The operation of our culture and commerce depends on at least three of the FCC’s functions.

[Blogmeister’s Note: Despite Blogger Mitchell Lazarus’s use of the editorial “we”, the views expressed in this post are his alone. Others here at FHH may share some or all of his views; some may not. Ditto for our readers. We encourage anyone who agrees or disagrees with Mitchell to let us know by sending along a comment.]

The recent government shutdown was applauded by some who believe that small government is better, and so, by extension, that no government at all must be better still.

That got us to thinking. Not about the whole government, just the piece we know best: the FCC. Suppose the FCC closed for good. Would anybody notice? (Other than us; we’d have to find another line of work.)

In other words: How essential is the FCC to a functioning society?

A lot of what the FCC does has social value, in the eyes of many. But set that aside. Are any of the FCC’s responsibilities not only valuable, but indispensable to how we live?

We wouldn’t ask the question unless we had an answer.

We think the operation of our culture and commerce depends on at least three of the FCC’s functions. Two of these occur mostly outside the public’s view – and perhaps outside the view of those who favor a drastically limited government. All relate to radio communications: not just broadcast, but also two-way radios, cell phones, Wi-Fi, air traffic control, and scores of other applications. Perhaps a modern society can function without radio, but our society could not. And radio cannot effectively function without the FCC exercising these powers:

1.   Licensing. If everybody transmits at once, no one can be heard. The FCC’s licensing authority, and its back-up enforcement powers, limit who can transmit on what frequency so as keep everyone intelligible. To be sure, some argue that wireless carriers perform a similar function among their own subscribers, without governmental authority. But that is possible only because the FCC’s licensing regime keeps third-party interlopers out of the carriers’ frequency bands.

2.   Technical rules. For licensing to work, each radio transmitter must stay on its own frequency and avoid stray emissions on other people’s frequencies. These capabilities make transmitters more expensive. Unchecked market forces favor cheaper transmitters, which cause more interference to others. Similarly, when hobbyists booted up the first “home computers” in the mid-1970s, they brought massive interference to TV reception in their neighborhoods – a matter of little interest to the computer manufacturers because it did not impair sales. The FCC’s technical rules for transmitters and digital devices limit all such interference, keeping the spectrum clean enough for reliable communications. The FCC’s parallel process for equipment approval prevents manufacturers from cutting corners on these rules in search of a pricing advantage.

3.   International treaty negotiations. Radio waves blow right by international boundaries.  Since the advent of commercial radio in the 1920s, countries have routinely worked out treaties with each other to avoid causing and receiving interference. Active U.S. participation continues today with FCC guidance and coordination. Only a national government can conduct these negotiations, because only a national government can sign a treaty that binds the myriad of radio users within its borders.

We don’t mean to disparage everything else the FCC does – just to highlight a few functions without which much of country grinds to a halt. We hope those who favor limited government will respect these – at least if they hope to continue getting Twitter updates on their phones. Of course, some may have different views as to which FCC activities are essential. Others might argue that the functions above can be implemented by private concerns. Please let us know what you think. By U.S. mail, if necessary.