Bruce Owen, America’s preeminent media economist–with apologies to Harold Vogel, who at least deserves an honorable mention–has written another splendid piece for Cato’s Regulation magazine, this one entitled, “The Temptation of Media Regulation.”
This latest essay deals primarily with the many fallacies surrounding so-called “a la carte” regulation of the video marketplace, and I encourage you to read it to see Owen’s powerful refutation of the twisted logic behind that regulatory crusade. But I wanted to highlight a different point that Bruce makes right up front in his essay because it is something I am always stressing in my work too.
In some of my past work on free speech and media marketplace regulation, I have argued that there is very little difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to these issues. They are birds of feather who often work closely together to regulate speech and media. Whether it is broadcast ‘indecency’ controls; proposals to extend those controls to cable & satellite TV; campaign finance laws; efforts to limit or rollback ownership regulations; or even must carry and a la carte, the story is always the same: It’s one big bipartisan regulatory love fest. [And the same goes for regulation of the Internet, social networking sites, and video games.]
Owen explains why that is the case:
Regarding mass media policy, the bookends of the political spectrum often find common ground. Left and right agree that mass media content is not satisfactory and that more or better federal regulation is the solution. The right seeks to reduce the availability, both to themselves and others, of objectionable media content that threatens family values. The left sees powerful “media barons” dominating an increasingly concentrated industry and distorting media content to serve their own corporate or political interests. Both perspectives find traction with the public, in part because mass media content is, by its nature, highly “available” to public awareness and often intended to trigger strong emotional responses.
Also, while many people can be persuaded that the price of wheat is determined by supply and demand, it is much more difficult to think of television programs or movies in terms of market forces. Objectionable outcomes are easier to ascribe to conspiracy or malign intent when instinctive moral standards seem threatened. All this makes fertile ground for bloggers, radio talk shows, and opportunistic politicians. Rational regulatory policy often seems an impossible goal.
Indeed it does. In fact, because this bipartisan regulatory dynamic seems to now govern all media policy debates, I have become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of government ever voluntarily getting its tentacles off of speech and media markets. Rather, it will be (a) the courts that sometimes push back or impose the “rational regulatory policy” limits which Owen hopes for; or (b) the gradual erosion of the relevance of law by technological innovation, sectoral convergence, and the growing volume of activity to be regulated. [I made this point more eloquently in my unfinished book, "The End of Censorship: The Future of Content Controls in a World of Media Convergence."]