Many Progressive Era reformers, lawmakers, and economists believed that free market competition failed to maximize the public benefits of telecommunication networks. When proposals to place the nation’s telecommunication system under the post office gained currency, AT&T responded with its Brief of Arguments against Public Ownership (1913–17). Resembling a loose-leaf service for lawyers, the Brief furnished opinion leaders with more than three hundred items of evidence, some drawn from economists, about the failings of government-run enterprises. To impart lessons about the consequences of nationalizing telecommunication, AT&T assembled evidence from three domains, most notably foreign nations’ experience with government ventures. Analyzing the Brief reveals how AT&T structured and popularized arguments that justified the anomalous place of telecommunication networks in American political economy.
The essay begins by sketching nineteenth-century developments in the political economy of telecommunication that set the stage for twentieth-century nationalization initiatives. It then shows how the general nature of the Brief, and AT&T’s broader communication campaign, advanced the company’s objective of denigrating government ownership specifically in telecommunication and generally in other industries. In doing so, AT&T positioned itself in the mainstream of economic thinking by drawing on economists as authorities, the focus of another section. Next, the essay explicates the strategy behind AT&T’s chief rhetorical technique, lesson-drawing analogies, especially those constructed from foreign experiences with government enterprise. Finally the essay examines how AT&T wove lesson-drawing into its argumentation about political economy.
Keywords: AT&T, government ownership, network economics, political economy, telecommunication