Viral Incentives: Technoauthoritarians Thrive on Your Fear

Last month the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust heard testimony from the CEOs of four companies on whom we’ve all become more dependent lately: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The irony of doing this in the midst of ongoing lockdowns was not lost on a friend who wrote, “Statist chutzpah reaches another low when the legislature that wants you to stay home grills Bezos, the man making this possible.”

Whatever your opinion of Bezos and the others, there is something more ironic, still, considering the purpose of the grillfest: to examine the “dominance” of these companies. Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler compared their role—their services, he said, were “one way or another” effectively required in order to use the Internet today—to that of railroad companies in the 19th century:

By virtue of controlling essential infrastructure, these companies have the ability to control access to markets. In some basic ways, the problem is not unlike what we faced 130 years ago, when railroads transformed American life—both enabling farmers and producers to access new markets, but also creating a key chokehold that the railroad monopolies could exploit.

And so, just as the railroads were powerful monopolies that must be forcibly broken up, so presumably must these four. Upon hearing this, any good capitalist can immediately identify an important disanalogy: the railroads were government-created monopolies. Four of the five transcontinental railroads were built with government assistance. Not so for Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google, right?