Column on Government Regulation

Exceptions Not the Rule

Tibor R. Machan

As a nearly lifelong champion of the fully free society I routinely
encounter skeptics who cite cases showing that now and then free men and
women do not do the best for themselves and others. From this they
conclude that therefore freedom isn’t such a great thing after all.
Indeed, often they go further than claim that these cases support measures
that check freedom for various people and organizations.

For example, the free market system would not entrust to government
regulations even if now and then such regulations have done some good.
Yes, of course, some regulations can produce more benefits than harms,
looked at piece by piece. But there real issues is whether the
institution of government regulation of the economy, of various
professions, indeed of much of human life, is sound public policy.

Many years ago I saw a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson who
fell out of an airplane without a parachute, landed in a tree that slowed
his fall and left him totally uninjured, and lived to write a best selling
book about his experience. But, I am pleased to report, he did not become
an advocate of everyone jumping out of airplanes.

When one considers the institution of government regulation one needs not
only to remember Aristotle’s famous statement that one swallow does not a
spring make. One must also consider such matters as whether serious
violence is being done by such regulation to human beings–after all,
governments regulate people who have not been convicted of any crime and
thus are perpetrating prior restraint which, in other contexts, is
understood to be unjust. It needs also be considered whether some other
way of encouraging prudence and foresight are available that do not
involve treating people paternalistically–for example tort law or some
other type of legal adjudication. There is also the moral hazard that
government regulation of market agents engenders–people are given the
false impression that government is taking good care of them and they can
then proceed without their own strict caution as they navigate the market
place. Finally, at least for this short discussion, there is the very
strong likelihood of non-governmental watchdog establishments arising in a
free market economy where government regulation does not serve as a
supposed cautionary measure.

When I make clear that I have fundamental objections to government
regulation as an institution in a free society I am sometimes labeled an
ideologue, one who blindly clings to a policy, never mind the damage this
might produce, a dogmatist, in other words. But that is quite wrong–a
principled opposition to various practices can stem from a careful study
of the history of such practice as well as analysis of its likely impact.
One who in principle opposes all non-consensual sex isn’t some dogmatist
but has learned that it is simply unacceptable for human beings to use one
another without full consent.

Government regulation involves imposing undeserved burdens on market
agents, professionals and others who are made subject to it. That is wrong
even if on rare occasion it may accomplish something desirable. Using
coercive force against people may often be the practical, expedient thing
to do but that is no excuse for it. Sadly, we do live an era when
principled thinking seems to be scoffed at, demeaned, and experts tend to
look at public policies in piecemeal fashion. That is akin to a personal
ethics of convenience–I’ll lie when it suits me, tell the truth what that
works, and generally do what gets things done as I would like them done,
never mind integrity, justice, and morality in general.

Government regulation is, in fact, reactionary. It takes us back to an era
of mercantilism, when governments intruded on people in the market place
at the government’s convenience because people really didn’t matter much,
only the heads of state and their agendas did. Let’s not go there again.

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2 Responses to Column on Government Regulation

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