The Economics of the Free Ride

There is no such thing as a free lunch or a free ride. Somebody must pay. The supreme goal of politics is to manage the flow of information so that those who pay do not complain. Successful politics is like a mosquito’s bite: the victim itches only after his blood is gone, along with the mosquito.

In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, Winston Smith worked in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. His job was to drop printed records of politically incorrect facts down the memory hole. The memory hole destroyed public traces of the now-inconvenient record of the past, thereby rectifying the past. His life’s work was based on this principle: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Orwell (aka Eric Blair) did not foresee the World Wide Web, but he clearly understood the pre-Web media.

The mainstream media can no longer easily deep-six the records of the past. The Web is too decentralized for that. Digital transmission is too inexpensive and too rapid. The mainstream media are losing market share.

The media do retain half of their older function: to ignore most of the present. The media decide what to report and, far more important, what to highlight. What they do not highlight can be concealed more effectively later on than concealing what did get widely reported.

The masters of the mainstream media understand that people have limited time. Time is not a free resource. It is the only irreplaceable resource. Control over how one’s time is spent is the essence of responsible living. The mainstream media have long been skilled masters of capturing people’s attention. Only in recent years have they lost this ability, due to new pricing conditions: the Web. The media cannot effectively compete with nearly free transmission of digits.


The media whooped it up for the war in Afghanistan in 2001. They whooped it up for the war in Iraq in 2003, even though this war was obviously going to drain funds and troops from Afghanistan. Then the media decided not to cover the war in Afghanistan, because bin Laden had escaped. The Taliban went underground. There were few skirmishes. The media’s #1 rule came into play: “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead.” The public forgot about the war in Afghanistan, as did the media.

Read the rest of the article

April 20, 2009

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2009 Gary North