Back when I was in high school, I remember a history teacher of mine giving a not-exactly-unbiased perspective on the liberal/conservative divide in America. Conservatives, he said, were afraid of big government, but liberals realized that big government is the only thing powerful enough to protect the people from big business.
I’ve been hearing this same perspective quite a bit lately now that the FCC has given itself authority over the internet as a public utility for the sake of ‘Net Neutrality.’ The widespread narrative is that evil corporations are trying to impose fast lanes and slow lanes on your internet usage—so that some (big established corporate) content providers get privileged speed compared to others. They might charge you extra for some of your preferred browsing or even censor some of the material you consume—all at the discretion of a faceless board of directors who, when they look at their customers, see dollar signs instead of people. But now, with government regulation of the internet in place, these big mean companies won’t be able to get away with any of that stuff.
Unfortunately, the more facts one is aware of, the less plausible that story becomes. After all, Comcast (which as their customers can attest is surely an evil corporation if ever one existed) was lobbying in favor of government regulation—not against it. Likewise FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who proposed this new authority in the first place, is a man who worked as a lobbyist on behalf of those very big evil cable companies. In other words, the corporations aren’t fearing these new regulations as something that could thwart their evil plans. They actually welcome them.
But why? Are they penitents who realize that they need help and welcome the gentle hand of Uncle Sam to restore them to virtue? Hardly. You see, my history teacher and liberals in general continue to make one giant mistake in their analysis. In the real world, big government is an ally of big business—not an opponent. No matter how big and powerful Comcast (for example) becomes on its own, there is one thing it cannot ultimately accomplish: hanging on to customers who want nothing to do with them. But with government regulation, all sorts of things (like government-protected monopolies) are possible. And big evil corporations have a huge advantage over both customers and competitive entrepreneurs when it comes to playing the lobbying game.
Wherever competition exists in a free marketplace, customers can vote with their dollars. If one company fails to be worth the cost, then consumers can ‘next’ them and move on to another provider. It gives dissatisfied customers an out when things get hairy and companies an incentive to not be entirely horrible. There might not be much competition among internet providers, but there is competition. Most Americans have at least a some degree of choice in the matter.
Granted, this is an imperfect level of choice because the market doesn’t always provide a good set of options at any given time. I, for example, am one of those Americans who only has one choice of broadband provider where I live. And they are absolutely abysmal. Every time my internet went out (and it happened a lot), I had to wait a week for them to send out a technician. When one of those technicians screwed up and left me worse off than when they first arrived, I had to wait another week for them to come back and spend (literally) 5 minutes crimping a cable. I was told by a technician that a large part of the delays I experienced was because the company didn’t even provide enough tools to go around among their crews. It wasn’t just a waiting list for a technician—it was a waiting list for a technician who could grab a toolbox from another technician.
So what did a helpless victimized consumer like myself do? I had to upgrade to their business service that had guaranteed 4-hour response times. In other words, I paid extra for a kind of ‘fast lane.’ This is exactly the kind of option that government regulation likes to take away because its unfair to people. And it is unfair. I resent my cable company for forcing me to pay extra to be protected from their own utter incompetence. But I am up and running reliably now, and I am a living, breathing opportunity for other providers in the area that are expanding their coverage area. The second they move a few blocks over to where I am, I will kiss my current company goodbye. On top of that, technology is constantly changing. The broad dissatisfaction with cable providers is also an opportunity for innovation. The next entrepreneur that finds a better way will be well rewarded for their efforts.
But because this level of choice is imperfect, liberals want to take it away and hand the reins over to government instead because they think it gives people a louder voice in how they’re served. But in practice, all it means is that I have to vote with ballots instead of dollars. What good is that going to do me when all of this regulation is being decided by unelected bureaucrats? 61% of Americans oppose this decision, but the FCC went ahead and made it anyway. So much for government listening to the voice of the people. All my vote does is give me one voice among millions to help decide whether a couple politicians who appoint the bureaucrats who appoint the bureaucrats who appoint the bureaucrats who actually decide these matters have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ after their names when they show up on C-SPAN. Suddenly voting with my dollars doesn’t seem too shabby after all.
Many proponents of net neutrality thought they were pushing for more government power so that government could simply protect the open internet status quo that we all know and love—“preventing cable company f*ckery” as John Oliver put in his popular segment on the subject. Predictably, they’re already having second thoughts. As it turns out, the FCC assigned themselves very broad powers with very vague guidelines—vague enough that even the advocates of net neutrality are already worried about government overreach. Given the historical characters of American government, it’s hard to fathom why they expected anything different. It’s like giving a junkie a huge sack of crack and then telling him to only use a little bit responsibly. As Vox Day wrote on the subject, “Once you declare ‘the FCC has a role to play’, your part is done. You won’t get to tell them how to play it. The FCC will decide that for itself, thank you very much.”