Remember the saying, “to the person who has a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Here’s one application of that in the political world: “If there’s a new, promising service or technology on the horizon, government must get involved to promote it.”

We’ve endured taxes, subsidies, and regulations, allĀ in the name of increasing access to electricity, “green” products (think: Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt), and the subject of this little note, Internet connections.

Of course the groundwork for the Net, which morphed into the web, was DARPA, an agency of the federal government. But for about 15 years or so, the real action has come through the rollout of services from people who are trying to make a buck in profit–that is, the private sector.

Remember the proliferation of CD-ROMs from AOL that seemed to multiply by buckthorn? AOL had many faults, but at least it introduced many people to the Internet. (For about 5 years I managed to score a free AOL account.) It miscalculated when it went to a flat-rate pricing scheme that resulted in lots of busy signals, and suffered as a result. By contrast, failed government programs usually result in … more funding.

Speaking of government programs, the feds instituted a massive program to “wire classrooms to the Internet.” I’m pretty sure they’re still collecting money for that task, even though it’s long been shown that Internet connectivity is no panacea. Meanwhile, cities across the country, including some in Minnesota, have tried to get into the act, by running or sponsoring Wi-Fi. But those efforts typically end in cost overruns and failure. (See, for example, the case of Lebanon, Ohio and Minnesota’s St. Louis Park, which I wrote about a few years ago.)

Today, you can get an Internet connection, at least for a few hours, at any number of restaurants, coffee shops, and so forth: Panera, Caribou, and the place from which I am now writing, McDonalds. The world’s largest seller of hamburgers is now the world’s largest provider of free Internet service, with more than 11,500 locations offering a connection.

As far as I know, no tax credits or stimulus checks were involved in the making of those connections. So how did it happen that you can browse the web in thousands of communities? A company–in this case, the Golden Arches–seeking its own self-interest by offering something that its customers want.

The free market. It’s a beautiful thing.