Freeman

PERSPECTIVE

Imperfect Opponents

Does Microsoft Have the Power to Break Up the Government?

OCTOBER 01, 2000 by SHELDON RICHMAN

“Microsoft and the government were the perfect opponents. The government has some power, but Microsoft has at least as much. Anyone else facing either one of them would be overmatched.”

That is not some comedian’s line. It was spoken in all seriousness, I presume, by David Boies, who led the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Microsoft. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up in the June 9 New York Times.

Mr. Boies’s self-serving remark sets off a flurry of thoughts. But the essential comment comes from Steven Yates, who writes for this magazine. When I e-mailed him the quotation, he quickly wrote back, “Has anyone pointed out that while the federal government has the power to break up Microsoft, Microsoft does not have the authority to break up the federal government?”

The other side of that question is that the federal government has achieved its monopoly through the use of force, while Microsoft has achieved its dominant position—it is not a monopoly—through voluntary exchange. We may infer much from these two methods of dealing with people.

Microsoft must have offered all the people who bought its products the best alternative in the marketplace. It doesn’t matter that for some techies Windows doesn’t measure up to an operating system ideal. It lets regular people get their work and play done more easily and economically—in their estimation—than anything else they could have bought. If something else comes along that is so much better that it justifies a switch, they’ll switch.

It’s a peaceful process, where people have to offer one another benefits before they deal. No one can force someone else to buy or sell what he does not wish to buy or sell.

Now let’s look at the government, which Mr. Boies says has no more power—and perhaps less; re-read the quotation—than Microsoft. If you don’t do what the government says, it has the legal authority to compel you. It doesn’t treat you like a sovereign consumer. It treats you like a subject. It can take your property. It can take your liberty. If you resist, it can take your life.

The last I checked, it was Bill Clinton, not Bill Gates, who ran such an organization.

* * *

The War on Drugs is touted as necessary to defend the health of the nation. But if you think the health of the nation requires the police to break into homes, trashing them and sometimes killing the inhabitants, then, as Ayn Rand might have said, check your premises. Paul Armentano has the gruesome details.

Many people have written that all gun-control laws have an intrinsic loophole: they exempt violent lawbreakers while snagging the law-abiding. But no one has managed to say it as well as H.L. Mencken did in 1925.

What would you call an organization that uses a variety of methods to systematically deceive people about what it does to them and makes it nearly impossible for them to object if they learn the truth? Charlotte Twight calls it “government.”

When the name Peter Bauer comes to mind, the words “hero” and “courage” should be close behind. He demolished almost single-handedly the once-reigning socialist development economics and showed that markets are the only chance for the undeveloped world. James Dorn summarizes Bauer’s remarkable work.

On a related subject, there’s a tendency in some quarters to think of capitalism as a system suitable to Anglo-Americans and unsuitable to everyone else. That’s suicidal thinking, writes Christopher Lingle.

To understand the government’s antitrust case against Microsoft, you have to understand the philosophy and philosopher behind it. Barbara Hunter introduces us to Lawrence Lessig.

What’s the difference between a for-profit and nonprofit health facility? A great deal of pain and humiliation. Tom Palmer explains.

The Supreme Court ruled that women cannot sue their alleged rapists in federal court. Is this the end of something decent or the beginning? Wendy McElroy sorts it out.

According to the government, cartels are bad—except when governments get together to stamp out tax havens. David Laband has noticed the ominous collusion.

The growth of high-tech industries has brought a rash of patent-infringement suits, and more are in the offing. Christopher Mayer says it’s a good time to reconsider the patent laws and see them for what they really are.

If the government can’t quarter troops on your property, why can it quarter animals there? Andrew Morriss and Richard Stroup turn the “living Constitution” doctrine against its proponents.

This month our columnists ruminate thusly: Donald Boudreaux shows why he admires Thomas Babington Macaulay. Lawrence Reed indicts government deposit insurance. Doug Bandow wants to end U.N. “peacekeeping.” Dwight Lee says it’s okay to put a price on human life. Mark Skousen drives a stake through the heart of taxes on capital. Walter Williams says greed is good. And Randall Holcombe, hearing it said incessantly that the estate tax is fair, protests, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Our reviewers render their verdicts on books about the Internal Revenue Service, the Nazi anti-cancer program, freedom of contract, welfare-state “liberalism,” the future of money, and air pollution.

—Sheldon Richman

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

October 2000

ABOUT

SHELDON RICHMAN

Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and TheFreemanOnline.org, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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