The federal government wants to protect us from Bill Gates. The Justice Department is bringing an antitrust action against Microsoft for including Internet-browsing software in all copies of Windows 98. A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of Microsoft on a narrow point, but that will merely delay rather than halt the government’s prosecution of the software giant. The action is based on the contention that the inclusion would give Microsoft too great a competitive advantage over its less successful rivals.
Does anyone notice something a little bit odd here? The institution that gave us the atomic bomb is offering to protect us from a company that gives us personal computers.
I must be stupid. I’ve never understood why concentrations of private property are more dangerous than concentrations of coercive power.
I went to government schools where I was constantly told about the evils of 19th-century “robber barons” who sought monopolies, while I was taught that 20th-century governments — which had slaughtered tens of millions of people — would protect people like me. Of course there were distinctions between good and bad governments. The Hitler government was bad; the Roosevelt government was good. (The Stalin government was at first thought to be good, by an innocent mistake on the part of our government, but later turned out to be bad.)
If what Bill Gates owns is a “monopoly,” even though he has countless competitors, why is the federal government, which has steadily eliminated its own competition, not a monopoly?
Personally, I don’t feel threatened by Bill Gates. Bill Gates can’t take a penny of my earnings if I don’t want him to have it. I don’t have to work for him for the first four months of the year. He can’t put me in prison for refusing to pay him or for disobeying his orders. He can’t break into my house and search for drugs. He can’t send my sons to war. He hasn’t incinerated any religious sects, and none of his agents has shot a mother in the head while she was holding her baby. He doesn’t even seem interested in doing any of these things.
And Barney Frank doesn’t work for him. That’s my shorthand way of saying that I can’t imagine Gates hiring the sort of people who run the federal government.
All in all, Bill Gates has been leaving me alone. He is a lot better at leaving me alone than the federal government is, so I really can’t take it as an injustice or a threat that he wants to be free to stipulate the conditions under which I can buy his products. I want the same freedom for myself.
As you may have observed, the sort of people who are always warning us against business monopolies never worry about monopolies of government power. Just the opposite: they think government monopolies are the cure for all evils.
The Constitution was supposed to be at once a charter and an antitrust act for government, carefully dividing power several ways to prevent any monopoly — or “consolidation,” as it was called then — of power. Only a handful of powers (“few and specific,” in James Madison’s words) were “delegated” to the federal government, while all the rest (“numerous and indefinite”) were reserved to the states and the people. And even the handful of delegated powers was divided among two houses of Congress, the executive branch, and the judiciary.
Today the feds have managed to convince everyone that the Constitution means the direct contrary of what it meant to those who ratified it: that it’s a charter for a centralized power so overwhelming that no state or local government can effectively resist even its most arrogant claims. If Bill Gates wants to keep his freedom, his only hope is that he can find a federal court to rule against the federal executive branch.
People who create things nowadays can expect to be prosecuted by highly moralistic people who are incapable of creating anything. There is no way to measure the chilling effect on innovation that results from the threats of taxation, regulation, and prosecution against anything that succeeds. We’ll never know how many ideas our government has aborted in the name of protecting us.