Friday, December 19, 2008

The Theater of the Absurd

According to KOCO in Oklahoma City, Houston is the city least prepared for the upcoming forced implementation of digital television. Nearly 16% of Houston's television sets would go into some kind of fuzzy unintelligible mess if the digital conversion occurred today. (To be honest, I'm not sure how that differs from much of what is already broadcast, but that is a different matter.)

Unless you have been living in a cave, you are probably aware of the government mandate that all full-power television broadcast signals convert to digital next year. According to the FCC:
Congress mandated the conversion to all-digital television broadcasting, also known as the digital television (DTV) transition, because all-digital broadcasting will free up frequencies for public safety communications (such as police, fire, and emergency rescue). Also, digital is a more efficient transmission technology that allows broadcast stations to offer improved picture and sound quality, as well as offer more programming options for consumers through multiple broadcast stream(multicasting). In addition, some of the freed up frequencies will be used for advanced commercial wireless services for consumers.

How much of the broadcast spectrum is needed for public safety communications? And why can't they use digital instead of forcing broadcasters and consumers to invest in new equipment? But these questions are really beside the point. This mandate is wrong on every level.

It forces broadcasters to use certain technology, and thereby violates their property rights. It forces consumers to own television sets capable of receiving digital signals, and thereby violates their property rights. And just so nobody is left out, the government is giving away coupons to get discounts on converter boxes, which thereby violates the property rights of the taxpayers forced to pay for these "discounts".

All of this is allegedly justified because the airwaves are "public property" and consequently the federal government can dictate the use of those airwaves in the name of "the public". I am a member of the public, and I've done nothing to contribute to the broadcaster's ability to air a program (other than watch or listen). The airwaves are simply a potential resource that has existed since the beginning of time, and it takes specific knowledge and equipment to make use of that resource. Those who own that equipment own the resource--they gave the airwaves value. (The government does have a legitimate role to play in the issue of the airwaves, but it does not involve licensing or regulating. It involves establishing the criteria for establishing property rights of the airwaves. See this article for more on privatizing the airwaves.)

As Ayn Rand put it
There is no essential difference between a broadcast and a concert: the former merely transmits sounds over a longer distance and requires more complex technical equipment. No one would venture to claim that a pianist may own his fingers and his piano, but the space inside the concert hall -- through which the sound waves he produces travel -- is "public property" and, therefore, he has no right to give a concert without a license from the government. Yet this is the absurdity foisted on our broadcasting industry.

Not only is the government now claiming that it owns the air within the concert hall, it is also claiming control of the pianist's fingers and our ears. And control is ownership. Ownership means the ability to determine the use and disposal of an object. The government has rendered analog broadcasting equipment and television sets useless. In regard to television, the federal government has seized control of both the means of production and the means of consumption.

Marxists argue that the workers should control the means of production because physical labor is the source of value. But physical labor has existed forever, and it could not harness the airwaves. Physical labor could not discover the means for turning the airwaves into a viable resource and value. It took a reasoning mind to discover the means for transmitting sound over distances.

Both Marxists and the federal government regard the reasoning mind as irrelevant. Both seek to control the mind by force. Marxists seek to do so by seizing control of the means of production. The federal government is doing so by seizing control of our eyes and ears.

Lest you think that this is some kind of paranoid conspiracy theory, consider that Great Britain has had a television set licensing mandate since 1949. It is illegal to operate a television set Great Britain without a license. (This is not a joke.) This article provides a history of the program, and starts with a quote from the British Television Licensing Authority:
Using a television without an appropriate licence is a criminal offence. Every day we catch an average of 1,200 people using a TV without a licence. There is no valid excuse for using a television and not having a TV Licence, but some people still try - sometimes with the most ridiculous stories ever heard. Our detection equipment will track down your TV. The fact that our enquiry officers are now so well equipped with the latest technology means that there is virtually no way to avoid detection.

The licensing authority uses specially equipped vans to roam the countryside searching for illegal television sets, which can be detected electronically. While fines are the most common punishment, as recently as 1999 24 people were sent to jail for failure to obtain a television license.

Those who do not own a television set face routine harassment from the licensing authority, which apparently believes that it is metaphysically impossible for a human being to exist without a television set. Duncan Bennett, for example, has received annoying and often threatening letters for nearly 15 years. You can read some of these letters on his web site.

The growing number of controls on our lives is the natural result of each generation of politicians and bureaucrats building on the precedents of their predecessors. Each generation carries the principles of altruism, collectivism, and statism steps closer to their logical conclusion. So long as those principles are embraced the controls will increase and grow more absurd.

This is the ultimate result when "the public" owns a resource. Since there is no such entity as "the public", use and disposal of that resource ultimately gravitates into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats who use it to build their own personal fiefdom. And within the realm of that resource, the individuals who comprise "the public" become pawns to the political elite.

Those who pontificate about "public property" are attacking private property. They are attacking the right of individuals to own, use, and dispose of material values. They are attacking the right of individuals to use those values according to their own rational judgment. They have embraced the premise that coercion is a proper means for dealing with others, and thereby reject the principle that all relations between individuals should be voluntary and consensual.

At its root, an attack on private property and property rights is an attack on the mind. It is an attempt to transform reality by forcing individuals to act against their own judgment. That very premise is absurd, and it is no surprise that the ensuing policies are equally so.

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