Brett Frischmann’s Contribution to Policy Debates Regarding Governance of Infrastructures
posted by Barbara A. Cherry
Because the framing of issues is so critical to how policy debates are conducted and policy outcomes are ultimately chosen, Brett’s analysis contributes to more balanced discussion within policy debates related to governance of infrastructures. Brett’s book emphasizes the functional role both of infrastructure resources to society and of commons as a resource management strategy, providing important insights for considering appropriate governance of infrastructure resources. Its analytical strength stems from development of a typology of different infrastructures “based on the types of systems dependent on the infrastructural resource and the distribution of productive activities it facilitates” (p. 61), which is then used to understand the importance of (what Brett describes as) demand-side characteristics of various types of infrastructures. This demand-side functional approach is contrasted with the supply-side approach that has tended to dominate the focus of policy debates related to governance of infrastructures.
To understand Brett’s analysis, it is critical to understand the definitions of component terms and certain economic and legal concepts upon which his analysis is based. For this reason, one has to patiently work their way through substantial portions of the book that lay the foundation for understanding how his typology contributes to understanding commons management (a form of nondiscriminatory access rule) to infrastructures both generally and in specific contexts. This is a compliment – not a criticism – of how Brett took on the challenge of carefully constructing analytical arguments, particularly from concepts of law and economics of which readers are likely familiar but perhaps with differing shades of meaning.
However, it is also challenging to accurately incorporate the research of others who are also attempting to contribute towards a more balanced policy debate of governance related to access to infrastructures. In this regard, for me, a weakness in the analysis throughout Brett’s book is some inaccuracies (or insufficient clarity) as to the functional role of various bodies of law that have developed to address access problems in varying contexts. For example, discussion of common carriage (see p. 218) conflates origins of the common law of common carriage and public utilities. The origins of common carriage obligations are based on duties under tort law; and it is public utility law, not common carriage, that developed in part from laws of franchise and monopoly. But because some infrastructures – such as railroads, telegraphy and telephony – are both common carriers and public utilities, the distinctive functional roles of the two bodies of law have come to be conflated and misunderstood. This conflation, in turn, has tended to mislead discourse related to many deregulatory telecommunications policies, including network neutrality.
Therefore, in my view, the contribution of Brett’s work towards a more balanced policy discussion of governance of infrastructures would be further strengthened by juxtaposition of his functional approach to infrastructure resources with a more carefully delineated (and accurate), functional approach to the various bodies of law that have developed thus far to address varying forms of infrastructure access problems.