By now, nearly everyone with a television or access to the internet has either personally witnessed or caught wind of pop star Janet Jackson’s lurid Super Bowl halftime performance. Predictably, despite terrorism abroad, exploding budget deficits at home and, oh yes, a developing presidential contest, uproar ensued. Much at the behest of parents who regard the television as the sole moral and social educator of their children, the professional scolds at the FCC have decided to treat the case as if it was the greatest threat to civilization since Socrates was put to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”
As usual, the obvious truth which has seemed to escape most pundits and demagogues is how utterly impotent the FCC is to correct the “psychic damage” done to the viewing audience or prevent it from occurring in the future. No amount of fines or lifetime bans from television will expunge the brief memory of Janet Jackson’s exposed breast from the collective mind of America’s youth. The idea of fining either Jackson or her wardrobe malfunction accomplice Justin Timberlake, both multimillionaires, seems laughable at best and at worst smacks of moral laziness in its advocates.
Suffice to say, the psychological damage is done and no amount of punishment the FCC is authorized to mete out–short of canceling the Super Bowl or putting the offending pop stars to death–will prevent more impromptu publicity stunts like this one from occurring in the future. Nevertheless, it won’t stop them from trying–or at least wasting time and taxpayer money in the process.
However, what of our hapless boob tube aficionados? Are they simply at the mercy of what the major networks would thrust upon them, lest the FCC intercede in timely fashion upon their behalf? Hardly. Rather than take a moral cop-out by employing the FCC to do one’s parenting and moral stewardship, viewers can make their dissatisfaction known in a way that hurts TV executives personally–boycott their networks if they refuse to provide swift corrective action on their own.
Indeed, the ability of dissatisfied television patrons to simply take their advertising money elsewhere is one of the finest features of the free market. Yet such a process is far from limited to simply disciplining broadcasters; freedom of choice can be applied to discipline rogue actors and enforcing a principled mandate to unsavory producers anywhere in the market. Don’t like Wal-Mart’s labor practices? Take your business elsewhere. Don’t like the salacious or offensive programming that a local radio station puts on the air? Change the dial while encouraging others to do the same. Outraged at vendors who freely sell violent video games and music to children? Don’t patronize them while organizing your friends, neighbors, and churches to do likewise. None of these actions requires the intervention of government.
Even without using the coercive power of the law, outraged citizens can bring about social change by simply marshalling the collective power of their wallets to bring about a democratic mandate. This of course brings out an important irony: all of this outrage over said halftime escapade has resulted in people who normally pay lip service to laissez-faire capitalism (most notably FCC chairman Michael Powell) becoming the ultimate social engineers, suddenly claiming that the government must intervene into the entertainment market in order to regulate content for their own (or children’s own) good rather than allow the market to resolve things.
More important is the fact that many object to the idea of a boycott (and not just because it means giving up “Everybody Loves Raymond”). As with many other similar collective efforts, boycotts suffer from the problem of the unwashed masses being too lazy or unprincipled to actively make them effective, our concerned citizens contend. Thus, they reply, we have a failure in the market. Nothing will be accomplished, ergo the need for governmental intercession. Never mind, of course, that individuals are still free to pick the remote and change the channel or turn off the TV entirely. Indeed, justice must be dispensed!
What such ready busybodies seem to forget, however, is that said laziness is a mandate–of apathy. Rather than a failure in the market, the failure lies in the perception of the social engineers that the viewing audience requires their assistance in order to make their wishes known. Yet if the viewing population doesn’t care enough about a bare breast to even change the channel, upon what democratic mandate can the scolds claim to hold authority?
Thus the true agenda of the scolds is laid bare, exposed for all to see: to use the law to enforce what they see as “decent” and “proper.” Whether the individuals will democratically express their preferences through the market is irrelevant or, worse, is simply a further sign of decadence in the public mind that requires swift correction through proper moral “guidance.”
Not only then have our willing social engineers taken a moral shortcut by endeavoring to use the law rather than the market to punish what they see as a rogue actor, in the process they have attempted to subvert what is a functioning democratic process at work. Instead of relying on the voluntary cooperation of networks or concerned citizens, the moral meddlers have taken to forcing their agenda upon the unsuspecting public when persuasion fails. Rather than expressing their outage with their own remotes, they’ve enlisted the government to do it for them (and everyone else). Rather than let people make their own decisions with regards to what they wish to watch and consume, they have appointed themselves moral guardians with domain over what individuals should and shouldn’t watch, absent any pretense of a democratic mandate.
One is left to ask then who the real moral culprit is. Our flasher duo or the self-appointed moral elite who would subvert every aspect of democratic markets if it meant “protecting the children?”
Steve Skutnik is a graduate student at Iowa State University. He is currently pursuing an M.S. in Nuclear Physics.