power.

If Yglesias holds the contrary view, that the government should regulate the price, quality, and content of communications services, I welcome that debate, including its free speech dimensions. (There’s a “first principle” worth keeping in mind.)

But he actually doesn’t take that position, not openly at least. He says, instead: “The federal government has to have some kind of policy vis-à-vis the electromagnetic spectrum.” From there, management of the entire communications marketplace is a few bootstraps away.

The electromagnetic spectrum is one input into the communications marketplace. Spectrum is a challenging policy area because we are unused to treating it as anything other than a federally controlled resource.

My thinking is not dictated by the choice Congress made in the Radio Act of 1912, though. It’s important to imagine what rules and tools for dividing up radio spectrum might have emerged had the federal government not assumed power over it. I would prefer to try to move in that direction. (I don’t exclude commons treatment of some spectrum as appropriate, btw.) The historical accident that the government presumed to control radio spectrum should not metastisize into government control of communications.

Holding communications policy as close to first principles as we can, including John Locke when we can, is not the same as intoning “government bad, markets good.” But if the two approaches reach a congruent result, so be it.

If Yglesias holds the view that the government should manage the communications marketplace, he should say so forthrightly. One suspects that he wanted to feature the ad hominem insinuated into his short post. (“Of course the Cato Institute isn’t allowed to reach any other conclusion.”) It certainly sells with his commenters! But there are very good reasons to keep the government from controlling the communications marketplace, and there is much work to be done wresting control of spectrum from the government as well.