When I first heard about the idea of access to affordable broadband being a basic right, I’ve got to admit I thought it sounded a bit daft. More recently, I’m inclined to think that it was this immediate brain jerk of a reaction that was daft. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense.
When it comes to political outlook I am a Rawlsian of sorts meaning that a lot of my core beliefs about things like redistribution of wealth and the structuring of social institutions are loosely inspired by ideas from John Rawl’s book A Theory of Justice. When it comes to thinking about broadband, two ideas from Rawls have influenced me.
The first is the idea that the fair structuring of society and distribution of its resources is the one that we would agree to if we didn’t know which part of society we would end up occupying. To oversimplify, if we are dividing up a cake, the fairest way to do it is if the person doing the cutting doesn’t know which slice they will end up having. You cut and I’ll choose or you choose and I’ll cut.
The second idea is about something called primary goods. Amongst their other features, primary goods are things which you need to pursue your life goals pretty much regardless of what those life goals are. Money is an obvious one. So whether you want to be a ballerina, a stockbroker or a football manager, money will help you achieve your goal. You can use it to purchase training, to buy equipment etc. If you have enough of it you can take yourself out of full-time employment to focus more single mindedly on your goal. Of course life goals don’t have to be career goals. The same applies if you are focused on being a mother, a father or beating an obscure world record. Happiness and self respect are less obvious primary goods but things Rawls felt should be included in the list and to me that makes sense. Whatever your goal, it’s significantly harder to achieve it if you are consistently unhappy or have a low sense of self-worth.
Now if we bring these two ideas together, it seems plausible to me that, if we didn’t know where we’d end up in society, we’d choose to structure society so that everyone had access to a certain amount of primary goods. You could even say there was a “right” to some primary goods. So the question then becomes: ‘is broadband one of these primary goods?’ I would argue yes and, insofar as it represents speedy access to information and social networks, it is certainly something that would help in the pursuit of any life goal short of having the aim of bringing about a Luddite revival.
If all this sounds far fetched, it shouldn’t. Many of us, at least on the centre left, would happily sign on to the idea of library access as a right. However, the same reasons that underlie a right to library access would dictate a right to broadband.