Free the Airwaves!

by Harry Browne

July 13, 2004        

When Janet Jackson gave us a micro-second look at her breast on Super Bowl Sunday, it created numerous opportunities. . . . 

The guardians of public morals had a new peril that could be used for fund-raising.

Politicians had a new crusade with which to threaten those who don't support them.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had a new reason to increase its power.

A bill is pending in Congress to impose fines up to $500,000 for any lewd and indecent language or spectacle on the radio or TV airwaves, as determined by the moral censors at the FCC.

Apparently, support for the bill was thin because the Republican leaders felt it necessary to attach the provision to a military spending bill. That way any Congressman not sufficiently shocked by Janet Jackson to vote for the bill could be accused of wanting to leave America defenseless against terrorists.

DownsizeDC.org has mounted a large-scale campaign to flood Congress with email messages from constituents to kill this bill before it passes.

So what's happened to the First Amendment, which clearly states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There's nothing in that amendment about Janet Jackson, Howard Stern, wardrobe malfunctions, nude women on the radio, or bad language. So how can Congress pass a law "abridging the freedom of speech"?

Simple. The First Amendment doesn't prevent people from imposing restrictions on the use of their own property. For example, no one has the right to say things in a private theater if the theater owner doesn't approve.

And, you see, the airwaves are owned by the government.

Well, that's not the way the politicians put it. They say the airwaves are a "public good" meaning they're owned by all of us.

(I intended to sell my share of the airwaves last week, but I couldn't find a buyer.)

Since the airwaves are owned by all of us, we all you and I and everyone else delegated to the FCC the power to regulate what is broadcast on those airwaves.

You remember when you delegated that authority, don't you?

Backdoor Tyranny

Actually, of course, you and I don't own the airwaves. The government does.

And here we see what's wrong with letting government own anything. Such ownership gives government the power to control your life. . . . 

Because it owns the airwaves, the government can abridge free speech on radio and TV, preventing you from hearing or seeing what you want.

Because it owns the Post Office the only agency legally permitted to deliver first-class mail the government can censor magazines and newspapers that are distributed by mail (as it has done on many occasions), preventing you from receiving what you want.

Because it owns the roads, the government can impose roadblocks and decide who's allowed to drive a car, preventing you from having the freedom of the roads.

The answer isn't to try to place rules on the regulators, or to elect people you think will appoint better regulators. The answer is to end government ownership and control of these areas. In other words . . . 

Free the airwaves!

Free the mails!

Free the roads!

Government vs. Freedom

We regulate our own TV-watching with a remote control. We've seen that Fedex and UPS provide much better delivery service than the U.S. Postal Service. And it isn't hard to imagine how private competition would lead to less expensive roads, fewer traffic accidents or traffic jams, and fewer construction tie-ups. The inefficiency, waste, corruption, and inconvenience we take for granted with the government would put any private company out of business.

Government regulation of anything is a disaster. But it's particularly disastrous to let the government decide what we're allowed to see and hear on television and radio, because government control can keep us from learning the truth.

Government Doesn't Know Best

What has 70 years of government regulation of radio and television done for us?

They told us there were only a few frequencies that could carry radio broadcasts, and so we needed a government agency to carefully assign those frequencies to companies that would broadcast in the public interest (meaning the companies that had the most political influence).

So for many years, there were a limited number of AM radio stations available in any city.

But then, lo and behold, it was suddenly discovered that stations could also broadcast on the FM radio band, and so the FCC had dozens more stations to give to favored companies in each city. But government control continued to be necessary because of the limited number of frequencies.

But then, someone discovered low-power stations. And now we have satellite stations broadcasting on XM radio.

In other words, there never has been a limited number of radio frequencies; it was an artificial restriction created by the FCC.

The same was true with television. At first, only 12 stations could broadcast in any city, using the VHF (Very High Frequency) band. The 12 frequencies were prized plums for those with the political influence to obtain them. Then one day the FCC in its wisdom decided that there also was a UHF (Ultra High Frequency) band and suddenly there were 86 more frequencies available. Who'd a thought?

Cable television stations developed as a way of circumventing the FCC's stranglehold on the TV frequencies.

Compare the slow development of radio and television with the breathtaking progress that private competition has brought to computers, telephones, fax machines, VCRs, CD players, TV sets, automobiles, and the Internet. Wouldn't it be nice if radio and television could develop in the same efficient, inexpensive, rapid way.

Freedom Now

There's absolutely no reason to have a Federal Communications Commission.

We don't need the FCC to apportion limited broadcast frequencies, because private companies will always find a way to accommodate whatever the market wants and needs.

We don't need the FCC to protect one company from infringing on another's frequency, because we already have police and courts who are supposed to protect property rights.

And we certainly don't need the FCC to protect us from people like Janet Jackson and Howard Stern, because private initiative has given us the remote control the all-purpose self-censoring device that can keep out of our homes anything we find offensive.

I doubt that a single child's life was destroyed by the 1-second view of Janet Jackson's breast.

But I'm sure that thousands of careers, tons of good entertainment, and billions of dollars have been sacrificed to the Great God of Government Regulation.

It's time to free the airwaves.

It's time to junk the FCC.