Religious Right Historian: Net Neutrality is “Unbiblical Socialism”

On his radio show yesterday David Barton and sidekick Rick Green claimed that FCC-supported net neutrality legislation which, as PFAW put it, “ensures that Internet service providers can’t charge higher rates for faster delivery of content,” violates biblical principles of free market, and that they are “socialist.”  

It’s easy to dismiss that charge as nothing more than demagoguery, but in fact, the discussion gives us insight into what they (and the tea partiers as well as the slew of potential Republican Presidential candidates who seem to be falling all over themselves to cozy up to Barton) mean by socialism and, ultimately, how they understand freedom.  

Most of us understand socialism as a system in which there is no private ownership and all power (political and economic) is centralized in the State; so tea party accusations that any policy they oppose is “socialist” seems, at best, like hyperbole.  

But in Barton’s view any move away from what he sees as an unfettered free market, any regulation or involvement on the part of government, is a move toward socialism—and of course he thinks that private ownership and free markets are biblically sanctioned.

One serious limitation of this view is that there are resources upon which free markets are dependent that are not privately owned—what Barton’s beloved founding fathers would have called the “commonwealth.” Companies that pollute the environment while making their products, for example, do not “own” the air into which they pour that waste associated with their production.

The air is “owned” by all of us. So if the company is not required to repair the damage caused by its production process, in a sense we are subsidizing the production cost of whatever they make. Often what is framed as a choice between the free market and socialism is neither.

Net Neutrality prohibits ISPs from charging for internet service based on usage. This seems straightforward to Barton and Green: “what they mean is we’re not going to let you choose who you need to charge more to.”

But it’s not that simple. First, the internet service providers (ISPs) don’t “own” the internet. They own the mechanism for providing access but not the internet itself. Maybe more importantly, though, this is not a straightforward free market question because the ISPs often own both the internet access and the competitive products like cable or satellite TV. So by charging people who use internet streaming instead of cable TV they actually undermine free market competition—in favor of protecting the near monopoly they have had on such service for decades.

And maybe more interesting is the subsequent exchange between Rick Green and “good friend,” Texas Congressman Joe Barton, who’s sponsoring legislation to overturn the administration’s Net Neutrality regulation.

As Congressman Barton tries to explain Net Neutrality he reveals important aspects of how these folks understand freedom in entirely economic terms:

JB: [Net Neutrality means we] cannot regulate the internet, it should be open and free. Democrats’ definition of Net Neutrality is we want to give FCC the authority to tell people who actually provide the internet [again, they don’t provide the internet, only access to it] what they can and can’t do with it. Now, what people like yourself and myself mean is no government interference; it’s pretty straightforward. Republicans and conservatives have always tried to keep the internet totally free.

But of course we know they have not tried to keep it totally free, except in the very narrow economic sense they then clarified: “free—no taxes no fees—let the private sector operate.” They certainly do not mean free in a way that includes broadly available access (because that’s socialism).

RG: If I want to pay less I get less space.

DB: (mockingly) But that’s not FAIR, What about the guys who don’t make as much?

RG: So in other words I should not only pay for mine but I should pay for somebody else’s too.

DB: It’s redistribution of wealth through the internet; It really is redistribution. We don’t need the government regulating another industry—especially with this sense of fairness… this is socialism on the internet.

Nor do they mean free with respect to content, as David Barton made explicit when he returned to the conversation at the end of the show, saying:

DB: This is not anarchy. We’re not suggesting moral license, we don’t want to have obscenity. pornography, child pornography …that’s not it. You still have moral laws to follow. We just don’t want micro managing by the federal government.

So for Barton et al, Net Neutrality is socialist because their system is too individualistic to take into account the commonwealth both in terms of the ownership of the asset and in terms of the common good of widespread open access.

Sometimes free isn’t really free.