My blog Friday was meant to contrast two attitudes toward the desired role of government—regulating our behavior for our own good (Big Brother), or regulating our behavior when necessary for the protection of third parties. But the more I thought about the cell phones in airplanes issue, the more convoluted it seemed.
There is no evidence, despite lots of testing, of any danger from cell phones, iPads, PCs, etc. for the operations of airplanes. See the article by a WSJ staff reporter: http://www.cs.ccsu.edu/~pelletie/local/news/telecom/Cell_phones_on_planes.html. The Big Brother argument that it protects those of us preferring quite from the conversations of other passengers is also bogus. Not only are people free to carry on conversations with other (willing) passengers, but we have been able to talk to people on the ground from phones in our arm rests for well over two decades. So what is going on? Without denying that many well-meaning, public-spirited people go into government service, the answer seems to lie in the usual place. Government regulations very often come to protect the interests of the incumbent members of the industry being regulation. Most monopoly power of private companies is bestowed by government. Please save me from Big Brother.
The Federal Communications Commission is moving towards allowing the use of cell phones on airplanes. Many of us have known for a long time that their use poses no safety issues (yes the government does sometimes—how shall I say it in a way that will not attract NSA attention—misrepresent things). The FCC’s ruling rests on whether it would be good or nice for us to be able to use them. Whether we want our government to establish rules on what is nice public behavior is one of those issues that help define and reflect differing attitudes toward the desirable (not to mention, because it seems largely irrelevant these days, constitutional) role of government.
As I write this note, it seems that the FCC is moving towards a compromise ruling that would allow the use of phones and other electronic devises (Mac, iPad, etc – yes I am an Apple fan) for internet access to email, text messages, and web surfing but not talking. This strikes me as odd in that it has been possible to do that for some years now. I have used the service (for a fee) to send and receive email on Delta and other planes with the equipment: http://www.gogoair.com/gogo/splash.do. Oh well.
I cringe when people base their views on whether government should control certain behaviors (pot smoking, public profanity, talking lauding in public etc) on whether such behavior is good or bad for the person doing it. For me the test (along with the constitution) is whether my behavior endangers other people. Thus the issue of whether secondary smoke is harmful and if so should be banned in the workplace, for example, is a legitimate public policy concern. The outcome should rest on the facts; is it harmful to third parties or not.
I would not like for people to talk on their cell phones on planes, but am appalled by the idea that the government would not allow airlines to set their own policies in this regard. I don’t like talking on planes in any form. I have not talked to anyone on a plane other than the flight crew for many years. No government ruling caused this or is desired. Somehow I have been able to successfully and without words communicate to anyone next to me that I do not want to talk. My loss, I am sure, but it is fortunately still my choice.
I am reminded of a flight home from a wonderful European vacation with my son, Brandon, years ago. The man and woman behind us were chattering away and their conversation became more and more homophobic. My son finally turned around and said, “Would you please shut up.” Those lobbying the FCC to forbid phone calls on planes should probably include fines for offensive speech on planes or in other public places (the First Amendment be damned). Those, like me, who prefer a more limited, less intrusive government, prefer to rely on common courtesy as it evolves through private interactions. Perhaps because I am the oldest of my siblings I never liked the idea of a Big Brother.