The national do-not-call registry, championed on all sides in Washington, is a case study in the mythology that government can improve our lives in ways that the free market cannot.
For years, pressure has been building against "telemarketing" — a term most people apply to any phone call from someone you do not know who is trying to get something out of you. They may want your vote. They may want you to answer a polling question. They may want you to donate to support homeless female veterans with learning disabilities. They may want you to change your long-distance service or buy insurance from your credit card issuer.
Also, they may want to sell you a vacation package.
Here's the rub of the new legislation: the new government service only applies to the vacation sort of phone call. All the others are exempt. Non-profits can call. Politicians can call. Long-distance carriers can call. So can any company you currently do business with. I don't know about you, but that pretty much sums up all the "telemarketing" calls I get.
But Washington doesn't define any of these as telemarketing. The list of approved and unapproved calls is not arbitrary. Government is always prepared to nail the merchant class and make it the victim of regulation. But it keeps its paws off really large businesses you are already doing business with (credit cards), and especially leaves the top two political parties alone to pester you.
As for the merchants it permits, you will notice the bias in the game. If you have done business with the company in the last 18 months, it can call you all it wants. This subsidizes established businesses at the expense of start ups. One can see, then, why large companies would favor this legislation, if only to reduce the number of competitive solicitors. Note too that the companies to which the list applies must actually shell out money to buy it!
What's in it for the state? Aside from the revenue from list rental, with this service, government can claim that it is doing something to assure that you have a quiet dinner hour even as it permits the kind of phone calls most important to the political class and its connected interest. As usual, government isn't serving us; it is serving itself.
Precisely the kind of calls Washington is forbidding are the kind that the market tends to weed out. The reputation of the caller is injured, sales fall flat, and economic pressures cause merchandisers to try some other tactic. In this sense, it is no different from any other kind of annoying advertising. It works for a while but eventually fades away, or technologies come about that block it.
Why would a company want to waste its resources calling people who don't want to be called? The more sophisticated direct marketing technology becomes the more it will distinguish between those who hang up and those who do not. The market is working to weed these phone calls in other ways. The $40 Telezapper hunts down computer-generated calls and zaps them with a beep. Caller ID tells you who precisely is calling. A private do-not-call list is available through the Direct Marketing Association, and anyone can sign up. Other consumers are just getting smart and realizing that you don't have to answer every phone call any more than you have to answer every knock at the door. Callers enjoy no right to be spoken to.
The FTC says that this narrow type of call from an unknown business constitutes 80 percent of unsolicited phone calls, but I seriously doubt that figure. Regardless, the enthusiasm which has greeted the national registry is only a sign that public support is very high for eliminating these calls. What government did was seize on a national trend that was already reflecting itself in the market. Government has formalized it, preparing to take credit for work that the market was already accomplishing.
In a year or so, it will dawn on everyone that this list does not include the most annoying calls from political parties, pollsters, victim-based charities, police unions, among many others. Will government be blamed? Doubtful. Instead, it will pick out some poor slobs selling condos in Florida and turn them into national scapegoats.
Notice that the registration must be updated every five years, to keep government abreast of your phone number (whether listed or not). Also, when you register, you have to provide your email address. Am I the only one slightly wary about turning over my email address to the government? Yes, I know they can find it otherwise (that goes for phone numbers too, which you are asked to list on your tax forms).
But one wonders whether and in what way the massive amount of email address and phone number data the government is collecting will be used. The official website of donotcall.gov assures us that "your email address will not be provided to telemarketers or the public." But it says nothing about government agencies.
If the government wants to put together a list of numbers, it should consider a do-not-call list that would apply to government itself. The entire nation would surely rise up, flood .gov servers, and yell: Don't Call Us, We'll Call You!
July 5, 2003
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