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When the Violent Attack the Peaceful

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In the topsy-turvy world of Washington, D.C., the federal government is a friend of competition and Microsoft its mortal enemy. To appreciate this fully, keep in mind that the government forbids competition with its activities (beginning with delivery of first-class mail), while Microsoft has rivals at every turn.

Yet Microsoft, not the federal government, is on the chopping block.

Through federalism the Founding Fathers nobly attempted to prevent a central government monopoly; they put explicit barriers in the Constitution. The states and localities were to compete with each other in most government matters, a process calculated to protect individual liberty by keeping governments small and unintrusive. But Washington has ignored those rules for many years and has progressively usurped state and local powers and individual rights. Its monopolistic behavior does not win the attention of the antitrust lawyers, who know on which side their bread is buttered.

Instead they go after Microsoft. What is its crime?

It, along with Intel, has been so good at satisfying consumers in the potentially confounding computer market that millions of people contentedly use its Windows operating system and its applications software. The large user base-achieved, one shouldn’t have to point out, purely through consensual transactions-has made it worthwhile for many independent software and hardware firms to bring a dazzling array of products to the marketplace, something that would not have happened in a world of many competing, incompatible operating systems. Walk into any computer store, scan the shelves, and say to yourself what Janet Reno’s Justice [sic] Department and Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson say they believe: “Microsoft has stifled innovation and competition.” As Groucho Marx might say, Who are you going to believe, the government or your eyes?

Let us concede a point here. In making Windows more and more useful and simple for consumers, Microsoft has given rival companies a hard time. After all, if a new version of Windows contains good Web-browsing or sound and video capabilities, there will be a smaller market for independent producers of programs that do the same thing. Some firms will go out of business. Let’s remember, however, that Microsoft’s most prominent “victim,” Netscape, was worth $10 billion to America Online, not exactly evidence that Microsoft vanquished Netscape in the much-publicized browser war. But yes, conceded: some Microsoft rivals have disappeared because Windows has included more features with each upgrade.

This is a crime in America? This justifies forcibly breaking up a private company and denying people their honestly acquired property? Tell me again why some people don’t want Elián Gonzalez to return to Cuba.

Indeed, it is a crime in America for a business to become so good that it has a comparative advantage over others in making our lives easier.

What the Microsoft bashers don’t care about is, first, that Gates & Co. got where they are entirely by peaceful means. Second, the breakup “remedy” is intrinsically violent . What if Gates were to refuse to cooperate in the dismemberment of his life’s work? The ensuing Reno raid would make the Little Havana incident pale in comparison.

Shouldn’t government violence be used exclusively to defend life, limb, and property from other violence? Show me a victim-not in the absurd antitrust sense; a real victim-of Microsoft’s activity. I see many beneficiaries, but no victims.

The government’s violent proposal doesn’t even make sense on its face. If Microsoft is divided into an operating-system company and an applications company, and if the operating-system company is forced to share its code with all who want it, the incentive to create a rival operating system will diminish. But the government says it wants to “bootstrap” competition in the operating-system market! If the applications firm makes Microsoft Office compatible with the Linux operation system, other applications may never be developed.

We are staring into the frightening maw of arrogant power. Men posing as friends of competition wish to use violence against the peaceful and the creative. This is regarded as lawful, and in a narrow sense unfortunately it is. The antitrust laws have always been special-interest, anti-consumer hammers for pounding innovative and efficient firms into submission, but their purpose has long been shrouded in gobbledygook. If the people, most of whom favor Microsoft, understood that those laws are by nature inimical to their interests, they’d be screaming for their repeal.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.