Among the prevailing civic religions currently animating American political life, perhaps none is as long-lived as that of unfettered capitalism. A bit long in the tooth compared to its heyday during the Reagan years, the notion that government is the enemy of both individual liberty and economic freedom nevertheless remains a firmly established part of our mythology.
So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I read Paul Starr’s “The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications,” his 2004 book on why American media have, for better or worse, come to dominate the world. Because Starr – a Princeton University scholar who is co-editor of the American Prospect – argues persuasively that the US culture industry is such a success story not because of unfettered capitalism, but because of traditional liberalism.
By traditional liberalism, I mean not the laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century, nor the pseudo-socialism with which liberalism is too often confused today. Rather, I’m talking about the political philosophy that prevailed for much of the 20th century, and especially between the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – that is, the belief in a mixed economy of capitalism and regulation, enhanced with some intelligent government policies about how best to improve society.
The phrase that Starr uses over and over again is “constitutive choices” – decisions made at an early point that have had far-reaching consequences over time. For instance, Starr explains the rise of the American newspaper industry, and its eventual dominance over the British, Canadian and European press, as the result of a number of conscious and semi-conscious decisions. To wit:
– In other Western societies, government has taxed the press. By contrast, from the time of the rebellion against the Stamp Act of 1765, the US government has not only not taxed the press, but it has also provided various tax incentives.
– A cheap, professional and reliable US Post Office, with special rates for newspapers, led to an inexpensive, extensive distribution network.
– Universal education, for the masses as well as for the elite, created an involved citizenry eager for the news provided by the early media.
– Government-subsidized roads and canals created additional distribution channels.
Starr offers example after example to bolster his thesis. For instance, magazines, which became the principal organ for investigative reporting in the last quarter of the 19th century, only took off after postal policies were changed to make the business more lucrative. In the early 20th century, the Supreme Court for the first time started putting some teeth into the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment, thus establishing the Constitution as a countervailing force at a time of rising business and governmental giantism. In the 1920s, then-secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover’s policies paved the way for a privately owned, publicly regulated radio industry, a regime that was later extended to television.
Starr seems troubled by this last development. Although he notes that the US had at least managed to avoid the government monopoly that prevailed in Europe, broadcast regulations – promulgated on the theory that the airwaves are a finite, privately owned resource – have prevented radio and television stations from enjoying the same First Amendment protections as their print counterparts. At the same time, the early bias toward commercial broadcasting (Starr notes that government regulations actually referred to nonprofit stations run by universities, religious groups and the like as “propaganda” stations) prevented the creation of modern public radio until the late 1960s.
In his summing-up, Starr writes:
STARR: The market, even when its products are distasteful, is a continual stimulus to innovation outside the market and in reaction to it. In a dynamic sense, markets in liberal societies enrich the public sphere far more than they impoverish it. If, however, all were left to the market – if government had not promoted communications networks, the press, education, and innovation while attempting to check tendencies toward excessive concentrations of power – the public sphere would be poor indeed. Our public life is a hybrid of capitalism and democracy, and we are better off for it, as long as the democratic side is able to keep the balance.
If that isn’t a good working definition of traditional liberalism, I don’t know what is.
Here, by the way, is an insightful review of “The Creation of the Media” written by James Fallows for the New York Times Book Review.
One obvious question raised by Starr’s book is this: What constitutive choices do we face today that might have long-range effects on the media that will be used by our children and beyond? Certainly the deregulatory stance taken by the FCC in recent years is worth examining, although that’s mainly about managing the death of Old Media.
My candidate for a constitutive choice we’ve got to get right is making sure that the broadband Internet – and its faster and more robust successors – remain wide open. Powerful business interests would love nothing better than to privatize these networks, banning rivals from using or charging them exorbitant rates, and favoring their own content over those of independents.
The organization that’s doing the most to ensure an open Internet is the Center for Digital Democracy, headed by the indefatigable Jeff Chester. Paul Starr has shown how crucial it was in the past to get it right. It’s just as important that we get it right in the future.