One of the most egregious violations of the First Amendment is the federal government’s ownership of radio and television wavelengths. I suspect that most people have probably never thought about this, so it’s not surprising that more people aren’t angry.

The factors utilized in production are land, labor and capital. The important distinction here is between capital and land — land is the physical space and whatever natural resources happen to be located there whereas capital is the stuff put on to that space. When one goes to a restaurant, most of what you see is capital (chairs, tables, even the building itself), while the land is the fixed space of earth.

In strict economic terms, radio waves fall under the category of land. They may not be a fixed part of the earth, but they have a definite capital value. Just as we need a mine to access copper in the earth, we need a radio transmitter to access the radio spectrum. Just as copper has value in the production of wire, a radio station can sell time to advertisers by garnering a large listening audience. When copper is in high demand, the value of copper will rise and the value of the mine increases. The more people listening to a particular station, the higher the value of the advertising spot.

Suppose the federal government owned all the land in the United States that were rich in copper. The government would then lease out the land to certain producers as long as they promised to operate according to certain standards. Maybe these standards would include selling half the copper to the government or supporting certain political campaigns. If the copper miners refused, they would be shut down. People would vehemently object to this, labeling it as communism or fascism.

Why, then, do people not raise objections to the communication industry when it’s in nearly the same situation? Each radio or television station applies for a license from the Federal Communications Commission and agrees to follow certain rules about airing nudity or profanity. The same principle is at work.

There are two reasons generally given to justify the government’s involvement in communications. The first is that the number of radio frequencies is limited — there is a natural limit on how many stations can exist without interfering with one another, necessitating government involvement to decide who gets a frequency. But this doesn’t make sense because every resource is limited. By the same logic, the government could nationalize everything from wheat to iron to oil. There is a limited amount of land on earth, and even less that can be used for production.

The solution for radio stations should be the same as with any other limited resource. The first person at a certain frequency would own that unit of radio frequency. If someone began interfering with that frequency, the owner would have the right to handle the situation as if someone were trespassing on private property. The free market has a natural system of self-regulation — if the station began broadcasting radical viewpoints, it could lose customers. This loss in customers would mean a lower capital value and, consequently, less revenue for advertisements, eventually dooming the broadcaster.

The second reason used to justify government intervention is the mentality that we need government to protect people from bad things. But it’s impossible to protect children from everything, and the most likely outcome of a free media is more parental supervision of children’s habits, which would certainly be a good thing. The greater danger of the current mentality is that it leads to a suppression of free speech. The FCC controls the licensing of TV and radio stations — if a station upsets the FCC, it gets in trouble.

What if these rules were the same for newspapers? The government would own the paper’s right to distribute while the paper would own the actual presses. Any time a paper or magazine said anything too “radical,” it could immediately be shut down by the government. This would be considered fascism of the worst sort, but that is what’s happening right now with radio and TV stations.

The right to a free press can only exist with private property rights. If one can’t own one’s product, then there is no incentive for improvement or innovation. Owning the right to a frequency is just as important as owning a transmitter or web page to spread news and entertainment.

Vincent Patsy can be reached at vapatsy@umich.edu.

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