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On Net-cruelty

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Geoffrey Manne rightly applauds Facebook’s offering of Free Basics (“a ‘zero-rated’ service that allows users to access Facebook – and other useful websites – without incurring data charges”) which has given Internet access to millions of poor people (“Since When Is Free Web Access A Bad Thing?” Jan. 29).  Yet as Mr. Manne explains, ‘net-neutralicists’ object; they demand that service providers be forced to charge one, flat price for access to all of these providers’ services and content.

Mr. Manne’s essay prompts me to imagine what the world would look like if ‘food-neutralicists’ were similarly on the loose:

A hungry woman dying of thirst in the desert is approached by an entrepreneur who offers her unlimited quantities of bottles of water and a selection of snacks, all at a price of $0.  No strings attached.  The entrepreneur also informs the woman that, if she wishes, he’ll sell to her a seven-course meal (champagne included) for $100.  A moment later an armed regulator shows up.  Offering nothing to anyone but diktats, the regulator orders the entrepreneur to cease and desist this practice of differential pricing.  Unless the entrepreneur offers to the woman access at one, flat price to all that he sells, the entrepreneur must not offer the woman anything.

Uncertain of the woman’s willingness to pay enough for a seven-course meal (champagne included) – and unable to afford to supply such a meal free of charge – the entrepreneur leaves the scene, giving the woman nothing.  The woman soon dies as the regulator boasts of his magnanimity at having protected her access to “food-neutrality.”

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030