Forsaking Microsoft for Janet Reno

by Harry Browne

[This appeared as a letter to the editor in the December 22, 1997, issue of The Weekly Standard.]

Capitalism is suffering under a crushing load of confiscatory taxes, regulation that runs up the price of everything we buy and holds down the wages we earn, discrimination police who force companies to man customer phone lines with people the customers can't understand, and a thousand other intrusions by government.

So how does Irving Stelzer propose to save capitalism? By having the government beat up on Microsoft ["Why Janet Reno vs. Bill Gates is Good for Capitalism," December 1, 1997]. After professing his love for free markets and competition, Mr. Stelzer goes on to recite all the anti-market clichιs that have flooded welfare-state-mentality economics textbooks for decades. And he praises anti-trust laws as the protectors of competition — as though they've ever been used for any purpose other than to beat down successful competitors.

Mr. Stelzer repeats the old canard that a company like Microsoft can eliminate all its competition through low prices and giveaways — and then raise its prices to the sky after the competition is gone. This is the standard argument for anti-trust law, and yet no one has ever cited a real-life example of a company that was able to do this. The day a company tries to abuse its customers, new competition suddenly springs out of the bushes — except when anti-trust laws prevent companies from entering a market to compete.

He seems afraid that Microsoft's "sheer market power" enables it "to bar entry to competitors or squeeze them out." Has he ever visited a computer store? Has he seen the row upon row of software products that compete with Microsoft — word processors, spreadsheets, databases, email programs, accounting programs, and on and on and on. Obviously Microsoft's success hasn't created a "stifling of innovation." Quite the opposite, Microsoft has opened the doors of opportunity to thousands of up-and-coming companies.

The computer business is the freest industry in America today. But Mr. Stelzer wants to bring the government in to make it better somehow — not to run it, just to be the fair, benevolent, impartial referee he sees in his imagination. But what he wants wouldn't just nudge the computer industry down a slippery slope; it would send it over a cliff. Bring the government in, and within a few years we'll see no more of the breathtaking price cuts and performance gains that have marked the industry for the past 15 years.

Instead, every new computer product will have to jump through the government's hoops — sitting in a lab for years while it's tested for efficiency, safety, and any conceivable side effects, while companies fill out endless forms to prove they aren't upsetting the delicate balance of government-enforced competition. The computer revolution will be finished.

The Weekly Standard has been trying to pump some life back into a conservative movement that has failed to improve the lives of everyday Americans in any tangible, substantial way. But lacking a consistent, straightforward philosophy that applies in every case, conservative writers and politicians have had to try to devise some kind of noble mission to champion. They have succeeded only in turning conservatism — which once sought to roll back the tyranny of the New Deal — into an embarrassing imitation of liberalism, professing to use the tyranny of government for "good" purposes instead of "bad" ones.

Libertarians, on the other hand, know that government doesn't work. So they side with individual liberty and personal responsibility — not the force of government — on all issues at all times. They know that anything you turn over to the government will be transformed into a political issue — to be decided by the likes of Bill Clinton, Teddy Kennedy, Janet Reno, Newt Gingrich, and Arlen Specter.

Libertarians know that any social problem can only be made worse by government — as everyone should have learned from the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs. They know that if Microsoft does the "wrong" thing, competitors will overcome any market dominance to give consumers a choice — whereas a government "referee" will always impose a single option that favors whoever has bought the most political influence.

The consistency of libertarianism is one reason it's in the ascendancy today, while Mr. Stelzer's conservatism is going the way of liberalism.