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Independence and the Limits of Markets

| Written by Christopher | No Comments | Updated on Jul 9, 2012 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at

A new book from Michael J Sandel asks, “What Isn’t for Sale?” At least, that was the title of his article in the April Atlantic Monthly. The book is actually titled What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and you can find it at your local bookstore.

Broadband policy often deals with the term “market.” Given the strong natural-monopoly characteristics of broadband networks, we generally make two points.

1) The private sector will not create a competitive market for Internet services absent smart government policies. Private companies consolidate, gain scale advantages, and crush the competition absent at least strong antitrust policies.

2) We can have a market for broadband services if we separate the physical infrastructure from the services. In this scenario, a network owner would not be allowed to offer services directly to end users. Independent service providers would use the network (under equal terms) to offer services to businesses and residents. This is the wholesale-only model (most associated with UTOPIA) and the closest examples in other infrastructure is the streets or airports. However, federal policymakers are too beholden to big corporate interests to pursue these policies; if a community wants an open access broadband market, it has to build its own network.

Nevertheless, Sandel’s discussion of markets and the insistence of some that markets can solve everything struck a cord with me. I’m a big believer in functioning markets — which is why we work so hard to help communities that are stuck with only one or two distant corporations controlling all the broadband infrastructure. The refusal of big carriers to invest in communities skews many of the markets within those communities.

So we are careful when we talk about markets. Given present technology, both wired and wireless, it is foolish to believe markets alone can solve our broadband problem. Which is what brings me back to Sandel’s article in the Atlanic:

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?

From our narrow broadband perspective, infrastructure should be governed by nonmarket values. Though it may cost more to build networks in rural America than in the metro, everyone should be connected with fast, affordable, and reliable networks that are responsive to their needs. The interesting result is that markets actually work much better than when many are denied participation by lack of modern infrastructure.

In a review of Sandel’s work, Michael Ignatieff argues that Sandel misses some of the key issues that have deliberately led us to this place.

We did not drift into this new world of money or arrive here by accident. Powerful interests have carried us here, and it is up to the people acting together to take their republic back. A society is not a market. It is a political community. Restoring the virtue of its citizens demands a politics equal to the challenge of virtue’s enemies.

In short, we need to take the task of governing ourselves more seriously. We cannot allow moneyed interests to continue corrupting our legislatures. Community Broadband Networks is a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which offers a variety of solutions for communities that want to be independent and take the idea of self-determination very seriously.