Commentary

Nader Knows Best?

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
February 12, 1999

If there’s one product price that really bothers consumer advocates and politicians, it’s “free.” That’s a price that even society’s have-nots can afford, without a single law being passed. Although consumers tend to like free things a lot, charging nothing has been known to get some major software companies into trouble with the Justice Department.

A new California-based company is offering schools an estimated $90,000 in computer hardware and support (15 multimedia personal computers with high-quality 17-inch monitors and a high-speed Internet connection via a rooftop satellite receiver) at no charge, but the price is still too high for some know-it-all-for-everyone-else busybodies. Ralph Nader calls ZapMe! a “corporate predator” because it includes a rotating two- by four-inch advertisement in the lower left-hand corner of each computer screen. ZapMe! then distributes to advertisers a composite sketch of the sites students visit.

One of Nader’s latest spin-off organizations, Commercial Alert, has already sent out two press releases angrily denouncing ZapMe! “The way they advertise to kids is entirely inappropriate,” said Gary Ruskin, Commercial Alert’s director. “I think it’s outrageous that parents should have this shoved down their kids’ throats. They’re forcing kids to watch ads.”

“Shoving” free computers down their throats? “Forcing” them to watch ads? Sure, if you think parents (who also choose housing, medicine and food for their children) and school administrators are too stupid to make appropriate decisions. Not everyone thinks so, which is why Naderites and the federal government shouldn’t have the power to decide for everyone. More than 9,000 schools have lined up for a serving of those free state-of-the-art computers. More than 500 schools have been wired. Students must get parental permission to participate in the ZapMe! program and to look at sites not included in the network of 10,000 educational sites. Who should decide if the cost is too high, parents or Ralph Nader?


Unfortunately, Ralph Nader is not alone in suffering from the arrogance of thinking he knows what is best for millions of children in thousands of school districts.


Nader’s Raiders aren’t alone in criticizing ZapMe! The appearance of commercialism in the classroom — candy logos in some cafeterias, soft-drink signs on the football field, commercials on Channel One’s TV sets — led a Wisconsin state lawmaker to introduce a bill last year banning advertising in schools. Politicians also don’t seem to like it when business offers something for “free.” Even if you’re a public school graduate, you know the price of zero is still $2 billion less than the $2 billion that President Clinton and Vice President Gore want the nation’s consumers to ante up to get the nation’s schools online.

As much as we’d all like for every child to have a computer at home and at school, economic reality must be faced. In an era of tightening budgets, the choice may be between higher taxes and computers. Should such goods be provided through private, peaceful exchange or through coerced taxation? As we consider ways of meeting the needs of schools, let’s bear a few things in mind:

First, few things in life are really “free,” even when the price is “free.” Broadcast television is “free” because someone buys commercials. Newspapers, while not completely “free,” are offered at nominal cost because someone buys advertisements in them. Politicians who create “free” programs for constituents do so at someone else’s expense. The difference, of course, is that when people come to voluntary private agreements, both parties feel they’re deriving some benefit. I watch TV despite some annoying commercials because on balance, I derive entertainment or informational value from the rest of the show. But when the goodies are given out by government, no such voluntary act occurs. As a taxpayer, I’m not free to refuse to fund the largesse. School officials feel they must accept it (along with whatever strings are attached) lest other schools get goodies at their expense. And that’s related to the second lesson:

Private action is preferable to public action. Having the private sector wire the nation’s schools not only meets a need without costing taxpayers money; it also means that there won’t be make-work created for an army of bureaucrats maneuvering to keep their jobs in another “temporary” government program. As Ronald Reagan once said, “A government program is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” In contrast, schools and businesses acting in their own interests are much likelier to log off once a relationship involving computers or anything else is no longer fruitful for both sides. And that leads to the third lesson:

The one-best-school-system model and mindset, according to which there are uniform rules for every school, needs to be scrapped. Unfortunately, Ralph Nader is not alone in suffering from the arrogance of thinking he knows what is best for millions of children in thousands of school districts. But America is a diverse country in which many possible ways of meeting local needs abound. Some schools desperately need computers, some don’t. Let’s allow the schools to decide if they want to accept a business’s offer of free goods. There could even come a day when computer companies compete with one another to wire the nation’s schools. Free will be a tough price to beat, but there might be a company out there willing to offer computers at a price that the schools can’t refuse — even if consumer advocates and politicians think the price is too high, or too low.

Casey J. Lartigue is a staff writer at the Cato Institute.