The Dangers of Monopoly

Would it be acceptable for the government to have monopoly control of the media? This is fairly common, around the world, but America has always shied away from such a position. Let us explore why it is unacceptable to most Americans.

First, the idea of monopoly control itself is problematic. But government would not have to forbid others from participating in the media market. It could provide its own service, free at the point of use, and merely place barriers in the way of competitors. It would not acquire 100% control in that way, but maybe 80 or 90% plus. In practice, control of the media does not give the government control of the way people think. Adults are able to challenge the ideas they encounter in the media. And the US has a federal structure, so government control would maintain at least some degree of pluralism.

I sense I have not talked you round on this, nor was that my intention. Regular readers will have already guessed that I am setting up one of my extended analogies.

If it is unacceptable for government to exercise that sort of control over media, why do we tolerate it in the sector with the biggest influence on the flow of information, education. Surely children are more vulnerable than adults are to manipulation. Like the media, education is going to be revolutionized by online channels. Competitively priced education, including for home schooling, is increasingly available and is increasingly normal in the developing world. People living in desperate poverty will sacrifice 20% of their income to educate their children, because they know it is the route out of poverty. Note, this is people choosing to buy education even though government schools are available free.

Obviously, there is some convenience to parents that schooling is provided ‘free’ – meaning paid for by someone else. Children are expensive, and in many families the higher costs come at the time of lower income through one parent cutting back on work. To have this substantial additional cost taken out of the equation makes financial sense to parents, who form a large and active portion of the electorate. Many of the people who are not presently parents of school age children either aspire to be or were recently so. There is a big voting block in taxpayer support of education.

But taxpayer support of schooling does not mean that government has to own and operate the schools itself. Charter schools are a step in the right direction, but ideally the government would provide vouchers that parents could spend at any private school, or to support home schooling. Vouchers would tend to mean that the government would impose restrictions and minimum standards. This is not ideal, as parents are much better monitors of standards than are governments, and are better at preserving diversity.

Common Sense takes the view that the ideal situation would be for government to pull out of education altogether. Vouchers should be merely a transition to full control of education by parents and communities.

Control of such an important channel of communication as education is a power that we should not entrust to government. It should not be in the hands of any one organization. It cannot be a coincidence that the power of government has mushroomed in the generations since it took control of schools.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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