The Registry of No Authority

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(Tip of the hat to Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

The problem of spam email and telemarketers are somewhat similar, in that both take advantage of useful forms of communication to annoy individuals with unwanted communication. The inconveniences on an individual-by-individual basis, though, aren?t usually enough to provoke someone into doing something about the spam or telemarketers, while the payoff for spam and telemarketing is good enough to continue even with an extraordinarily low hit rate. In other words, the cost imposed by the spam/telemarketer is less than the cost (in time and energy) to do something about it, and the benefit of spam and telemarketing currently exceeds the cost of doing so.

In both cases, a centralized, government program has been proposed to solve the problems, in the form of an opt-out registry, and in the case of telemarketers one has just been set up. By fiat, the government will force telemarketers to stop calling those on the list it will compile, and that (they say), will be the end of that. No muss, no fuss, just a decree and a bureaucracy & voila. What are believers in small government to do? Jonah Goldberg, an individual that should know better, engages in some hand-wringing about being ?ideologically torn?:

I have to admit I am ideologically torn about the phone registry but pragmatically delighted by it. I would be even more delighted to see a really good libertarian argument on the subject. But I don't want to hear how it's a bad idea. I want to know how the free market would solve this problem without demanding citizens jump through endless hoops. I understand that sometimes -- often -- it would be better for citizens to jump through hoops rather than ask the government to solve their problems. But in terms of practical politics it's very difficult to ask them to if the alternative is government provided convenience.

Kevin Drum of Calpundit chimes in, and gloats that the conservative Goldberg can?t figure a way around the bad old bureaucracy- ?[y]esterday's exchange is just a micro example of the bankruptcy of this view, and a rather desperate attempt to avoid the obvious conclusion that the easiest, best, and cheapest way to deal with this problem is, indeed, the ossified bureaucracy of the federal government.? But is it true? To assume that the National Do-Not-Call registry is the easiest, best, and cheapest way to deal with the problem is to assume that this particular federal program will: (a) work entirely as advertised; (b) not have political shenanigans involved that would thwart part (a); and (c) will not have cost overruns or waste, and will instead work at the highest level of efficiency.

Unfortunately for the registry?s boosters, there are already a few snags in the system- there is no security on the process (anyone can register, or unregister a phone number at will, without verification), and already there are critical exemptions built into the system that threaten to make the whole thing next to useless. From the FAQ, it reads that ?You may still receive calls from political organizations, charities, telephone surveyors or companies with which you have an existing business relationship.? In my case, this registry will stop next to none of the telemarketing calls I get (almost always from charities asking for my cash, or from banks affiliated with credit card companies, who most assuredly will fall under the ?existing business relationship? clause). I am sure this will be true for many, many others who sign up. And unfortunately, while they may think that the annoying calls they get from AT&T, Citibank, the Policeman?s Charity, and other businesses they?ve patronized in the past will go away (95% of the problem), this new registry will do nothing. A typical political ?solution? - make a big show in the Rose Garden and hope that nobody looks behind the curtain and reads the fine print. I can see the regulatory capture already, as big banks, phone companies, and other preferred industries conspire to regulate telemarketing in such a way that small businesses are screwed out of the game, while the annoying calls continue apace.

Already we can see that this registry is not going to do what the boosters claim it will. Between the political exemptions for preferred donor classes, and unethical telemarketers that would exploit the poor security of the process to take all of their target individuals off the list, and you have the makings of (yet another) government boondoggle. Although the new federal workers that will no doubt be hired to run the program will be thankful for the extra taxpayer dollars.

So what is the solution, then? To answer Jonah?s question, the solution is to lower the cost of individually blocking calls below the threshold of annoyance (so that the cost for doing nothing is higher than acting). Once this happens, the problem will be solved on an individual basis (the cheaper the cost of blocking, the more people will choose it). The march of technological progress has already created increasingly inexpensive gadgets and services to block unwanted calls, and more and more individuals are taking advantage. The natural course of the market will make such blocking easier and easier (and even telephone companies will see that offering blocking technologies and services will be lucrative), making the need for a central database and bureaucracy obsolete.

The reason to say no to these kinds of ?solutions? is that they are not solutions at all- it?s an illusion of convenience that changes nothing but the bottom line for the government?s budget. Conservative, or more accurately Classical Liberal ideology doesn't "deny that there is any legitimate form of human decision making other than free market forces." The problem is that human decision making is best expressed in what we call the market, since indeed the market IS the expression of human decision making. Knowledge is dispersed among individuals, and even in the best of circumstances (a completely pure, efficient, and incorruptible bureacracy, for example), central planners and bureaucrats are never privy to the information available to each individual. There are legitimate non-market decision making mechanisms, but the further a decision is from the individual, the less efficient the outcome, a priori.

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I have to agree with

I have to agree with Goldberg on this one.

This is one of the few instances where the govt has to regulate because it is an infringement of our rights to constantly get harassed by telemarketers throughout the day. The older you get the worse it becomes.

Telemarketers and spam are analogous to door-to-door salesmen of my childhood. The solution in Brian's post is to let technology help citizens block unwanted behavior. Unfortunately, technology is on the side of those willing to pay more for it. For every blocking technology there will be a new anti-blocking and/or go-around technology used by the telemarketers that is more efficient than the solution.

In the case of spam, the govt can't do anything about it because the technology is too difficult to control. But for telemarketers, the govt can do something and is the only one who can do something. A private company's do-not-call registry would hold no water with telemarketers because they could never fine the callers. Going to the source is the only way to solve the problem.

Of course the govt will have its screw ups in implementing the plan as it always does.

So far there is nothing to

So far there is nothing to suggest a "counter" scheme is in effect- the blocking mechanisms of Call ID, for example, have been around for almost 10 years now, and are just as effective now as then (you raise the cost of trying to get you beyond the benefit, so they don't bother).

Remember, of course, that whether or not you think government is "right" to intervene, this particular intervention isn't going to work, by design. And I would add that central plans are more likely to be thwarted by those it's trying to stop than decentralized technologies, since with a central plan only one solution is needed for all, but with decentralized defense, the solution must be applied freshly for each individual.

Eventually, the costs of trying to telemarket would rise beyond the benefits, as benefits would drop inversely with the number of people employing blocking technology- sort of like "herd immunity", telemarketers would have to plan for each individual having blocking technology, no matter how many actually have it (lest their success rate drop).

One cannot "go to the source" to stop the problem, just as one cannot "go to the source" to stop SARS or AIDS or any other kind of disease that exists in the world but manifests itself only among individuals. There is not one big SARS dragon to slay; there is not one "source" of telemarketing to eliminate. Change can only come from the individual level, which is why this whole process is a sham.

Seems to me you don't need

Seems to me you don't need to add pages to the federal register, just that the courts need to recognize the property rights of the phone owner. Getting rid of the ancient regulation that says you do not own your own phone would help as well. Problem is that is not in the interest of the telcos who have congress in their pocket.

Dave, Seems to me you don't

Dave,

Seems to me you don't need to add pages to the federal register, just that the courts need to recognize the property rights of the phone owner.

Seems like the common law vs. legislation dichotomy again.

Getting rid of the ancient regulation that says you do not own your own phone would help as well.

I knew about mailboxes, but I wasn't aware of this. Any more info?

Twice i have worked as a

Twice i have worked as a telemarketer, for two different companies. And although i live in canada and cannot speak for how its done in America, I recall that people being harassed by us certainly did have a method of reprive that had nothing to do with federal laws or boondoggles. They simply threatened to sue us in civil court, anbd we immedietly cut them off our dailing lists. It worked, and we were absolutely not allowed to call back anyone who made such a warning. No silly, inflexible, and cumbersome law, only the threat of a civil lawsuit.