Net Neutrality Kills Free Internet

Giving stuff away to people who can’t afford to pay for it usually reaps praise. In the “net neutrality” world, though, it’s an outrage if you limit what you give away, as Facebook has discovered.

Facebook has come up with a plan called Free Basics or “to make affordable access to basic Internet services available to every person in the world,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated. Free Basics is designed to operate as a “zero rating” service, meaning that users can access any site they want on their cell devices, but as long as they stay within Free Basics, they aren’t charged data fees. Facebook receives revenue through arrangements with partners while getting Internet access to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it. Sounds like a win for everybody, right?

Zuckerberg has undermined Facebook’s position by declaring that “connectivity is a human right.” 

The problem, according to critics, is that this access comes with restrictions. Mobile websites need to work in the absence of JavaScript, video, large images, Flash, and Java applets. (Java and JavaScript are two different programming languages in spite of their similar names.) Some of these features aim at avoiding bloated pages that consume large amounts of bandwidth — Internet access is expensive in some areas. Others discourage technologies that aren’t universally supported on mobile devices.

These restrictions, critics argue, violate the “net neutrality” principle, which insists that anyone who delivers Internet access should treat all data equally. Some neutrality advocates consider Free Basics outrageous. Indeed, a couple of countries have prohibited its introduction.

In December 2015, the <a href…

Yes, Students Are Customers, but…

“College students are not customers. That analogy needs to die. It needs to be drowned in the world’s largest bathtub. It needs a George R.R. Martin–esque bloodbath of a demise.”

These are the strong words of education writer Rebecca Schuman in response to Iowa’s recent attempt to pass a law tying professors’ job security to their teaching evaluations. Such laws, Schuman and others think, are based on the misguided idea that students are akin to customers.

OK, So College Isn’t Like a Restaurant

To an extent, we agree with Schuman, but we think she vastly oversimplifies. In one way, it is hard to deny that students are customers. They (or someone acting on their behalf) pay for a service and, like customers in any other market, students can take their tuition money elsewhere if they aren’t satisfied.

Whether the educational experience was to the student’s “liking” may not be a good measure of the quality of the university’s educational services. 

On the other hand, as Schuman points out, college education looks quite different from many other businesses. Unlike restaurant patrons, for example, students are buying a service (education) that isn’t geared toward customer enjoyment. A good college education may even push students in ways they don’t enjoy.

Whether the tilapia was prepared to the patron’s liking is a good measure of the restaurant’s food. Whether the educational experience was to the student’s “liking” may not be a good measure of the quality of the university’s educational…

Black Entrepreneurship Is Alive and Well

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Since Black History Month was inaugurated in 1976, Americans have made special note each February of the achievements of black citizens. They’ve played important and often inspirational roles in shaping the country’s history, from the days of slavery through Jim Crow to substantial, if not yet complete, political and social equality today.

It’s understandable that in highlighting this important minority group, we heavily emphasize those men and women who escaped bondage or those in more recent decades who led the civil rights movement. In the case of the latter, we know the names well because they are so recent — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being foremost among them.

Frederick Douglass, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave, extolled the importance of constructive agitation when he declared in an 1857 speech,

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both mora…

No, Women Are Not Obliged to Vote for Hillary

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

It’s one of Madeline Albright’s most famous lines, and she’s brought it out on any number of occasions. Starbucks even put it on a coffee cup. I understand why. It’s eminently quotable and suggests a kind of tough-minded sisterhood that can be appealing. I can see its ready application, for example, when helping a drunk friend get home safely from a party or when holding another mom’s infant so she can use the restroom in peace.

Albright’s comment reveals the truth about politics.

But Albright should have been a lot more careful before she applied her signature line to what she sees as an obligation for women to vote for Hillary Clinton in the democratic primaries. Because the minute that you take her line out of the context of relationships among people and move it to the political context it loses whatever tough-minded charm it has, and it becomes a bullying, sexist, prescriptivist piece of obnoxious nonsense.

I don’t believe in hell, so threatening me with it has never had much purchase. But to the best of my understanding, for religions that do believe in hell, the things that get people sent there are sins against God or against other people. Taking a political action that someone doesn’t agree with (voting for someone other than Hillary Clinton) doesn’t seem to fit that bill in any way. Suggesting that it does mingles church and state in ways that sit uncomfortably with long American traditions.

And even if voting in a way that Albright thinks is wrong is a sin that leads to damnation, if Albright really is a believer in eternal torment and hellfire, she should probably be led by the many New Testament verses that counsel believers to use gentle correction and instruction toward those who have gone astray.

If Albright isn’t a believer in eternal torment and hellfire, she might be well advised to keep theology…

“They” Is Now Singular?

Recently, the American Dialect Society announced its word of the year: “they” as a singular pronoun.

“They” is usually plural, and the idea of it being singular has some grammarians objecting because, they insist, the singular form defies proper grammar.

Linguists tend to view language the same way classical liberals like Hayek view a robust and decentralized economy. 

I disagree. What is and isn’t proper grammar is always in flux — and is a great example of a spontaneous order akin to decentralized markets.

Don’t Forget to Rewind

The video industry is a good example. Netflix was founded in 1997, a time when people routinely rented VHS cassettes from video stores. Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings had a different idea; they wanted to create a mail-order DVD rental service (DVDs rather than tapes, because the discs were easier and less expensive to ship). They had a rough time early on; did people really need a mail-order video service? We now know that people did prefer mail-order video rental to the old way of doing things.

In 2010, Netflix revolutionized the video industry again by offering a stand-alone video streaming service. Would people really give up their familiar DVDs and Blu-Ray discs to stream their movies? Five years later, we know that the answer is a resounding yes.

This is the kind of story classical liberals love. We celebrate innovation and progress through decentralized markets. It is in our ideological DNA. Thinkers from the two Adams — Smith a…

Homeschooling, Socialization, and the New Groupthink

“But what about socialization?”

We who educate our children outside the school system confront an exhausting array of accusations posing as concerns, but the most puzzling — and the most persistent — is the socialization question. For years, I’ve taken it at face value: How, the skeptic seems to be asking, will your kids ever learn to be sociable if you keep them locked up at home all day?

Did no one enjoy any social skills before the era of mass education? 

That very few homeschooled kids lead the lives of sheltered isolation implied by this question does not seem to assuage the questioner. There’s something kids are assumed to receive from the process of group schooling — especially from large, government-funded schools — that helps them fit in better with society at large.

Learning to Be a Cog

I recently talked to a mom who wants to homeschool her daughter. The girl’s dad objects to the idea because, he insists, home education will fail to prepare her for “the real world.” I find it significant that this man is career military. The real world, as he knows it, is regimented, tightly controlled, and bureaucratized into stasis — at least compared with the very different real world of voluntary exchange and spontaneous order.

If your goal for your children is a lifetime of government work, then by all means send them to public school: the bigger, the better. But if, by “socialization,” you mean ensuring that a child becomes sociable, that he or she develops the intelligence and social reflexes that promote peaceful and pleasurable interactions with larger groups of friends and strangers, then the irony of the what-about-socialization question is that it gets the situation precisely backwards. It is schooled kids, segregated by age and habituated to the static and artificial restrictions of the schooling environment, who demonstrate more behavioral problems…

Policy Science Kills

The climate-change debate has many people wondering whether we should really turn over public policy — which deals with fundamental matters of human freedom — to a state-appointed scientific establishment. Must moral imperatives give way to the judgment of technical experts in the natural sciences? Should we trust their authority? Their power?

There is a real history here to consult. The integration of government policy and scientific establishments has reinforced bad science and yielded ghastly policies.

An entire generation of academics, politicians, and philanthropists used bad science to plot the extermination of undesirables.

There’s no better case study than the use of eugenics: the science, so called, of breeding a better race of human beings. It was popular in the Progressive Era and following, and it heavily informed US government policy. Back then, the scientific consensus was all in for public policy founded on high claims of perfect knowledge based on expert research. There was a cultural atmosphere of panic (“race suicide!”) and a clamor for the experts to put together a plan to deal with it. That plan included segregation, sterilization, and labor-market exclusion of the “unfit.”

Ironically, climatology had something to do with it. Harvard professor Robert DeCourcy Ward (1867–1931) is credited with holding the first chair of climatology in the United States. He was a consummate member of the academic establishment. He was editor of the American Meteorological Journal, president of the Association of American Geographers, and a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Meteorological Society of London.

He also had an avocation. He was a founder of the American Restriction League. It was one of the first organizations to advocate reversing the traditional American pol…

Hobo, Screwball, and Hero

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

John Patric was a self-described “hobo” and “screwball” who lived out of a car for years at a time. He attended universities in seven states from California to Minnesota and was expelled from three (in Oregon, Michigan, and Texas). He ran for office at least 15 times, as a Republican as often as a Democrat, and paid his campaign filing fees with loose change. To prove how gullible reporters could be, he often falsely claimed he was an FBI agent, a school board member, or other such fabrications. He was, by all accounts, a strange duck. So what makes this guy a hero?

“Americans have the right to be different!”
— John Patric

Paeans to the “common man” abound in literature, magazines, and political speeches. I confess, however, to an attachment to the uncommon — an appreciation that goes back at least 40 years to the time I first read “My Creed” by a New Yorker named Dean Alfange, an immigrant from Turkey:

I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon, if I can. I seek opportunity, not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.

I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.

I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself, enjoy the benefit of m…

Low-Skilled Workers Flee the Minimum Wage

What happens when, in a country where workers are free to move, a region raises its minimum wage? Do those with the fewest skills seek out the regions with the highest wage floors?

New minimum wage research by economist Joan Monras of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) attempts to answer that question. Monras theoretically shows that there should be a close relationship between the employment effects of raising the minimum wage and the migration of low-skilled workers.

When the demand for local low-skilled labor is relatively unresponsive (or inelastic) to wage changes, raising the minimum wage should lead to an influx of low-skilled workers from other states in search of better-paying jobs. On the other hand, if the demand for low-skilled labor is relatively responsive (or elastic), raising the minimum wage will lead low-skilled workers to flee to states where they will more easily find employment.

To test the model empirically, Monras examined data from all the changes in effective state minimum wages over the period 1985 to 2012. Looking at time frames of three years before and after each minimum wage increase, Monras found that

  1. As depicted in the graph below on the left, those who kept their jobs earned more under the minimum wage. No surprise there.
  2. As depicted in the graph below on the right, workers with the fewest skills were having an easier time finding full-time employment prior to the minimum wage increase. But this trend completely reversed as soon as the minimum wage was increased.
  3. A control group of high-skilled workers didn’t experience either of these effects. Those affected by the changing laws were the least skilled and the most vulnerable.

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Don’t Do Politics? Think Again.

The circus that has been the early stages of the 2016 presidential election is enough to make anyone, regardless of ideology, want to flee politics. For political skeptics, the spectacle confirms many claims we’ve long made about the ugliness of the political process and our desire to have no part of it.

Some of us even maintain that we refuse to participate in politics on principle.

We need to be careful about saying things like that because most who claim they want nothing to do with politics are, in fact, engaged in it all the time. What we really mean to say, most of the time, is that we do not wish to engage in electoral politics.

Politics is omnipresent wherever humans negotiate over power and governance. 

That’s fair enough, but elections and voting and what elected officials do are not the sum total of politics. Just as money and markets are not all there is to economic activity, so elections and voting are not all there is to politics.

Unfortunately, both we and our critics often treat voting and electoral politics as the only kind of political activity that matters. In my 26-plus years at St. Lawrence University, the one aspect of my political views that has bothered my colleagues of all stripes the most is that I don’t vote. Aside from making the usual arguments about the power of voting, some have suggested that not voting means that I’m not engaged in my community in ways that are important.

These concerns, as well as the libertarian claim to reject politics, are mistaken. Once we expand our conception of politics to go beyond elections, we can see all the different ways that almost all human beings — and certainly most self-described libertarians — are politically engaged.

Political economist Vincent Ostrom, in his 1997 book T…