10 May 2007

Postal Regulations, Independent Media and the "Marketplace of Ideas"

Libertarians like to bemoan government intrusion into this or that sphere of interaction, insisting that markets could coordinate the interactions in question in ways that would be simultaneously more effective and normatively attractive. There are all sorts of problems with this view. Theoretically, libertarians seem largely uninterested in whether the conditions necessary to insure efficient operation of markets obtain or could be created in any particular instance. And they conveniently neglect to ask what sorts of political efforts are necessary to create and monitor the operation of those conditions. Empirically, libertarians like to overlook the fact that the U.S. has - for constitutional reasons - never had the sort of minimal state that they fantasize about. This is especially so in communications media. In my freshman courses I often use Paul Starr's book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications which is a very good source on such matters. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

“The American Path is not reducible to a simple opposition to government and preference for free markets. While restraining state authority in some respects, American law and policy have also actively used government to promote communications. The constitutional provisions for the press and the Post Office illustrate the apparent polarities of a limited and interventionist state. Although the Bill of Rights denied the federal government any authority to regulate the press, the Constitution made the Post Office the one nationalized industry, and the new government soon set about building a comprehensive postal network. Rather than conflicting with one another however, the two policies were complementary: The Post Office was used to subsidize the press, and both contributed to the extension of communication - in particular, the distribution of political news - beyond earlier boundaries. These policies were born of supremely political objectives, though they also had important economic consequences. The government’s role in the early development of the Internet is only the latest example of policies that have not only restrained the power of the state but also made positive use of it to promote communications - and ended up, albeit without any deliberate plan in this and other instances, generating new economic and political possibilities.”

In other words, the marketplace of ideas presupposes a free and independent press and that, in turn requires active, constructive government policy. As Starr notes, however, such policy occupies an inherently political terrain. This has become especially apparent in recent debates about web regulation and, even more recently, in the shenanigans surrounding proposed postal rate structures that work to the disadvantage of small, independent media outlets like many of those I list in the sidebar. The federal agency charged with establishing rates in this domain - The Postal Regulatory Commission - has embraced a plan proposed by (surprise!) Time-Warner that essentially subsidizes large corporate media outlets and undermines smaller ones. You can read the details and a range of views on the matter here and here and here. I have added a banner to the sidebar that links to a site from which you can write relevant officials expressing concern about this ridiculous proposal. Or you can link to it here.

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