One of my favorite Greek Myths is Sisyphus, an arrogant king who earned a terrible punishment by trying to cheat death: he was forced to roll a rock pointlessly up a hill, only to watch it roll back down every time, for all of time.
Fast forward to modern times, and the debate surrounding “net neutrality” very much feels like my rock. We make a move in the right direction — taking a hands-off regulatory approach to the Internet — but then leftist activists swoop in, and try to throw shackles on the Internet.
Armed with their good old playbook, these activists have declared war and are unapologetic in their efforts to spread mistruths that will hopefully trick enough people into believing that burdensome overregulation of the Internet is our only choice. Instead of commonsense and transparency, they opt for radical ideological warfare.
One point to clarify is that these pretend consumer advocates are not on their white horses, brandishing their swords and shields, to save your “free and open Internet.” That is what they desperately want you to believe.
The activists are supporters of the deceptively titled “net neutrality," which treats Internet service providers as public utilities, like electric companies. Net neutrality is not neutral at all. It would appoint a bureaucrat to play referee over the Internet, which it doesn’t need, but even worse, that referee would only call fouls on one team. That means that it is nearly impossible (Greek mythology-type impossible) for net neutrality to bring down costs.
Their efforts now focus on protecting a set of 2015 rules put in place by former President Barack Obama and his Federal Communications Commission known as Title II, which classifies Internet service providers as public utilities, like electricity, gas, and water. That is the contentious point in this debate, not the issue of a free and open Internet.
These groups are raising an all-out policy war and kicking dust in the air because of the current FCC’s intent to reverse this crippling 2015 rule, which not only prioritizes certain companies over others but it also manipulates the very foundation of how our nation’s markets work.
The irrefutable economic truth is that more regulation like Title II equals more costs and less innovation.
A market doesn’t become more efficient when a bureaucrat tries to step in and dictate how decisions are to be made and how a market/service/transaction is going to run. That kind of meddling always slows things down, both Internet speeds and innovation, because even if a better solution is found, old regulations can stifle the marketplace and hurt consumers. Think of the way taxi unions have tried to stop ride-share programs like Uber and Lyft.
For example, this trend can be seen in markets from TVs to college, as this Bureau of Labor Statistics chart wonderfully illustrates.
The more government intervenes, the higher the cost. Looking at changes in prices for items like TVs, software, clothing, and cars, it is easy to see that over the last 20 years prices have gone down while technology has vastly improved. Especially if you consider the three areas where prices have fallen the most – TV, software, and toys. On the other hand, if you look where government involvement is high like colleges, education, childcare, and medical care, the price increases over the last 20 years have been significant.
The trend is obvious, but many on the left still think they can regulate an industry into submission. They can use the stick instead of the carrot to encourage innovation and competition. Markets just don’t work that way.
Regulation is an extra constraint, and the way to create more innovation is to eliminate constraints. In a lot of ways, that is the way that the Internet currently functions. The Internet catapulted us into the future because Internet providers and Silicon Valley were not hamstrung by excessive extortion: taxes, regulation, and unionization. Silicon Valley exploded because its barons followed Atlas Shrugged, not Haight-Ashbury.
In the lead up to a potential December vote on restoring Internet freedom at the FCC’s open meeting, there has been an uptick in events, congressional hearings, and commentary. While it’s no surprise that debate continues on the merits of Title II, the FCC needs to look one step further. If it really wants to restore and preserve Internet freedom, it needs a national framework to pre-empt a patchwork framework in the states, which is where the leftist activists will go next to try to get wins.
Sisyphus’s action of rolling his rock make sense, at least in the context of Greek Mythology. It’s his punishment. But this isn’t ancient Greece, and U.S. tech innovators shouldn’t be punished in similar fashion.
The leftist activist support of slow government bureaucracy to foster innovation from the Internet doesn’t make any sense. I guess, unless, they are trying to cheat the laws of economics. That might not be as punishable as cheating death, but maybe they should be “punished” by being forced to read Ludwig Von Mises' Human Action only to return to the riveting beginning of the economic page-turner when they are done.
A punishment for sure, but one which will likely lead to something greater: a faster, cheaper, less-regulated Internet.
Charles Sauer (@CharlesSauer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is president of the Market Institute and previously worked on Capitol Hill, for a governor, and for an academic think tank.
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