Liberalism’s Incoherence

The guarantee of landline telephone service at almost any address, a legal right many Americans may not even know they have, is quietly being legislated away in our U.S. state capitals.

AT&T and Verizon, the dominant telephone companies, want to end their 99-year-old universal service obligation known as “provider of last resort.” They say universal landline service is a costly and unfair anachronism that is no longer justified because of a competitive market for voice services.

The new rules AT&T and Verizon drafted would enhance profits by letting them serve only the customers they want. Their focus, and that of smaller phone companies that have the same universal service obligation, is on well-populated areas where people can afford profitable packages that combine telephone, Internet and cable television.

Disclaimer: I don’t know if Johnston is a liberal. I do know that this opening sentence personifies quite nicely liberals’ view of rights.

The liberal dichotomy—and corresponding hypocrisy—is typified by how they desire for everyone to have everything while simultaneously condemning everyone for materialism (talk about projection!). In this case, liberals would agree with Johnston’s assertion that basic telephone service is a right. This positive view of rights implies that someone will have to provide them with the service, even if it isn’t profitable.

This view of rights extends to everything—education, health care, internet service, wages, employee benefits, etc. Everyone should have everything they want.

Unfortunately, not everyone wants the same things, and so what people do with their newly-acquired positive rights is try to get whatever they can for themselves. This behavior is individualistically rational, and entirely predictable. It also tends to promote materialism, which is often condemned by liberals.

The modern condemnation of materialism is seen in the environmental movement. Consumption is condemned, as evidenced in the condemnation of burning fossil fuels, which is an essential source of energy, particularly in regards to the propulsion of automobiles. The solution to our current environmental problems is to burn less fuel in particular by driving less.

Interestingly, one reason why we drive so much is because it is cheaper to live in areas that are not as population-dense, thanks in no small part to federal subsidies. One contributing federal subsidy is that of mandated telephone service (seriously, how many people would live in the country if there were no communication infrastructure?). There are other subsidies besides this, like FDR’s programs to bring electricity to rural areas, or other programs to bring urban levels of infrastructure to rural areas.

And so, this is liberalism’s incoherence in a nutshell. First they demand all sorts of subsidies for everyone (like with phone service), then they get upset at people being wasteful. Solving the first “problem” begets the latter problem and also its solution. Ironically, they’d have what they wanted if they simply left everything alone. Of course, I’m assuming that they want a specific outcome, and not merely the power to control other people’s lives.

1 comment to Liberalism’s Incoherence

  • David Cay Johnston

    Interesting critique, but of course I wrote of a “legal right,” which is not the same as your philosophical language.

    You ignore that it was a monopolist that proposed this legal right, later written into statutory law and regulations, which is also quite different than your narrow thesis about people whose political views you find incoherent. It is easy to make a case that your critique is so lacking in rounded thinking as to be worthy of criticism on the same grounds.

    You ignore the enormous transfers of wealth to the monopolist and its succeeding duopoly that create a massive advantage against new market entrants, among many economic issues.

    You ignore the rent-seeking issue implicit in my column’s description of how these state-level laws are being written, as well as my final line.

    You confuse accounting with economics, a common error that I have written about elsewhere.

    You ignore the one-sided power example I cite (see Stefanie Brand and wiring). Asymmetrical power over a monopoly product or service is not a market, as defined by our Supreme Court, by any economics textbook and as I have often pointed out.

    BTW, I am champion of competitive markets in my best-selling books, lectures and my Reuters columns. The Fine Print, my next book, focuses on monopolies, oligopolies and the thwarting of competitive markets. As chairman of a small company I also understand the reasons businesses seek to avoid the rigors of competitive markets.

    You consider only rural telephone service in terms of subsidies. This indicates that you implicitly accept the accounting convention as correct. Telephone and other network economists endlessly debate cross-subsidy issues. Some would argue that your cell phone is subsidized by excess revenues paid to monopolist landline companies that diverted it from the landline system. You can also read expert testimony going back decades about whether commercial customers pay too much and subsidize residential customers and other cross-subsidy theories.

    You ignoring my showing that urban areas can end up with no service or only much more costly service, as well as the offsetting costs (see my hospital example) that economics, but not necessary telephone rate cases going back decades ily accounting, would consider.

    As my column makes clear, we do not want the equivalent of a buggy whip in every car, but rather a balanced approach. Adam Smith would agree with me.

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