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Pundit, Unbundle Thyself

Mises Daily: Thursday, March 14, 2002 by

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Those who are ignorant of the blessings of private property and its love affair with freedom lurk everywhere, even in the Wall Street Journal. One columnist for the Journal, whom I will not name--let's just call him Vladimir L.--writes often of the government's jihad versus Microsoft. 

Vlad  doesn't want to shutter Windows, the company's fine Operating System, but he does  believe the government "should require the software monopoly to expand consumer choice in its dominant operating system." In the capitalistic columns of the Wall Street Journal, yet. It was like meeting Satan in church. Even worse, he held the pulpit. Comrade L. sounds like he'd be delighted to see the Windows OS all unbundled, naked, standing alone like a chimney of a burned- down house.

I wrote Vladimir (he must be bilingual) a very sweet letter telling him how much I usually enjoyed his column. However, I noted that if he's going to write for the Wall Street Journal, he should sharpen his understanding of  private property rights:  i.e., Microsoft built and owns an OS, and it belongs to them. Not to you or me or the government.

They can adorn it any way they want, I suggested to this pillager of private property, in order to present a more attractive or even less attractive choice to the consumer. Windows OS belongs to Microsoft like your pocket handkerchief belongs to you. Microsoft is allowed by the tenets of capitalism to enhance, reduce, or eliminate compatibility with other consumer choices--as long as it doesn't use a gun or knife to bolster sales. 

The marketplace will speak for the consumer as it always has. "Hmmm, I love that OS, but now I can't use browser X or whatchamacallit Y, so I won't buy the OS."  That's choice enough. The price is money, and the price is incompatibility.

The song that the Microsoft critics sing, once it's decoded, is really a hymn of praise to that golden operating system. Evidently, it's so good that people will buy it, instead of something else, even if you wrap it in Bill Gates's unwashed underwear. 

And why is there so much religious passion in the tone of the Microsoft critics? Why is it so difficult to understand that the marketplace is a far better evaluator of Microsoft's product than a federal judge who tries to synthesize, express, and enforce the whims of 20 million consumers whom he's never talked to?  I don't get it. (And by the way, I have an IMAC, so there's no chauvinism in my attitude.)

There's not a lick of logic in Vladimir L's exposition of Microsoft's villainy. The basic contention is that this wildly successful provider of services discourages the use of competing auxiliary software like Web browsers, instant messaging, or other Internet services. This discouragement takes the form of additional dollars, time, and technical risk. So? When the pain of incompatibility exceeds the gain provided by that nimble software, don't worry. Billy G will get the message in his pocketbook like you get a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call on your clock radio. He'll be forced to mount that OS on a disc and try to sell it as a Frisbee. 

"They should require the software monopoly to expand consumer choice," says Vladimir L. Gulp!! What a mouthful of nonsense for a Wall Street Journal journalist. Expand consumer choice? That's a governmental prerogative?  What Bill of Rights, or what Declaration of Independence does Vladimir or the federal court read? Show me the words, please. 

Here's an analogy for you. Let's consider that General Motors manufactures vehicles--literally, an operating system called a Chevy. Well, what if Chevy only sculpted its rims for one kind of tire--say Michelins. Say the General Motors CEO called up the Michelin CEO and said, "Mich, tell you what I'll do. I'll put a notch and groove arrangement on my rims such that only Michelins fit. In return you must only sell Michelins to me. Your tire will be the original equipment. Your tire will be the only equipment forever and ever. And you and I and our 20 million shareholders will be happy and rich forever and ever." 

Can they do that? Why not? Consumers who eventually want a Goodyear tire will cold-shoulder the Chevy. The price of incompatibility in their eyes outweighs the attraction of that nifty Chevy. Drivers who want a CHOICE of original or replacement rubberware will avoid Chevys like they avoid a ditch beside the highway. The consumer rules!  That's as it should be. It's called a free marketplace.

And what about that sound system and temperature system in my new Chevy. Wonder if it's made by Chevy or any manufacturer with whom they've made a deal. Wonder if a Bose (my preference) is compatible with a 2002 Chevy. Of course it is, for a price. So are X, Y, and Z with my Windows OS.

Wait a minute!  How about your daily newspaper with your favorite columnist?  How about the Wall Street Journal, which hosts Mr. L?  He's as bundled as a Microsoft OS. I must buy the whole Wall Street Journal to read Vladimir. Why can't he be forced by a consumer-friendly government to unbundle his column?  Microsoft, says the courts, "violated the antitrust laws by integrating its Web browser into its Windows OS in an effort to freeze out other browsers." 

Well, substitute Vladimir L's column for Web browser and the Wall Street Journal for the Windows OS, and it's a "gotcha"!  If I want to read Vladimir, I must buy the entire Wall Street Journal to get his words. What about Trevor Technology? He's a really sharp computer columnist, but he doesn't write for the Wall Street Journal. How fair is that to a Technology-hungry consumer? Why don't they make Vladimir unbundle himself?

I just don't get it. We should take this choice out of the computer user's hands and place it before a federal judge who thinks a browser is a large quadruped that loves clover?  I don't get it. Why isn't he mad at Campbell's Corporation? They routinely bundle pork and beans.


Ted Roberts writes from Huntsville, Alabama. Send him MAIL.