Eric D. Dixon

The Southeast Missourian has an article today on broadband access in rural areas. The piece reports, "Since 2002, USDA Rural Development has administered a program that gives loans to broadband Internet service providers to install service in unserved or underserved rural areas," but that misuse of these funds in non-rural communities has led some in Congress to question the program.

Broadband Internet has become an indispensable part of life for me — essential to work, recreation, shopping, staying informed, paying bills, playing games, staying in touch with friends — so I can understand wanting to spread the technology to underserved areas. High-speed Internet access is simply useful, in a wide variety of ways. But it's not a problem that requires a government solution.

The economist David D. Friedman briefly described the concept of "opportunity sets" in his book Price Theory: An Intermediate Text:

Your problem as a consumer is to choose among the various bundles of goods and services you could purchase or produce with your limited resources of time and money. There are two elements to the problem--your preferences and your opportunity set. Your preferences could be represented by a gigantic table showing all possible bundles--collections of goods and services that you could conceivably consume--and showing for every pair of bundles which one you prefer. We assume that your preferences are consistent; if you prefer A to B and B to C, you also prefer A to C. Your opportunity set can be thought of as a list containing every bundle that you have enough money to buy. Your problem as a consumer is to decide which of the bundles in your opportunity set you prefer.

When people decide where they're going to live, they choose between a variety of opportunity sets, each of which contains some combination of positive and negative factors. A house's low price may be seen as a positive factor, while its low quality of construction, or risky surrounding neighborhood, may be seen as a negative. A group of friendly neighbors may be mitigated by their unkempt yards or loud music at night. And the pastoral beauty, seclusion and relative safety of rural life might have other drawbacks — distance from the nearest hospital, perhaps, or a limited selection of stores and restaurants. It may also have fewer (or no) options for broadband Internet access.

It's not clear that any of this is a problem for government to solve. I may have hundreds of great reasons to live in the country, but there are always going to be drawbacks. There's no reason limited Internet access should be treated as more of a government concern than, say, the lack of good Thai food or multiplex movie theaters. Similarly, the fact that I choose to live in an urban area, with access to a wide range of things to do, doesn't mean the government should try make my life a little better by tearing down a few buildings to install an artificial lake next to my apartment. Lack of immediate access to nature is one of the drawbacks of my otherwise favorable opportunity set, and it's simply not government's job to fix it.

I have a friend in rural Idaho who depends on broadband Internet access for his telecommuting job. None of his options were entirely reliable, so his solution was to pay multiple providers for different kinds of high-speed service — and he can always revert to dial-up in a pinch. It's more expensive that way, but he's taken responsibility for his choice of where to live, enjoying the many benefits of rural life and improving his technological opportunity set at his own expense.

About the Author

Eric Dixon

Eric D. Dixon