Quick, What’s the Fourth Estate? Bet you didn’t know. No fair peeking at Google. Ok, ok, I’ll tell you. The fourth estate consists of newspapers, radio and television stations and other such mass media. Why pray tell are these institutions considered the Fourth Estate? Are there any other “estates?” If so, there ought to be three others. What are they?

The first estate is the executive branch of government; it sees to it that the rules are obeyed, the country defended. The second is the legislature; it enacts the laws; declares war. The third is the judiciary, a sort of referee for the other two, and, between them and the general public. Hark back to when you took civics in high school; you would have heard lots about all of this. What was the point of breaking up government into three constituent elements? Each of the first three estates were supposed to serve as a “check and a balance” against the other two. For the natural proclivity of government is to expand, and, if and when it gets past a certain point, liberty suffers.

Here’s where the fourth estate comes in. According to this not totally incoherent and irrational theory, it is supposed to serve the function of a “check and balance” regarding the other three. Newspapermen, journalists, editorialists, commentators, have many other roles beside keeping a jaundiced eye on big bad government: they tell us all about the weather, what’s on tv, which athletic team is doing what to which others, who’s who on the gossip front, which business is now accused of exploiting which consumers, etc. But these are all secondary to its main political process: poking at, commenting on, uncovering hypocrisies, making sure the other three estates are behaving themselves.

This system worked out for a while not at all too badly. Who guards the guardians? Why, the fourth estate does just that.

But the other three estates didn’t much like being monitored; having their peccadillos uncovered; being made fools of; laughed at. How to stop this arrogance from the untermenchen journalists? This continual sniping at their betters? Politicians had a GREAT idea: buy up, suborn, bribe and subsidize the public media. He who pays the piper calls the tune. This worked out pretty well for a while, but then someone had an even better idea: government ownership and explicit participation in newspapers, radio and television. (The state has not yet nationalized the likes of Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc., but if this process continues, keep your eyes peeled for such initiatives.)

Insofar as serving the oversight function, this would be akin to the judiciary taking over the legislature, or parliaments and congresses subsuming the executive, or any other such combination and/or permutation.

What is the empirical evidence on this matter? There are two theories in play. One is the public interest explanation. In this view, government media ownership is needed to cure market failures. Without its input, the public would be deprived of needed information. Can you think of anything more self-serving, particularly in an age of widespread use of cellphones? The other is that “government ownership undermines political and economic freedom” which is based upon an important study of the matter published in the prestigious Journal of Law and Economics.

Where we are at present? Governments the world over are taking more and more control over the print and electronic media. China has just closed down Apple Daily and incarcerated its founder and publisher Jimmy Lai. The countries with the least press freedom are North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, China, Djibouti, Vietnam, Syria, Iran, Laos, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

Canada, happily, is on that list. But the Great White North is located further down this totalitarian road than its neighbor to the south. None of the fifty states, nor the U.S. government, own any local newspapers, radio or television stations. Yes, there is the Public Broadcasting Service. But the PBS is privately owned; it is not a branch of government. In sharp contrast, Canada has its Canadian Broadcasting Company which is part and parcel of government.  It is supported by tax revenues.

So, if Canada wants to move in the direction of support for the Fourth Estate, the CBC should be privatized, and a full arm’s length relationship established between the two organizations. Then and only then would CBC be able to be part of the Fourth Estate, not part of the other three.

And here we say nothing of the fact that the CBC has its own political slant. It is one thing if a private media baron is able to push his views onto the public ear. He does so with his own funds. But when the CBC promotes its message, it does so with money mulcted from people who support and oppose it, alike. Unfair.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans