Common Good Should Not Trump Common Sense

by Mike Wendy on September 29, 2010

Kathleen Parker has an interesting Washington Post column today (“When do rules for the common good cross the line?”), revealing the difference in worldviews between conservatives and liberals.  It is also a telling lesson for how we regulate – or not – the Internet.

Using her recent move to NYC, she muses about all the regulations imposed on its citizens in order to live in harmony with 8 million others; rules that were largely absent during her small town upbringing:

…[New York City’s numerous safety restrictions] are tiny things, not terribly important, sort of like raindrops. Individually, they’re not much. In combination, they become something less pleasant. Inevitably, the mind wanders to health care and other government programs that aim to do nice things for good people but in the process eliminate the options of being self-directing individuals…At what point is the common good bad for people?

This tension – how to arrive at what’s best for the People – plays no small role in the creation of policy for the Internet.  At a very basic level, it is a battle between two worldviews.

Liberty-loving individuals remain ever-watchful of “programs that aim to do nice things for good people but in the process eliminate the options of being self-directing individuals.”  Top-down processes of control concern them.  To combat this, the marketplace and the evolution of technology – not onerous rules – are the best ways to guarantee that the Internet serves Americans to the fullest.

Contrasted to this, regulation-loving individuals want “fair” outcomes and the rules to guarantee them.  It’s not satisfactory that something so uncontrollable – like the marketplace – can lift all boats.  Not coincidentally, Net Neutrality regulation represents the primary manner in which to control / ensure that the Internet serves Americans.  The common good dictates that this resource – mostly private as it is – be regulated.

Thankfully, the liberty-loving crowd has won-out thus far.

Recent polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe America’s Internet market works well.  Minimal rules (which, in my mind, can still be less) have helped spread the Internet near and far – so much so that its use depends not so much on actual access itself, but rather, on one’s choosing to access it, or not, in the first place.   This has occurred mainly because government has had the common sense to limit its involvement in the medium, allowing edge and core innovators to grow, in a mostly self-directed manner, an ecosystem that satisfies American Internet consumers.

Over the past month, the FCC’s hesitation on Net Neutrality regulations, as well as draft legislation on the Hill, seem to suggests that America’s policymakers recognize this.  One hopes they maintain the common sense to ensure that the common good doesn’t regulate all the life and success out of the Internet.

The common good may mean many things to many people, but where’s the good in it if it ends up killing the Internet through onerous and outdated regulations?

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