Microsoft and social policy (Re: Bill Gates and Nuclear Weapons)

Ernest Prabhakar (
Tue, 28 Oct 97 21:04:02 PST

As always, my point seems to have vanished somewhere between my
brain, my mouth, my listener's mouth, and the listener's brain.

Begin forwarded message:

> From: Seth Golub <>
> Ernest Prabhakar <> writes:
> > Is there anyone on this list who does NOT believe that computing
> > could easily be 2000% better than it currently is?
> Sure. All we need is a brilliant and benevolent dictator to oversee
> and enforce the adoption of arbitrary protocols.

Well yes, that's Rohits job.
> > Is there anyone who thinks a MS-only world is the best way to get
> > there?
> I certainly don't, but I don't believe that government intervention is
> the best way to achieve a diverse marketplace.

I wouldn't claim it is in general the best way, but I would argue
that - at least in principle - it may be the only way.
> > Microsoft is a great competitor - let them compete! But let the
> > rest of us compete, too.
> We are all being allowed to compete. We're just not doing very well
> at it, because of Microsoft's superior position in the marketplace.

True enough.
> No one is forced to buy MS products; no one is forced to package them
> with their PCs. Other companies are free to offer competing
> products.

I think the problem is that your statement is only partly true. If
you want to be a PC vendor (which Apple, in all honestly, really
isn't) you have to license Windows. What you are claiming is that
if someone wants to make a PC, it is okay if Microsoft makes them
follow whatever rules it feels like.
> I think it's ironic that many people are cheering for the country's
> largest monopoly, the federal government, in a battle against
> Microsoft.

For all its flaws, the government has at least a notional
responsibility to protect consumer rights. Microsoft has only a
responsibility to provie return for its shareholders. If Microsoft
was protecting its monopoly by, say, shooting all the product
marketers at Apple, would you think it was unfair of the goverment to

> > Or do you think we have not gained anything in innovation by
> > breaking up AT&T?
> Is that the only measure of justification?

Not at all. However, it was this precise issue which the WSJ was
attacking - that there was nothing to gain by breaking up monopolies.
That the world of Microsoft was 1000% better than what went before,
and any competition could only make it 1002% better. This premise I
found ridiculous.

If the WSJ had taken Seth's principled approach - that antitrust is
not a business government should be in - I would not have made the
argument I did. In fact, I probably wouldn't have said anything,
since that is an issue of political science, not technology. Which I
generally don't feel qualified to comment upon.

However, now that the question of politics has arisen...

> Am I allowed to meddle
> with your life, dictating major changes without your consent, if I
> think it will result in more happiness for more people? I suspect you
> wouldn't trust me to do so, but you appear to trust appointed
> officials to wreak sweeping changes of this nature. This disturbs me
> far more than Microsoft's current dominance of the software market.

Um, have you never heard of Hobbes' writings on the social contract,
or do you merely choose to ignore them? The whole point of
government is that we give up certain freedoms in order to gain
protection from others, whose freedom is limited in way that prevents
them from hurting me. I empower the government to restrict me in
exchange for it restricting others.

Obviously this is a slippery slope, and one where the boundary needs
to be carefully drawn. This is why we have a Bill of Rights, after
all. It sounds like you are arguing that the government has no
more right to take action than a private citizen, but I presume you
are really arguing that antitrust is one of those areas the
government should not be allowed to intrude.

If that is the case, I'd be interested in hearing your argument.
All companies have a built-in incentive to gain a monopoly and erect
barriers to competition, stifling innovation and charging non-market
prices. This is a classic market failure, resulting in sub-optimal
distribution. Even most hard-core free marketers would agree this is
a valid reason for intervention, although they'd certainly argue
about when it was called for.

But let's say you don't really care if anyone gets a monopoly. But
I do. Let's put this in the case of a small town, like one of those
western boom towns where the evil storekeeper was burning down the
heroine's father's competing store. So I get together with my
friends, and we organize everyone to prevent this from happening. We
get together a few hundred people at a grass-roots level, and
elected a committee that appoints a sherrif.

Would you object to that? According to your argument, as it stands,
that sherrif has no more right to meddle in my life than any other
private citizen. By my argument, he is - at least in principle - an
authorized representative of the will of the people. But the only
difference is a matter of scale. That is the essence of
respresentative democracy, after all. Is it only the scale that
bothers you? Do you believe accountability completely breaks down at
the large level?Or is it just this particular case that you find
silly? And if so, why?

-- Ernie P.