Avoiding Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicidal Impulse’: Strategies to Reduce Tech Cronyism

by on January 29, 2013 · 2 comments

In an important essay this week entitled “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse’,” Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz warns that “Silicon Valley has long prided itself on avoiding the lumbering relationship between big government and most industries, but somehow it has become one of the top lobbyists in Washington.” Crovitz is worried that Internet and technology companies are falling prey to what Milton Friedman labeled “The Business Community’s Suicidal Impulse”: the persistent propensity to persecute one’s competitors using regulation or the threat thereof. “Rather than lobby government to go after one another,” Crovitz argues, “Silicon Valley lobbyists should unite to go after overreaching government. Instead of the ‘suicide impulse’ of lobbying for more regulation, Silicon Valley should seek deregulation and a long-overdue freedom to return to its entrepreneurial roots.”

Crovitz’s essay touches upon a dangerous trend I have written about here and elsewhere in the past: the increasing politicization of the Internet and information technology sectors and the gradual rise of rent-seeking (i.e., favor-seeking) over time. I’ve written about this problem in essays like:

These essays have documented how tech companies are increasingly vying for the attention of legislators and regulators in Washington, statehouses, and international capitals across the globe.

Why should we care about the increasing politicization of the information technology sector? In a forthcoming Mercatus Center working paper entitled, “A History of Cronyism & Capture in the Information Technology Sector,” Brent Skorup and I explain how “time and resources spent focusing on influencing politicians and capturing regulators represent time and resources that could better be spent competing and innovating in the marketplace. This can negatively impact consumer welfare in two ways: Not only are consumers denied more and better products and services, but they also may pay higher prices or higher taxes extracted by the corporate-government agreement.”

We document how rent-seeking and cronyism have had a corrupting influence on older information sectors and technologies, especially broadcasting and communications. We develop lengthy case studies from each sector to illustrate the costs that rent-seeking imposes on consumers, competitors, and ongoing innovation.

It’s a miserable history but one that is essential to recount if we hope to avoid it for newer sectors and technologies. That’s why Brent and I devote the closing section of our paper to a list of “Strategies to Limit Cronyism” in the Internet world before things get as bad as they have in the communications and media sectors. We argue that it is essential that we use a combination of institutional safeguards and market/social norms if we hope to head-off incessant rent-seeking and avoid the ‘suicidal impulse’ problem that Milton Friedman and Gordon Crovtiz identified.

Generally speaking, we must begin by acknowledging that, as economist David Henderson correctly notes, “There is only one way to end, or at least to reduce, the amount of cronyism, and that is to reduce government power.” Special interest rent-seeking and the chronic cronyism problems of modern America are fundamentally tied up with the constantly expanding horizons of government power. As Mancur Olson taught us in his 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, when benefits are concentrated and costs are dispersed (across all taxpayers or ratepayers, for example), we can expect groups to form to take advantage of those benefits. Those groups have a powerful motivation to create, preserve, and perpetuate government programs that favor their narrow interests at the expense of others, while those bearing the true costs of those policies or programs do not have the same incentive (or resources) to lobby government to reduce or end those burdens.

This leads to what economist Gordon Tullock called the “transitional gains trap”: once a policy or program is put in place to favor a certain interest, most of their gains come upfront and are factored into future earnings. Those benefiting from the policies would face large transitional losses if reform is undertaken, even if these policies impose large deadweight costs on society as a whole. This “trap” can frustrate beneficial reform efforts because the interest benefiting from the cronyist policies and programs will fight to the death to preserve them, no matter how costly or inefficient they may be for society as a whole.

There are several steps we can take if we hope to overcome the collective action problem in the tech sector and avoid Tullock’s transitional gains trap.

First, we must limit the scope of technology regulation whenever possible, and where existing rules open the door to cronyism, streamline or eliminate as many of them as possible. When policymakers deregulated other sectors in past—airlines, railroads, trucking, etc.—it helped eliminate the legal levers that industry could capture or influence. Consequently, deregulation forced companies to spend more time satisfying consumers as opposed to lawmakers and regulators.

Second, whenever possible we should rely on auctions and property rights to ensure that resources are being allocated according to market demand instead of political influence. The ugly history of spectrum cronyism is rooted in the misguided reliance upon the so-called “public interest” theory of regulation, which claimed that supposedly enlightened and benevolent regulators would steer resources and markets in more pro-consumer directions. The reality was just the opposite: the “public interest” became synonymous with the private interest of regulated entities, who largely “gamed” the system for their own ends. It was only when policymakers finally embraced the logic of auctions to allocate spectrum that America began to see cronyism dissipate in this sector. Auctions ensured faster allocation and more efficient distribution and development of this important resource. While full-blown spectrum property rights have not yet taken hold, the gradual movement in that direction helps minimize cronyism opportunities.

Third, the use of vouchers can help limit corporate gaming of social programs that are deemed essential. For example, America’s universal service program, which subsidizes phone and now broadband service, is a permanent fixture of communications policy. Unfortunately, cronyism is a permanent fixture of the system as well. Because the universal service system delivers assistance to end-users indirectly through favored local providers, it limits the potential for new entry and undermines competition. A means-tested voucher could have targeted assistance to those who needed it without creating an inefficient, unsustainable hidden tax or undermining competition.

Fourth, sunsetting provisions for new and existing laws and regulations can greatly limit cronyism opportunities. All new technology proposals should include a provision sunsetting the law or regulation within a few years of enactment and existing technology laws and regulations should be reopened and reassessed on a regular timetable as well to ensure they are not being abused. (Here’s a Forbes column I wrote last year with details about how to do so.)

Fifth, we need serious limits on congressional delegations of power to regulatory bodies and executive branch agencies. Too often, lawmakers “pass the buck” on to agencies and expect them to figure out how to interpret and administer arcane technology policy statutes. The result is abuse both by over-zealous regulators and interests looking to game the system. Congress should be more accountable and, at a minimum, must make their regulatory intent and standards clearer before delegating authority.

Finally, we need to encourage better norms inside the tech industry itself and encourage them to hold themselves to a higher standard. We should ask them to promise not to exploit government power that would discourage innovation or crush competition. Better yet, we should ask them to consider “strategic disengagement” with Washington and politics in general. Yes, I understand that sounds like a pipe dream since where power exists interests will likely look to exploit it. And, again, that’s the best reason for serious deregulation and strong limits on government power to begin with. But social pressure and market norms can also help in the absence of more sweeping reforms. Some firms already adopt the right approach. For example, Apple and Sony have largely shunned political engagement and instead focused on satisfying their customers in the marketplace. While their hands aren’t entirely clean, we should encourage more tech innovators to follow their general lead of not sending small armies of lobbyists to Washington and state capitals.

In the end, there is no silver-bullet solution that can forever cure cronyism. It would be foolish to pretend that we’ll be able to significantly curtail the scope of government powers in the short-term. Nonetheless, there are many sensible institutional reforms and marketplace norms that can help us keep cronyism in check before it begins running rampant in this important sector of our economy.

(Brent and I have just sent our paper on this topic off for peer review from some academic experts in this field, but we welcome thoughts from others about strategies to limit and reduce cronyism in this arena. We hope to publish this paper in a law review or poly sci journal later this Summer or Fall.)

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