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Badgering the Networks

Mises Daily: Monday, January 17, 2000 by

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It now comes to light that the Clinton White House has tried to negotiate a deal with the commercial TV networks concerning the content of TV entertainment.

The proposal, kept from the public until now, has to do with trading mandatory public service messages for inserting anti-drug abuse messages into the story lines of television programming directed to kids. The carrot for this is for the networks to save money by not having to air the unpaid ads.

During a roundtable discussion on PBS-TV several news reporters discussed this topic and while two of them objected not just to the secrecy but to the substance of the deal, two others found fault only with the secrecy while finding the idea of the deal quite palatable.

The argument in support went this way: The networks are using public airwaves, the electromagnetic spectrum that had been nationalized on the floor of the US Senate back in 1927 (giving rise to the establishment, at first of the Federal Radio and later the Federal Communications Commission); this empowered the federal government to call some of the shots as far as the use to which the networks will put the signals that travel via the spectrum; so the FCC, and by some perverse extension the White House itself, is authorized to impose terms of usage on network television. QED.

As pointed out by many in the past, including yours truly, we have here once again a way government intrudes upon the free society via the process of making something public that never should have been made so.

Why should government own the airwaves? There is no justification for this in a free society. It is socialist governments that characteristically nationalize important resources in the countries which they rule. Socialism is the political philosophy according to which individuals do not even exist but are only dependent parts of the larger whole that is society.

Private property is anathema to socialism. The institution of the right to private property is a concrete, practical implementation of individual rights. It makes the free exercise of religion, of freedom of speech and expression possible for individuals. They can thus act independently of the wishes of others, should they so choose, including of the wishes of the government which in such a society has as its proper role the adjudication of disputes about conflicting rights claims.

Beyond such adjudication, and the associated legal processes, governments in a free society are supposed to refrain from running the various tasks people may wish to embark upon, including providing entertainment in return for payment or advertising time.

The beginning of the corruption of the proper role of government is the transformation of a system of private property rights into a system of public ownership of valued resources. When this commences, the rights of individuals, including their commercial associations such as partnerships and corporations, begins to be eroded and government begins to set the agenda of society.

Granted, in democratic systems this can only be done if a sizable enough constituency supports that agenda. But even democracies can be tyrannical by imposing the will of the majority on everyone and thereby violating individual rights.

Indeed, in a free society democracy has a limited role in governance. It involves, mainly, the selection of the administrators of the legal system, not, however, the content of the laws.

Indeed, the laws are supposed to protect individual rights and majorities only elect the representatives who interpret these laws and extend them to novel areas of concern.

What we now are witnessing is the gradual elimination, in the name of the people--that is the majority of those who vote and their lackeys--of individual sovereignty and its corollary, market decision making. Thus, in the case of the White House's proposed secret deal with the broadcast TV networks, it isn't a matter of market research that determines what will be put on television. It is, in part at least, a matter of political power.

Sure, it can be a fine thing to take measures to discourage youngsters from abusing drugs and such. But this decision, in a free society, is supposed to be done by citizens freely associating with other citizens. They are to call the shots, not Mr. Clinton and his cohorts whose goals may be quite insidious and whose job isn't to do the peaceful business of society.

Government should not interfere even when it obtains democratic support. After all, the lynch mob adheres to majority rule, too, yet it is subverting due process as it carries out its perverted idea of justice.

In less drastic but no less consequential ways, the federal government, led by the White House, is subverting due process by dealing, especially secretly, with some group in society for ends that are none of its proper business.

The larger the public realm, the more we can expect such subversions of liberty to occur.

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.