Does Microsoft Have the Power to Break Up the Government?
OCTOBER 01, 2000 by SHELDON RICHMAN
“Microsoft and the government were the perfect opponents. The government has some power, but Microsoft has at least as much. Anyone else facing either one of them would be overmatched.”
That is not some comedian’s line. It was spoken in all seriousness, I presume, by David Boies, who led the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Microsoft. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up in the June 9 New York Times.
Mr. Boies’s self-serving remark sets off a flurry of thoughts. But the essential comment comes from Steven Yates, who writes for this magazine. When I e-mailed him the quotation, he quickly wrote back, “Has anyone pointed out that while the federal government has the power to break up Microsoft, Microsoft does not have the authority to break up the federal government?”
The other side of that question is that the federal government has achieved its monopoly through the use of force, while Microsoft has achieved its dominant position—it is not a monopoly—through voluntary exchange. We may infer much from these two methods of dealing with people.
Microsoft must have offered all the people who bought its products the best alternative in the marketplace. It doesn’t matter that for some techies Windows doesn’t measure up to an operating system ideal. It lets regular people get their work and play done more easily and economically—in their estimation—than anything else they could have bought. If something else comes along that is so much better that it justifies a switch, they’ll switch.
It’s a peaceful process, where people have to offer one another benefits before they deal. No one can force someone else to buy or sell what he does not wish to buy or sell.
Now let’s look at the government, which Mr. Boies says has no more power—and perhaps less; re-read the quotation—than Microsoft. If you don’t do what the government says, it has the legal authority to compel you. It doesn’t treat you like a sovereign consumer. It treats you like a subject. It can take your property. It can take your liberty. If you resist, it can take your life.
The last I checked, it was Bill Clinton, not Bill Gates, who ran such an organization.
* * *
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