With US president Biden’s recent executive order to promote competition in the American economy, many are hoping this will lead to further pushes to fight for the right to repair.
It seems odd that you wouldn’t be able to repair your own consumer goods in the “freest country in the world,” but unfortunately it’s true in America. It will almost certainly void your warranty in most cases and results in average Americans paying insane amounts of money every year to giant multi national corporations that routinely export their jobs to authoritarian states like China so they can grow their ever more powerful monopolies. Thankfully though, there seems to be some hope.
US President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. signed an executive order to push for increased competition in the US. “Let me be very clear: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” stated Biden. Far be it from me to compliment the president of the United States, but he’s kind of right on this (without getting into unfettered capitalism being exploitative of workers in its own right, but gotta take what you can get.) The order has caused many that support the right to repair to have newfound hope.
Some may have never heard the phrase right to repair, of those that have, a portion seem believe that this only relates to consumer electronic goods. While this is a very visible part it doesn’t show the entire picture. Right to repair also includes a number of other industries, one massive one is farmers.
For hundreds of years farmers repaired their own equipment. This was not only a cost saving measure, but also a matter of necessity, being that most are necessarily so far from towns and cities where repair shops are often located, precipitated the need to repair one’s own equipment. These are also incredibly expensive machines that many small farmers go deeply into debt to purchase, we’re talking upwards of half a million dollars for a new combine. So when companies like John Deere (though they are not the only culprit) make it essentially impossible for farmers to do their own repairs, this adds not only the additional cost for the labor and marked up monopolized parts, but also the cost of transporting the equipment to and from repair centers that may be dozens of miles away, if not hundreds.
This also shows the danger of putting your hopes in giant lobbying groups. A few years ago, a giant farm lobby, under the guise of helping farmers, actually worked with manufacturers to ensure they retained essentially sole ability to repair farm equipment, while making empty gestures like making repair manuals available to everyone, which doesn’t help much if you can’t buy the replacement parts yourself. Thankfully due to organizing and pressure on the government by small farmers, this may be changing.
The Biden administration seems to be taking a harder line on monopolies than other recent administrating, recently signing an executive order some at breaking up these monopolies and returning power to citizens. It states:
“A fair, open, and competitive marketplace has long been a cornerstone of the American economy, while excessive market concentration threatens basic economic liberties, democratic accountability, and the welfare of workers, farmers, small businesses, startups, and consumers.”
This is exactly right, and while we’re still far from the finish line, it’s a strong start. The entire order can be read here. Many may wonder how this effects them. Besides saving farmers money, which could theoretically make good prices cheaper and decrease the amount of subsidies needed in the agricultural industry, it also affects numerous other goods as well. These include things like gaming consoles, home appliances, personal vehicles, and many more.
If you’ve ever thought about or attempted to repair a personal electronic device, for instance a cellphone, you’ve probably seen the scary looking labels that tell you if you remove screws or protective coverings you automatically void your warranty. And that’s if you can even buy the replacement parts, and if they’re OEM parts because many companies consider using third party parts to also void any warrantee you might have. In addition, similar to the situation farmers find themselves in, many companies do not publish repair manuals for public consumption. This again leaves companies with essential monopolies over their customers, charging them sometimes inordinate prices for repairs or upgrades that they could do themselves. The hope is that the new executive order by Biden will change this and allow people to take the power back into their own hands.
In Section 5 of the order there are explicit references to the need for consumers to be able to repair their own devices. This section details issues that the committee should give attention to and use their authority to address. Subsection (h) (ii) calls on the Federal Trade Commission in concert with other members of the council to give attention to “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.” The bill even addresses issues relating to troops in the field being unable to fix their own equipment, ordering the Chair to work with the Department of Defense on ensuring that they can do this.
While I certainly have my reservations about the executive order and the people who are tasked with carrying it out, I do have some hope that Biden will make good on this promise. I also have hope because if the council refuses to do its job, there are other ways of getting right to repair laws on the books, and it would most likely start with the states.
There are currently over 20 states where citizens are demanding the right to fix their own goods. While changing laws in every state sounds quite daunting, it actually isn’t that complicated. If one big state, or possibly any, votes through right to repair laws, it is quite feasible that this could be the end of monopolies on repair. This is because it would be very difficult for manufacturers to make repairable products only available in one state. Their choice would essentially be make it available to all people in the United States, or ban sales to that specific state. Especially if this is a state with a large population, it is unlikely that they would take the income hit that would be required. The same situation could play out if a large country decided to enshrine the right to repair in law.
I hope that the council created by Biden’s executive order does its job and ensures that consumers are protected from monopolistic practices. If they fail the people they are supposed to be defending then consumers should take measures (and have been) into their own hands, shamming these members of the government and taking their rights for themselves.