Trafficking in fear

Net neutrality backers traffic in fear. Pushing a suite of suggested interventions, they warn of rapacious cable operators who seek to control online media and other content by “picking winners and losers” on the Internet. They proclaim that regulation is the only way to stave off “fast lanes” that would render your favorite website “invisible” unless it’s one of the corporate-favored. They declare that it will shelter startups, guarantee free expression, and preserve the great, egalitarian “openness” of the Internet.

No decent person, in other words, could be against net neutrality.

In truth, this latest campaign to regulate the Internet is an apt illustration of F.A. Hayek’s famous observation that “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Egged on by a bootleggers-and-Baptists coalition of rent-seeking industry groups and corporation-hating progressives (and bolstered by a highly unusual proclamation from the White House), Chairman Wheeler and his staff are attempting to design something they know very little about-not just the sprawling Internet of today, but also the unknowable Internet of tomorrow.

Promoting fear of what might be is a common tactic used in pushing many ideological ideas. You can see it with climate change, with vaccines, with alternative energy, … “alternative” anything, it seems. In this case, it’s the pipeline becoming critical to the masses for communications and entertainment and business. Geoffrey A. Manne & R. Ben Sperry suggest that The biggest threat to the Net isn’t cable companies. It’s government. The politics driving governmental control of the I’net is clear:

Generally speaking, neutrality advocates don’t spend much time in the weeds of boring traffic-flow engineering and network prioritization. What has animated everyone from HBO comedian/anchor John Oliver to millions of irate FCC commenters has been an angry suspicion that somewhere, some rich corporations are on the verge of hijacking the Internet’s architecture to profit themselves while excluding others.

Suspicion. Fear. Envy. And persistence.

One would think that after 10 years of political teeth-gnashing, regulatory rule making, and relentless litigating, there would by now be a strong economic case for net neutrality—a clear record of harmful practices and agreements embodying the types of behavior that only regulation can pre-empt. But there isn’t.

All of this goes along with the certitude and arrogance that substitutes for rationality, intellectual integrity, and actual, solid factual basis in reality of those advocating for governmental control. The pattern of behavior is a first clue about the quality of what is advocated.

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