Thursday, November 15, 2012

We Need a Bigger Government

I'm a libertarian, and I want a bigger government. The reason I want more government is that the price of internet is too high.

(Caveat: I want a smaller government, by decreasing foreign military aggression, decreasing medical and social security payments, and scaling back and simplifying the tax system, etc., pretty much the standard libertarian agenda. But I need a catchy headline, and it's half-true.)

The role of government is to make you richer in ways that the private market can't. Imagine that you are dictator and you get to design the perfect government (once it's running smoothly, and you're old, you can hand over power in free and fair elections). Here is a list of activities that you have to decide whether to control or leave to the "free market".  Which ones would you choose?
  1. Protect the citizens from each other, from invaders, and from pollutants
  2. Establish property rights
  3. Build an infrastructure of roads and lines for water, sewer, electricity, fiber optic cables
  4. Keep people healthy
  5. Supply transportation, water, sewage removal, electricity, and communications
  6. Ensure quality control in home construction, cars, and other goods
  7. Educate people
  8. Feed people (generally, provide any essentials not listed above)
  9. Provide jobs
  10. Provide a system of morality/religion
So which ones would you get involved with as dictator?  Never mind, I don't care what you think.  Let me tell you what I think.   The list above is organized in terms of appropriateness of government involvement.  Government absolutely should be involved in establishing a police force against invaders and pollutants.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, I see no benefit for me if the government tries to control who believes what or who marries who.  All reasonable people agree with me on these two things.

In between points 1 and 10, the decision gets a bit more complicated.  Some people think that public education (7) is great, others prefer a voucher system, and others would prefer complete freedom.  Maybe all three positions are reasonable, depending on the local culture.

Anyhow, I vaguely draw the line somewhere after 3 but before 5.   I'm not sure how much the government should get involved in healthcare.  My gut feeling (and my gut is feeling fine right now) is that healthcare should be completely privatized, without even a federal-level licensing of doctors.  Maybe a national vaccination event would be in order as a matter of national defense against a terrible disease, and few other exceptions apply.

Despite my uncertainty about 4, I have little doubt that the infrastructure of roads and pipes and wires is a good place for government involvement.  The reason I bring this up is that I've been shopping around for slightly faster internet service and it's obvious that the free market is failing in this area.  After a brief discussion with one expert, who I'll leave unnamed, it has become obvious that one of two things is true:
  1. The free market has not yet had time to adequately address the problem of providing internet infrastructure, or
  2. The government is failing in a fairly basic capacity, where "basic" is judged by the 1-10 scale above.
I'm going with thing 2, mainly.  The problem is that delivering internet service requires a network of telephone poles.  Currently, telephone poles are the private property of utilities companies, and internet providers have to play a difficult political game to share space on the poles.  That's about one millionth of the full story, but the bottom line is that maintaining the telephone pole network is an ideal role for government, right up there with roads.  Instead of making companies go through a ridiculously expensive process of acquiring permits and negotiation with each other for (obviously limited) telephone pole space, the government should, by default, provide big telephone poles and wires, and auction out the use of the wires (or space for the wires -- each pole should have space for several lines) to private companies in the business of distributing power, data, and communications.

By taking over this infrastructure, the government would be opening the playing field to many more companies, so that someone buying internet service could shop among dozens of sellers instead of merely Verizon and Comcast.


Anonymous Brian said...

It's.... ITS ALIVE!!!

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I think you underestimate the extent to which Government and Free Market overlap, especially when it comes to public utilities.

Should the government also build and maintain the cell towers? How about Verizon's buried fiber optic lines? Should it build a network of shiny new high speed rails? How does your Government decide which infrastructure to appropriate?

1:21 PM  
Blogger Freakwenter said...

@Brian: I'm not sure what to say. I'm overwhelmed by your question. I'm thinking maybe I should rescind this post.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Mountaineer said...

What about "protected" instead of "richer?"

2:47 PM  

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