Tim Wu’s “Absurd” Op-ed

by on July 30, 2008 · 21 comments

Over at Techdirt I respectfully disagree with Adam’s broadside against Tim Wu’s “absurd” piece on the broadband cartel.

Tim Wu’s an ideologically savvy guy, and he’s a master at deploying libertarian rhetoric in defense of not-very-libertarian proposals. I get that, and I’m perfectly willing to call him out when he does so. But in other cases, Wu makes arguments that are just straight-forewordly libertarian. For example, I’m finding it hard to detect the hidden socialist message in this passage:

Our current approach is a command and control system dating from the 1920s. The federal government dictates exactly what licensees of the airwaves may do with their part of the spectrum. These Soviet-style rules create waste that is worthy of Brezhnev.

Many “owners” of spectrum either hardly use the stuff or use it in highly inefficient ways. At any given moment, more than 90 percent of the nation’s airwaves are empty.

Now, as I say in my Techdirt post, Wu would take this line of reasoning in a somewhat different direction than most of us libertarians would. Wu wants to allocate more spectrum to use as a commons, whereas TLFers would generally like to see it allocated to a system of private ownership. But the op-ed isn’t an argument for spectrum commons, it’s an argument against the FCC’s current command-and-control model.

Even if Wu’s article were a brief for spectrum commons, I think we should remember what Adam so eloquently wrote in 2002:

The intellectual battle between adherents to the property rights and commons models of spectrum governance has been a refreshing telecommunications debate for two reasons. First, at the heart of both models is a desire to promote increased flexibility, innovation, and efficient use of the spectrum resource. More important, both groups generally agree that the current command-and-control system is a complete failure and must be replaced. Indeed, both commons and property rights proponents question the continuing need for the FCC in this process at all. Second, and perhaps because of these preceding points, this war of ideas has not been characterized by the rancor typically witnessed in other telecom industry disputes.

Exactly right. So I hope we can dial down the rancor a couple of notches, acknowledge that Wu makes some valid (even, dare I say it, libertarian) points, and engage the arguments Wu actually makes, rather than trying to ferret out the secret agenda lurking behind his words.

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