Amateur Radio Licenses and Red Balloons
The FCC issues three classes of licenses to amateur radio operators. The Extra class — the third, and hardest class of license to earn — is a great example of a license with no public safety justification. It’s purely an exercise of government power.
Here’s how the Extra class works: If you pass a test on electronics and radio regulations that covers more advanced material than the test for the Technician and General classes, you get to communicate over portions of the radio spectrum that are off-limits to people who hold only Technician and General licenses. Nothing about those parts of the spectrum makes them need special regulation; they’ve simply been set aside as the province of elite radio amateurs.
Some amateur radio enthusiasts defend the system, saying that the Extra class encourages operators to gain expertise, and that everyone in society benefits from the resulting propagation of knowledge. This argument is similar to the rationale for the DARPA Network Challenge, which was supposed to contribute to our understanding of communications and problem-solving.
I don’t buy the argument in either case. When the government offers an incentive for learning, the people who already have the information or would have learned it anyway step up to claim the prize. This was clearly the result of the DARPA Network Challenge. The federal government offered a $40,000 prize to whoever could find 10 red balloons released around the country, and scholars at M.I.T. — who were already deeply interested in networks — organized a network, found the balloons, and won the contest. We spent $40,000 of taxpayer money (plus however much it cost to administer the contest) to discover that people at M.I.T. are smart.
So it is with the amateur radio licenses. The most motivated operators brush up on their trigonometry and take the test, while others settle for the General class and its fewer privileges. People who weren’t interested in electronics don’t suddenly become scientists when they hear about the Extra class. And even if some operators do learn facts that they wouldn’t have were it not for the exam, there are less coercive ways to achieve that goal. For instance, public libraries or community colleges could offer free classes about radio communications.
The state of Missouri doesn’t grant amateur radio licenses. But Missouri licenses many other activities, and should beware to avoid the FCC’s manner of regulating. Two pieces of advice: First, don’t issue licenses that have no bearing on the general welfare. Second, once you’ve established a licensing requirement, don’t create a license class for people who have learned more or otherwise gone the extra mile. It’s not the state’s job to give them a pat on the back, or to reward accomplishments with special privileges.