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Badgering the Networks

January 17, 2000

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.


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