"We've gone to a modern [broadcast] system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission," says Thomas W. Hazlett, who's the FCC's former chief economist, a professor at Clemson University, and author of the new book The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. "And we have seen that the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned...That comes from deregulation."
So-called net neutrality rules are designed to solve a non-existent problem and threaten to restrict consumer choice, Hazlett tells Reason's Nick Gillespie. "The travesty is there's already a regulatory scheme [to address anti-competitive behavior]—it's called antitrust law."
Greater autonomy and consumer freedom led to the development of cable television, the smartphone revolution, and the modern internet. While we've come a long way from the old days of mother-may-I pleading with the FCC to grant licenses for new technology, Hazlett says, "there's a lot farther to go and there's a lot of stuff out there that's being suppressed."
He points to the history of radio and television. Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson exercised extraordinary control over spectrum allocation, which they used for their own political and financial gain. With liberalization, we now have hundreds of hours of varied television programming as compared to the big three broadcast networks of the '60s, an abundance of choices in smartphone providers and networks as compared to the Ma Bell monopoly, and more to come.
Hazlett also discusses his views on current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, how the FCC delayed the arrival of cable television to protect incumbent broadcasters, and "the most infamous statement ever made by an FCC regulator" in a 1981 Q&A with Reason magazine.
Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Mark McDaniel. Music by RW Smith.
This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: HI. I'm Nick Gillespie for Reason. Today, we're talking with Thomas Winslow Hazlett, an economics professor at Clemson, a long-time Reason contributor, former chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, and author most recently of the epic new book, The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone.
Tom, thanks for talking to us.
Thomas Hazlett: Thanks for having me, Nick.
Nick Gillespie: Your book is a masterful counterblast, I think, to the intellectual status quo when it comes to broadcasting, cable, Internet, especially related to things like spectrum auctions and net neutrality and whatnot. Your large argument is that government inhibits innovation rather than encourages it. Is that accurate?
Thomas Hazlett: Yeah, that's the starting point, but I certainly go farther, a lot farther in this book, because there has been significant liberalization, and we learn a lot from the directions we've gone. We see the suppression through administrative allocations of spectrum, which just means that we have this Mother-may-I system where the government's in charge of who does what in wireless and has to give explicit permission. We've gone from a system like that to a modern system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission.
Nick Gillespie: Right.
Thomas Hazlett: We have seen that what we call perhaps the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned. We have these emerging networks and these ecosystems. That comes from deregulation.
Nick Gillespie: Is it deregulation or is it government ... I guess and different examples, and we'll talk about those, but sometimes it's explicit deregulation, or the government saying, "We're going to get out of this. We're not going to do anything." Other times, is it benign neglect or innovators and entrepreneurs doing what some people call permissionless innovation, where they don't really care too much and they just go ahead and do something, then figure out how to explain it later and justify it?
Thomas Hazlett: Right. Yeah, great question. I think one of the problems we've had in spectrum is that you can't really have benign neglect. There are rules, and if you have an innovation that needs access to radio spectrum because it's a wireless device, you have to go and ask for some kind of authorization. We've had to make a lot of explicit rules, and some of them have been in the right direction. That's very important to state. It's not just, "Yeah, the government did this wrong and, boy, it's even worse over here. They did this wrong." It's not just bad, worse, worst. We have gone in some directions much better. There's a lot farther to go, though, and there's a lot of stuff out there that's being suppressed. We don't know what most of that is, but there's a lot of innovation that could come if we lowered those barriers still more.
Nick Gillespie: Tell us the story about Herbert Hoover and the creation of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927 and how that kind of undergirds ... Obviously, it's the starting point of your book, but it's also the concept that spectrum is politicized in ways that are problematic.