Suppose that in the early 1970s a government agency looked into future, decided that the future of video recording was with CartriVision (a promising system of the time), and mandated that all video manufacturers use CartriVision.

We probably never would have had VHS, Beta, 8mm, or DVD. We’d still be dealing with clumsy, one-hour videotapes of questionable fidelity.

Suppose in the 1960s a government agency dictated that 8-track cartridges were the “industry standard” for audio recording – precluding any development of cassettes, CDs, or mini-disks.

Or suppose in the 1980s a government agency decreed that manufacturers must build all computers around the MS-DOS operating system – stifling the development of Macintosh, Linux, or other systems.

What kind of a country would America be if government agencies could make such decisions and force everyone to abide by them?

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that is the kind of America we have. No, the government doesn’t dictate video, audio, and computer formats – but that may not be very far away.

It already forces standards on the health-care industry, education, charities, the securities business and most other areas.

The result is schools that are a constant scandal, a stifling of investment innovation, and a deterioration in what was once the best health-care system the world had ever seen.

There goes your TV

And now they’re trying to reduce your choices in television.

In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided that the television of the future must be digital (unlike the current analog system we use). The FCC dictated that all American TV stations must install the necessary equipment to transmit digital TV signals by 2002.

The cost to do this is roughly $3 million per station. For some small TV stations, that’s 10 years’ worth of earnings. Where is the money supposed to come from?

As a result, less than one third of all American TV stations met this year’s May 1 deadline. Many of them will lose their licenses for not complying. The stations aren’t likely to be taken over by larger companies because they’re in small markets, and so the $3-million conversion cost doesn’t make financial sense, no matter how rich a station owner is. So there will be fewer TV stations for viewers to choose from.

Meanwhile, there is very little digital TV programming, and practically no digital TV sets in homes. But no matter. The FCC is going to force progress on us.

Progress vs. compulsion

In fact, however, this isn’t progress. Progress doesn’t come from coercing people. If it did, we ought to bring back slavery.

Progress comes when people are free to experiment, to innovate, to offer new ideas and products – when there is no national policy that forces one way upon everyone. When one system succeeds in totally unregulated competition because it meets more of what consumers are willing to pay for – and eventually it’s supplanted by something even better.

It’s amazing that some folks still think the free market is thoughtless and brutal, while government is supposedly kind and benevolent. Sharon Harris has called attention to so many examples that prove the opposite in her wonderful article “The Invisible Hand Is a Gentle Hand.”


How can federal bureaucrats impose this ridiculous TV order on the marketplace – probably reducing the number of TV stations?

It’s because no one responsible for it will suffer for the mistake. None of them will pay the bankruptcy costs for stations going out of business; no one will lose his job for using heavy-handed power to impose a personal preference on people who know far more about what they’re doing. In fact, the bureaucrats may even get more of your money – so they can subsidize the losses they’ve created.

It’s important to realize that whenever you give power to politicians or bureaucrats, it will be used for what they want, not for what you want. It will be used to enrich their friends and punish their enemies, not to make business more efficient or society more just.

The founding fathers recognized this, and so they created a Constitution that limited the federal government to a few specified functions. This provided the best political system in history.

Unfortunately, the Constitution wasn’t self-enforcing – and within a hundred years the politicians had managed to circumvent it.

It will be a tough road getting back to a free society. But you can help if you realize that no new government program – not school vouchers, not corporate regulation, not medical savings accounts, not anything – will make things better for you. It will be used by politicians and bureaucrats to make things better for themselves.

You can’t solve the dilemma of big government by yourself. But at least you can make sure you’re not part of the problem – by not supporting any new government program, and by refusing to support politicians who claim they can use government to make things better.

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