Post of the Day
November 23, 1999
Posts selected for this feature rarely stand alone. They are usually a part of an ongoing thread, and are out of context when presented here. The material should be read in that light.
Where We All Are Coming From
As some of the furor from our community's response to the MSFT trial dies down, I found myself wondering why this trial has engaged our passions so thoroughly. Why should we care so much about the MSFT trial, but hardly care at all about the Archer-Daniels-Midland price-fixing case, for example? Part of the reason is that we are an online community that exists solely because of the computer. Maybe if we were a bunch of farmers we would care about lysine. Heck, I'm not even sure what lysine is? And somewhere in Wyoming there's probably a rancher who thinks a "browser" is that weird guy at the magazine rack.
However, after reading David Gardner's Rule-Breaker Article/Post of the Day "Disappointed by Interventionists", it became apparent why our passions run so deep. This has very little to do with one's feelings about the Windows OS or Bill Gates as a person. It has everything to do with conflicting philosophical beliefs in TMF's community, especially on two areas with which we all take especial interest: computers and economics (primarily the latter)
Those who are supporting Microsoft are not simply upset because of a potential drop in the stock's value. They view this as an attempt by an outside force (the government) stifling the vision and creativity of a free-market entrepreneur, suppressing a competitive innovator simply for being "too successful". They see this as an attack on the very freedoms and ideas that make our economy and our society the most powerful and successful in the world. Their view is that Microsoft has become successful solely due to its skill in meeting the needs of the consumer, in filling a niche in our society so well that there is little or no need for another approach to take its place. If this changes, they reason, then a competitor will come along to displace Microsoft, and the free market and are society will embrace them.
Those who are siding against Microsoft in this case see things differently. In their eyes, they see Microsoft as the entity that is stifling competition and free enterprise. They see the nascent innovations of other competitors being squashed, not by Microsoft supplying a superior product, but rather by Microsoft using its dominating (these people would say monopoly) position in the OS market as a giant club to beat potential direct or indirect competitors into submission, before they can bring a product to market. They see innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship being destroyed or forced underground by a tyrant in the guise of a "competitive business", and believe that, as in the case of any bully, the authorities should be called in to stop his egregious behavior. They believe that do otherwise is to allow a situation of anarchy, where those with the most power define the rules solely for their own benefit, to the detriment of society as a whole.
There are people at TMF (David Gardner himself being the most conspicuous example) who not only disagree with the latter view, but can not bring themselves to even consider that train of thought. In their eyes, to do so is to state that free markets can, at times, be less than efficient, that the democracy of the competitive marketplace can be defied for a significant period of time, that the results of such unconstrained competition do not always lead to the best of all possible worlds. To admit that MSFT is, possibly, a bane to competition is to, in David Gardner's own words: "demonstrate a fundamentally unAmerican lack of faith in free markets". Like religion, it reaches to the very core of our belief systems.
I believe that the free market, like democracy, is not self-policing. I believe that the inexorable tide of human behavior flows towards freedom in commercial as well as political enterprise, but that forces can stand against that tide for awhile. Eventually that barrier will erode, but "eventually" can be long indeed, and much harm can occur before that fateful day. The Wall in Berlin stood as a symbol of oppression for over a quarter century before it fell, as the anti-competitive system that supported it foundered.
The present legal issue is whether or not MSFT is a monopoly, as defined under current law, and whether or not MSFT used its monopoly position to stifle competition to ensure that future benefits flowed to MSFT in violation of the Anti-Trust statutes, regardless of the effect on the consumer. If it is determined that Microsoft did violate those laws, then the remaining issue would be: "what is a proper remedy".
On a philosophical/economic level, the issue presented is the appropriateness or necessity of Anti-Trust laws in a free, competitive marketplace. There are many who believe that a Free Market is the best defender against monopolistic behavior, and that intervention in the market, even if well-intentioned, will do more harm than good.
Personally, I believe that Microsoft is an excellent example of a monopoly, and expect them to be considered so under the Anti-Trust Acts. I also believe that Microsoft has engaged in activities that are illegal under current anti-trust law. However, I am not an expert on anti-trust law, and could easily be mistaken. I also believe that Microsoft's acts have been harmful to consumers, but can understand why many people would disagree with that statement. Even if Microsoft has constrained competition and our free markets, the question remains: "What, if anything, could be done to stop this that does not cause an even greater harm." Many here can and do disagree on these points, and I respect their opinions, as they may have greater knowledge in such areas than I. But to those who would accuse me of standing against freedom and the common man, I can only state, as was said to Senator Joe McCarthy over 40 years ago, "shame, shame".