The Political Spectrum

The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone

[Amazon Link]

I seem to remember that Thomas Winslow Hazlett used to be a prolific contributor to Reason. He still shows up now and then. But fond memories of well-crafted arguments led me to put this book on the Interlibrary Loan queue. And I was not disappointed: for a scholarly tome published by Yale University Press, his prose is still punchy, and he tackles this topic with appropriate amounts of humor and bite.

And the topic is (roughly) the regulatory mess the US Government has made of the vast radio spectrum. The invention of the technology using electromagnetic waves to send data between transmitters and receivers is barely over a century old. (Thanks, Guglielmo!) But it had the bad fortune to take off just as the modern regulatory state was also taking wing, and people really had a mistaken faith in the benevolent state allocating resources wisely.

The primary villain: Herbert Hoover, who was Silent Cal's Secretary of Commerce. He wangled the Radio Act of 1927, essentially putting the spectrum under control of what would eventually become the FCC. As Hazlett shows, spectrum problems could have been resolved by common law, based on property rights sensibly defined.

But noooo… instead we got oppressive and intrusive state regulation, with all the well-known associated problems: protection of incumbents against upstarts, rent-seeking, corruption, squelching of innovation, censorship, lowest-common-denominator programming, inefficiencies galore.

Hazlett details all that, and the ongoing two-steps-forward-one-or-more-steps-back reform process. A particular hero is Nobelist Ronald Coase who first propoosed free market reforms in a 1959 essay. It was that classic story: "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.

My only quibble: among all the flinging around of kHz, MHz, and GHz, the book really could have used some simple spectrum maps, showing the colonization of radio space over the past century. Analogous to those maps in US history books showing the westward spread.