Sunday, November 15, 2009

Self-Corrections in Markets and Journalism

Tibor R. Machan

In the American legal tradition the press may not be regulated, nor may religion. No one would maintain, though, that these are flawless institutions, not by a long shot. At The New York Times, for example, scandals over the years prove the point and there is no end to how badly some of the clergy can behave.

Yet few would insist, especially among the editors and columnists at The Times, that to handle these malpractices what is needed is some kind of government regulatory remedy. I certainly have never read anything in The Times recommending such supervision or oversight. Instead, what The Times does is exactly what it dismisses as useless when it comes to remedying problems in markets; it uses its public editor to propose self-regulation; He is an ombudsman, in house at the paper, who writes reprimands and suggests various corrective measures that then, hopefully, help the paper stay on the right side of various aspects journalism.

But of course such self-knowledge isn't what The Times likes to invoke as it scolds everybody in the market place, no. When it comes to other professionals in society, The Times doesn't hesitate to advocate the equivalent of censorship, namely, government regulation. Indeed, its editors and columnists constantly fail to see that what they take for granted, namely, an unregulated arena of journalistic operations, is not something others in the society may enjoy. Those at The Times--as well as at many, many other newspapers--evidently believe they are mature and disciplined enough to engage in self-regulation but others, outside their media operations are too inept, too childlike, to enjoy the same rights.

And such blatant inconsistency is not unusual at The Times. In a recent column of his ("Free to Lose," November 13, 2009), Krugman wrote that policies to promote "job sharing" are "worthy of consideration" in order to remedy the country's unemployment problems. To this absurd idea Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University responded with characteristically impeccable logic:

"Let's start at the New York Times. I know several PhD economists currently without jobs (and certainly without regular newspaper columns). I propose that Times Co. chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. reduce Mr. Krugman's presence on the page to, say, one column per year. The remaining hundred or so columns that Mr. Krugman would otherwise have written for the NYT can be written by unemployed economists."

Do you believe there is any chance at all that Professor Krugman will bite the bullet and take Professor Boudreaux's suggestion to heart? Do you think the editors who give Professor Krugman his space in The Times will heed the advice to remedy employment problems in the press by having the good Princeton Professor, who is already holding down several different jobs, to participate in job sharing? If you do, I have this bridge in New York I would like to sell you.

Government regulation is nothing but a version of prior restraint, an imposition of burdens on market agents that they have done nothing to deserve, something that in the criminal law is forbidden by due process! Moreover, government regulation simply places some citizens in power over others, something that is clearly prohibited by the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution that mandates treating all citizens as equal under the law.

To have a bunch of bureaucrats look over the shoulders of various professionals, all of the U. S. citizens, and order them to do this and that without their having been proven guilty of any criminal conduct, is plain unjust. And the folks at The New York Times would never stand for it in their work. But they routinely advocate more and more government regulation professionals outside of journalism and the clergy. They appear to be totally blind to just how inconsistent this is and how, indeed, the U. S. Constitution is itself inconsistent by permitting government regulation of nearly every other profession not protected by the First Amendment.

It would be interesting if this subject would be broached on the pages of The Times, say in an Op Ed column. But please do not hold your breath.

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