Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
From inflation to a sinking stock market, the country has many problems these days. You probably didn’t think the phone you are reading this on, or the companies that brought you that device and its unlimited apps, are among the problems. But politicians in Washington, unable to solve the problems that their interventions have caused, are eager to distract you. They are promising to “fix” Big Tech. Or at least to punish it.
Just look at polling data that shows politicians in faraway Washington, D.C. are out of touch with average Americans. A May 2022 Morning Consult and Politico poll found that Americans think our country is on the wrong track by a 69% to 31% margin. The poll put reducing the federal deficit as a top priority at 43%, stimulating the economy as a top priority at 53%, and regulating tech companies as a top priority at 18%. The only people who want to regulate tech in a way that will harm the economy and drive the right track/wrong track numbers into the gutter are politicians.
The attack on ‘Big Tech’ is a bipartisan push, which means we need to be aware that some of these bad policies might actually be enacted into law.
On the Republican side, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is proposing his “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act.” He wants to prevent big companies from being able to buy smaller ones. For the Democrats, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is proposing her “Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act.” She wants to force companies to prove that any proposed merger is legal, instead of the government needing to prove it might be illegal.
But Americans must beware of senators bearing gifts. “The bipartisan zeal for vengeance inspired an antitrust crusade against Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky wrote for Fox News. “But these proposals to ostensibly cut the tech giants down to size would, instead, perpetuate the dominant position of these companies and deprive consumers of the technological innovation that only free-market competition can provide.”
As Paul notes, these proposals would allow the big companies to remain big, but they would prevent smaller companies from being able to spring up and deliver new ideas. The tech landscape tomorrow, and next decade, would look very much like the tech landscape today does, with a few giants providing all the services. This is what happened throughout the 20th Century, when AT&T enjoyed a government-supported monopoly on long-distance calls. Prices remained high throughout those decades.
Breaking that monopoly up in the early 1980s encouraged innovation in the phone industry. That led to the spread of cell technology and the creation of today’s tech-driven economy. Today there is no such thing as a “long-distance” call, and everyone has a smartphone: a computer we can carry.
Of course, Washington would want to do more than control size; it would also want to “regulate” big tech. But if the federal government creates a bureaucracy to regulate tech, that bureaucracy will never go away. For example, Washington created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1936 to wire up farms in the countryside. It completed its mission in just a few years. But instead of celebrating success and shutting down, the REA still exists today, finding things to regulate that are far beyond its original mission.
This happens because government exists without competition. It doesn’t face pressure to be better or more efficient. It simply imposes policies and collects taxes it uses to pay for those policies. Tech companies, on the other hand, are always under pressure to innovate. If they allow their products to get boring, another company will create something new and grab market share.
It wasn’t long ago that Nokia was big and Apple was struggling. Not so today. In a few years, another company will replace Apple.
Throughout its existence, the Internet has thrived on unfettered competition. That has driven down prices and improved service. Instead of trying to lock today’s economy in place and punish consumers instead of tech companies, lawmakers should be encouraging more innovation and competition.
The free market, not regulatory bureaucracy, is the way to a better future.
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