I have always been a big believer that free markets tend to lead to freer political societies.
The logic—and empirical evidence—of economics is pretty clear: free market capitalism works when free people make free decisions in a free society. Such societies are not only the wealthiest and most successful in the world today, but in my view the most morally decent that have ever existed.
Part of the logic I have long accepted, and still doubt hardly at all, is that economic and political freedom are essentially indivisible. In fact, Adam Smith dubbed his Economics “The Theory of Natural Liberty,” a name that I consider entirely appropriate today.
As always, there are those looking for a “third way” in between the top-down social and political orders that always fail and the freewheeling “cowboy capitalism” of America. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were famously “third way” politicians, but any fair examination of either of their Administrations shows that if anything their policies were basically benign or even expansive when it came to liberty. (Yes, I know how much better things should have and could have been).
In other words, the Blair-Clinton “third way” was Reaganomics with a bit of retooling.
Today’s “third way” theorists look more to the economies of East Asia, and especially China, and wonder openly about the development of essentially free economies operating comfortably with highly controlled, elite-driven political systems.
To many in today’s political elite, this is not a theoretical question at all. As the economic expansion of the last 30 years has economically and politically empowered the American middle-class to an extent never imagined before in world history, the political and economic establishment that reigned from the 1930’s through the 1980’s and early 90’s saw its power diminishing toward extinction.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but they don’t want to let that power go. Not without a fight. I think they see the “third way” possibly represented by China and a few of the more politically repressive Asian tigers as a very enticing possibility indeed.
You see elements of that battle raging everywhere you turn today in the United States. And unfortunately, with few exceptions in either political Party, very few politicians are on the true side of the “little guy” versus the “big and powerful.”
Because the only thing good for the “little guy” in the battle against the “big and powerful,” whoever that group is at any one time, is freedom. Freedom to work. Freedom to trade. Freedom to move. And Freedom to speak his or her mind.
And freedom has been on the march—and the advocates of freedom and free markets have been winning battles around the world—largely because of one thing, and one thing only: the huge expansion of communications technology that has broken the “establishment” monopoly on information everywhere it has touched. The explosion of talk radio after the demise of the “fairness doctrine” in the late 1980’s helped break the essential monopoly of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the 3 big Networks on the reporting and discussion of news in this country. The internet is or will soon be the single-most important source of news in the world.
Which gets us back to the “third-way” capitalism I began with. Those who have lived quite comfortably in a world in which they have controlled the news, controlled the political agenda, controlled tone and content of political discussion, and in most cases have controlled the regulatory bodies that set many of the rules by which our economic trade both foreign and domestic take place, are getting mighty tired of watching that power slip away from them.
Mighty tired indeed.
So a movement has sprung up, led by a group called the “Center for American Progress,” which has begun to lobby vigorously for solving the problem of “imbalance” in the availability of liberal versus conservative points of view in commercial talk radio. It turns out, according to a study they just completed, that there is a dangerous “Structural Imbalance” in talk radio that must be addressed. Believe it or not, 91% of talk radio is conservative while only 9% can be considered liberal.
SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!
Of course, first thing to note about this study is how biased it is from the start: it excludes public and listener supported radio stations, which almost by definition have a much more liberal slant than your average commercial AM talker. Maybe your average limousine liberal isn’t just dying to hear Al Franken’s opinions every second of the day, when she has a perfectly good alternative in public radio that also happens to put out an excellent product?
Forget the facts, though, and let’s stick to the point: SOMETHING MUST BE DONE to restore fairness and balance to the mediasphere, and that something is already being talked about regularly on Capitol Hill: restore the fairness doctrine.
Which would essentially kill talk radio as we know it today. Radio stations would essentially be harassed and regulated out of that market, simply because the cost to produce and defend the product would exceed the economic benefit of providing it.
Trent Lott (who opposed eliminating it in the first place) has already been quoted in the New York Times as saying “’Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.’ At some point, Mr. Lott said, Senate Republican leaders may try to rein in ‘younger guys who are huffing and puffing against the bill.’”
Senator Diane Feinstein admitted on Fox News Sunday that Democrats in the Senate were “looking” at reviving the Fairness Doctrine “because I think there ought to be an opportunity to present the other side. And unfortunately, talk radio is overwhelmingly one way.”
This is an audacious power grab. And not one just being made by a Left which has been losing its ideological war with the Right, but by many in the current political and media elite, whatever their nominal political affiliation.
These politicians are at a loss to stem the tide of history that has taken more and more power away from them and placed it into the hands of average citizens like you and me. That is what is so intriguing to so many of them about the “third way” that Asian capitalist societies appear to represent: a stable political and cultural elite with a seemingly prosperous and compliant working class. Nirvana!
Of course, there is no such thing. The creative destruction that is at the heart of free market economies will never allow such a social arrangement to last for long. China will be faced with decades of social and political upheaval; the Asian tigers are becoming freer, in fits and starts, and the march toward freedom will continue to prevail as long as we can preserve the one essential freedom that is increasingly at risk, with few defenders: the right to free speech and the free flow of information.
Unfortunately, this is a battle we are not currently winning. The internet is censored in much of the world, often with the complicity of our own major corporations. Campaign finance “reforms” have attacked the very foundation of our political system, and now talk of regulating speech on the internet and talk radio is inching toward action.
This is a battle we cannot lose. Each stupid regulation, idiotic social program, ridiculous subsidy, or overtaxed dollar is a frustration to be fought when we can, borne when we must. But the attack on speech is another fight altogether.
If we lose this one, it’s for all the marbles. America could wind up looking a lot more like China, at least politically, than the other way around.