February 26, 2005

Lessig on the role of government in broadband

At the hearings last week, Chairman Phil King asked why governments should provide network access, when the same service can be provided by private enterprise.

Prof. Lawrence Lessig answered this question in Wired Magazine last week.

Ever think about the poor streetlamp companies, run out of business because municipalities deigned to do completely what private industry would do only incompletely? Or think about the scandal of public roads: How many tollbooth workers have lost their jobs because we no longer (since about the 18th century) fund all roads through private enterprise? Municipal buses compete with private taxis. City police departments hamper the growth at Pinkerton's (now Securitas)... If private industry can provide a service, however poorly or incompletely, then ban the government from competing. What's true for Wi-Fi should be true for water.

There's a range of services like roads, transportation and security, where the government provides services. Even though there are private-sector alternatives, the government plays an major role in providing these services, because they are "public goods".

The government even put the private streetlamp industry out of business, because it was so much more effective to have city lights on every street than a patchwork of lights in front of a few businesses and rich people's houses.

The conservative movement is right to question and scrutinize the functions that government provides. The failure of Soviet factories and farmes proved that private enterprise is better at most economic activities.

But there are functions like roads, streetlights, police services, and in the 21st century, network access, where the government has a justifiable and important role to play.

Posted by alevin at February 26, 2005 11:11 AM