A Jeffersonian take on the Internet and T
Government’s job is leveling the playing field
THE IDEA OF American democracy has its roots in the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that people are entitled to the benefits of certain unalienable rights – rights that are so integral to the notion of humanity that they cannot be taken away. Jefferson did not list all such rights, but famously named three of them: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It isn’t that difficult to understand what life and liberty mean, but what’s “the pursuit of happiness”?
Let’s stipulate that the “pursuit of happiness,” in this context, doesn’t mean the ability to binge-watch a new Netflix series. Rather, it is a highly nuanced idea with deep roots in the thinking of the great philosophers coming out of the Scottish Enlightenment who considered “happiness” a moral imperative that government must effectively respond to. The historian and author Garry Wills delved into the meaning of this phrase in his book Inventing America. Wills takes us on a journey through 18th century semantics, noting that the term “happiness” had a clearly understood meaning that has been lost over time. For Jefferson and for others of his era who were debating notions of freedom and independence, happiness encompassed a moral approach to governance, one that expected government to respond to and promote, in the words of the philosopher Francis Hutcheson, “the natural good of every individual.” This was a direct response to the prevailing form of governance of that time, the absolute monarchies and systems of hereditary rank and privilege that dominated Europe and much of the world.
Promoting the natural good of every individual is an idea that casts a broad net, but at its core is the notion that government ought to provide its citizens with a level playing field, with equal opportunity and access enabling them to meet their individual aspirations and succeed. This is not a notion of government as a nanny state, nor is it inconsistent with a culture of personal achievement based upon hard work, personal sacrifice, and commitment. What it is, writ large in our nation’s founding document, is a recognition that government’s role is to ensure equality of opportunity.
What does that mean for us today? If Jefferson could be transported to 2015, and challenged to fit his 18th century notion of the “pursuit of happiness” to the realities and needs of our time, he might focus his attention on two words: Connectivity and Access.
The power of the Internet to shape our lives illuminates the great challenge of our time: to ensure that people across the great economic divide are given an equal and fair chance to get ahead. The net neutrality debate is informed by profit-making, but at bottom it is a debate about connectivity and access, basically whether the Internet will become the equivalent of a mobility system that contains only congested highways and Lexus lanes, where only the privileged few get a chance for a faster ride, or whether it will reflect a more egalitarian approach that (continuing with the mobility metaphor) offers people reasonably equal, reliable multimodal mobility choices.
Net neutrality establishes a level playing field for the Internet, an important precedent that puts the brakes on an Internet-delivery paradigm that offers the best, most reliable connectivity to a privileged few who can afford a higher price. Without net neutrality, the monopolies that provide Internet service would be able to hold many citizens hostage to service limitations created artificially to enhance revenue and shareholder return. But there is a growing consensus that access to the Internet shouldn’t be viewed as a commodity item to be priced, like a dishwasher or a car. It is rather (or ought to be) a fundamental right in an egalitarian society. So too, I contend, is a multimodal mobility system.
Access to opportunity must be delivered on a level playing field. Access to the same quality of fast and reliable Internet connectivity, like access to reliable and safe public transportation, is something so fundamental to upward mobility in our time that it embodies, at least in part, a basic element of a high quality of life. When Comcast derides net neutrality as a throwback to FDR-era regulation of the telephone industry, it exposes its own rejection of the fundamental premise of the New Deal-era Communications Act of 1934: that the nation’s communications system must be affordable and accessible to everyone on a reasonably equal basis. Similarly, when policy makers deride strategic transit expansions as unaffordable luxuries, they are exposing their own rejection of a transportation system that provides full access to as many people as possible.
I see the net neutrality debate as a counterpart to the emerging debate about a more fair approach to multimodal mobility. The underpinnings are the same: how do we provide people with equality of connectivity and access? The Internet and our transportation system are critical connectivity platforms that enable us to achieve a high quality of life in the 21st century – they are fundamental to our pursuit of happiness. Access to the Internet, like mobility access to places (jobs, school, health care, entertainment), is a sine qua non for equal opportunity. These forms of access do not guarantee success but they give you a sporting chance to reach your goals. As Marc Brenman, co-author of the book The Right to Transportation: Moving to Equity, recently said in a Slate article on transportation equity: “One of the stories we tell ourselves in the narrative of the United States is about social and physical mobility. You can’t have either of those kinds of mobility without an equitable transportation system.”
It makes a difference to the quality of your life if you are waiting on a rail platform with no reliable information about when the next train will arrive, or how long your trip will take. It makes a difference if a train pulls into the station and you cannot get on board because it arrives packed to the gills. It makes a difference to your ability to get to work if the Silver Line doesn’t connect directly to Logan’s Blue Line station. It makes a difference if you have a sick child and are taking the Blue Line to Mass General, and the subway leaves you a mile away because we haven’t yet connected it to the Red Line. If the public transportation system lacks connectivity and access, it is no different than a slow Internet service – those depending on it will quickly fall behind. And the opportunity gap will grow, a festering open sore that threatens ultimately to undermine everything that we are supposed to stand for and care about as a nation built on the premise that the pursuit of happiness meant a government that would, in all events, respond to and promote every person’s “natural good.”
The current debate in the Commonwealth about how to “fix” the MBTA is really a debate about whether we see clearly the need to move away from old ways of thinking about our transportation system. The system that placed disproportionate emphasis on funding and building highways roads and bridges is giving way to the demands of a population that wants a quality multi-modal mobility platform. That platform can have private sector components, but in order to be truly egalitarian it must essentially be a government-funded program, because there are many aspects to mobility that simply cannot ever be justified through the lens of a profit and loss statement. That has always been the case. For example, it is important to remember that in the 20th century most intercity passenger rail service was provided by the private sector. When that was no longer a profitable enterprise, the private sector abandoned the service (but not the valuable rail rights-of-way that had been granted to them for virtually nothing by the government), and it was replaced by Amtrak (on a national level) and public or public/private enterprises at the regional or local levels (our commuter rail system being a good example of that). So when you are thinking about our commuter rail system and the level of public investment required to make it a more reliable service, keep in mind that government’s role is a direct byproduct of the private sector’s decision to abandon the service because it had become unprofitable.
Government can’t make decisions about mobility investment on the basis of profitability. Government exists to help all citizens enjoy the pursuit of happiness, and in this case that means equality of mobility, which is in essence equality of access to jobs, health care, and education. Government must commit itself to funding a system that responds to people’s mobility needs in a first-rate, not second- or third-rate, manner. We don’t need to increase taxes, fees, or fares to get this started. As I have previously written, the resources are there, they just need to be restructured (in the case of debt) and shifted and adjusted away from the auto-centric approach that fueled transportation funding and investment in the last century and toward a more robust multimodal mobility platform.
James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.