It is accepted by the mainstream that state regulation of the free market is a necessary feature of the so-called “mixed economy”, the supposed halfway house that allows us to benefit from capitalism without succumbing to its alleged excesses while, at the same time, avoiding the catastrophe of all-out socialisation and state control. This essay will subject this view to a critique and will reveal that, in fact, regulation of markets does nothing more than substitute arbitrary government preferences for the preferences of freely acting individuals, is a cause of the very “excesses” (such as oversized firms) which are blamed on capitalism, and that the best regulator is, in fact, the free market itself.

In examining “regulation” we should first be clear about precisely what it means, which is that the state will use the force of law in order to, compel, prohibit, restrict or otherwise subject to control some targeted behaviour of its citizens. In other words, it is a violent, physical intervention into people’s lives in order to produce one outcome while preventing another. This seems perfectly justifiable in instances when the behaviour that is subject to regulation is neither peaceful nor voluntary and is in fact invasive and predatory – in other words the particular behaviour under consideration constitutes a crime, such as murder and theft. However much libertarians may dispute either the legitimacy or effectiveness of the state in preventing and/or responding to such acts, we can at least understand the need for this kind of regulation – to protect people from the violent, invasive and uninvited actions of others, actions which are, of course, unjustifiable in libertarian theory. But what do we mean by state regulation of the free market? The very phrase “free market” is an abstraction used deliberately by commentators to deflect attention away from what it actually is and to create, instead, the impression that it is some kind of self-aware, self-controlling entity that can indulge in all of its irrational flights of fancy while being subject to neither rule nor reason when it seemingly appears out of nowhere to inflict grave harm upon us in the same way that a criminal might. The free market, however, is nothing more than individual people and institutions trading goods and services voluntarily on terms which they agree amongst themselves. It is a diffuse, decentralised network of people striving to meet their own needs as they perceive them and to seek others to provide the wherewithal to better their lives. It is an entirely peaceful, voluntary operation and no one is forced to participate in any exchange with another individual if he does not believe that he will be better off as a result of the exchange. For the state to regulate the market, then, means that the state will use force in order to diminish, control or otherwise outlaw certain transactions which otherwise may have been undertaken voluntarily had the regulation not been present. For the state to regulate is to introduce a code of violent compulsion into otherwise peaceful and voluntary relationships.

There is something distinctly odd when state “protection” through regulation is extended beyond crimes into the arena of voluntary relations. For what is it that people are really being protected from here? Voluntary transactions do not come out of nowhere to surprise us like an armed robber might do. Rather, they must be chosen freely and consciously by each individual person. So if every transaction in the free market requires a voluntary choice then the only purpose of regulation must be to “protect” us from the results of our own choices and to prevent us from entering certain transactions which we may otherwise like to enter if the terms are attractive to us. People often think that those being regulated are unscrupulous vendors who may try to sell us some kind of snake oil solution to a problem we may have. It is true, of course, that crooked businessmen may try to sell us something that doesn’t really work, is a fake, or causes some kind of fire or damage. However, these instances constitute a fraud or a tort and are already governed by the area of the law that regulates involuntary or invasive acts. Regulation of the free market, on the other hand, is solely concerned with restricting the transactions that people may be happy to undertake voluntarily with no force or fraud. As it takes two to complete a transaction – the purchaser and the vendor – if businesses are prevented from choosing to sell then you are equally prevented from choosing to buy. Our choices are therefore constricted by state regulation as much as those of businesses selling to us are and it is us who are regulated as much as businesses are. It is for this reason that an excessively regulatory and bureaucratic jurisdiction is often nicknamed “the nanny state” – a persistent and seemingly omnipresent matriarch who never ceases to stop interfering in your life in order to make sure that you make the “right” choices, choices that it believes are better for your life regardless of the maturity and sophistication of your own decision-making process.

There are several mantras or excuses that the state uses to justify its regulation of voluntary transactions – the prevention of rash, impulsive or short sighted behaviour; imperfect or otherwise flawed knowledge on the part of one of the parties to the transaction; maintaining standards of quality; and finally, the great all-encompassing excuse that seems to validate the state’s wading into anything it pleases, which is maintaining standards of safety. Doubtless there are other categories of state regulation also (such as environmental regulation and control of so-called “essential” industries) but these four form the backbone of the state’s regulatory bodies. We will proceed now to examine each of them in turn and in doing so we will reveal the damaging effects of state regulation while demonstrating how, in fact, the free market itself is the best regulator.

First, then, is the prevention of rash, impulsive, or short sighted behaviour. The implication here is that people may enter a transaction which provides, or has a chance of providing, benefits in the short term while providing a high likelihood of burdens in the future – possibly severely detrimental burdens such as economic ruin, ill health or early mortality. So in other words, people may choose to use tobacco, alcohol or narcotic products to achieve an immediate sense of pleasure without considering the longer term effects, or they may choose to gamble, bet, or otherwise enter some kind of financial arrangement that promises untold wealth if it is successful, but may result in economic ruin if it is not. In economic jargon the complaint here is that people’s time preferences are too high and that the inducement towards the present good is so strong in people’s minds that they heavily discount the possibility of the future bad. People discard prudence, foresight, and good judgment in favour of emotional, impulsive and irrational motives, and so the state should step in, so the argument goes, in order to prevent people from falling victim to their own lack of patience. In the first place we might as well mention that, while it is true that some or, indeed, many decisions may be regretted after the fact, it is the case that all actions can result in consequences that are either detrimental or not as favourable as those that were intended. Prior to an action, costs and benefits are only hypothetical and it is always easy to judge an action with the benefit of a retrospective view. However, as it is also true that some actions are more likely or are guaranteed to produce a longer term detriment in spite of an immediate gain, the more important point is that people’s time preferences are no business of the state’s and it is dubious to assert that people should, in all instances, prefer the longer term to the shorter term – at least not to the extent that the force of law is used to compel such a preference. There is no reason, for instance, why someone should not value the immediate pleasure from a cigarette instead of a longer, healthier lifespan and it is quite possible for an individual to regard a longer life as duller if it is devoid of short term pleasantries. The regulation of an action may stop, restrict, or otherwise control the action but it does not stop the motivating desires behind the action itself which are imbedded wholly within people’s minds. The preferences that influenced them still exist and have not been eradicated, and people are, instead, forced to embrace an outcome which they do not regard as preferable. So in other words, while the individual may have to forego a benefit today, in his own mind the pain of having done so in order to wait for another benefit to come sometime in the future (such as a longer, healthier life) may be worse to that individual. That person, from his point of view, suffered a loss rather than a gain. Regulation doesn’t, therefore, make benefits appear and costs disappear; rather, it simply forces people to endure what are, in their minds, heavier costs.

However, even if we were to accept the premise that people should take the longer view, the irony here is that regulation and state interference into people’s lives is what causes high time preference and rash, impulsive behaviour in the first place, along with the eradication of any kind of prudence, patience, good foresight and self-responsibility. In particular, the existence of the regulatory state fosters the mind-set that if an action is dangerous, or has a high chance of producing an unfavourable outcome, then the state will ensure that it is banned or the dangerous elements are removed. In other words because an army of bureaucrats has gone through the decision-making process on your behalf you simply do not have to care or pay any attention to the possible negative results of your actions because the guiding hand of the state will ensure that only good things can flow from anything you do. Indeed, the regulatory state is little more than a giant, inflatable cushion for people to avoid having to take responsibility for the consequences of their own decisions. When, of course, a decision in an unregulated area turns sour the cry is always “why were they allowed to sell this awful thing to me!” whereas what they really mean is “why was I allowed to choose to buy this awful thing from them!” What results, therefore, is a vicious circle where the growing regulatory state induces less prudence, a lower standard of care and thus more bad decisions that need to be met by increased regulation. To make matters worse if the regulatory state fails and you do happen to suffer some negative consequences, then in comes the helping hand the welfare state to rescue you anyway. If you drink or smoke too much and fall sick then state provided healthcare will look after you; if you gamble away your life savings then state benefits will still keep you fed, watered and sheltered even if you haven’t achieved the riches that you might have had you been successful. The upside of all of these decisions remains intact – that lucky horse may still promise to pay out millions and the whiskey will taste as good – but the downside has been heavily reduced as the state has insulated you from having to realise, or pay for, the full extent of the natural penalties of your actions if they occur. Thus, these types of frivolous and imprudent actions have become more attractive rather than less, and so they will be taken more frequently rather than less, resulting in more negative consequences rather than fewer. The result of this is, of course, moral hazard – carelessness for your actions when you can preserve your gains while heaping your losses onto everyone else. And finally, of course, all of this takes place within the sphere of the state’s inducement of a high consumption, high time preference society through the illusion of prosperity brought about by the forced lowering of interest rates, monetary inflation and the smokescreen of paper wealth.

Obviously, in a society that is wholly unregulated by the state people would be responsible for their own actions, and a culture of better decision making and more prudential planning would be induced. This does not mean, however, that you are completely on your own in determining whether you should proceed with a decision – an allegation of those who believe that the free market leads to an atomistic existence. It is this aspect that we will now explore when we examine the next reason that is proffered for the supposed necessity of regulation – imperfect or otherwise flawed knowledge on the part of one of the parties to the transaction. It is usually the case, of course, that the sellers of everything we choose to buy are experts in that particular product or service they are selling. They developed the product; they know what it should be capable of; they know the science behind it; they know where its raw materials or ingredients came from, who put them all together and how; they spend all day studying and marketing to their target demographic. We, on the other hand, are not so expert in these products, of which we may buy tens or even hundreds in a given week. We do not have the time to sift through mountains of information in order to find out whether a particular product is suitable for us, or whether it is likely to end up being either a waste of money or the cause of a much steeper loss. Surely the state should step in and compel companies to provide more information about their products? Surely it is only because of state regulation that we have mandatory lists of ingredients and nutritional breakdowns on food products and surely it is only because of the mandatory inclusion of warning labels that we know not to iron clothes while we are wearing them?

The key to unlocking this is to realise that the provision of information is an end in itself, an end which consumes scarce resources. Therefore, the value of this information needs to exceed the cost of those resources. To take a ridiculous example, the time it takes to cook an egg on the sunlit body of a car is a piece of information. The vendor of the car would spend valuable resources, such as labour, eggs, a stopwatch, etc. in gathering and publishing this information. However, if this information is useless to prospective purchasers of the car – in other words, it would not affect their desire to purchase the car one way or the other – then the vendor has incurred a deadweight cost and has simply wasted resources that would have been better spent on something else. How much information should be provided is part of the market process and it is consumers themselves who will determine through their purchasing habits whether or not a given set of information is valuable and is a requirement of a purchase. If consumers happily purchase products without receiving certain information then it indicates that the provision of such information would be a waste; if they choose to abstain then it may indicate that the purchase, on its present terms, is too risky and they require extra resources to be spent on providing more information about what it is they would be buying. It is here, of course, where the market’s own key regulator – price – steps in. At a low enough price consumers may be happy to purchase the product without further information as the risk of loss is relatively low so that gathering extra information would not be worthwhile. If the price was relatively high, however, consumers may demand more information so that they are more equipped for making a better decision before committing a relatively larger sum of money. And, of course, products sold with less information will, all else being equal, usually be priced lower than products sold with more information anyway on account of the fact that the vendor of the former products has not had to incur an extra cost. The forced provision of information by the state, however, is markedly different. Because it is not subject to the profit and loss test there is no way of telling whether such information is valuable or not; it is simply an arbitrary decree that resources must be directed in a way other than that desired by consumers. Additional costs are then heaped onto suppliers which, of course, result in higher prices for products – the extra money being spent on something that consumers simply do not want. To take a another extreme example, the state could mandate that an information booklet the size of a telephone directory should be sold with every loaf of bread, detailing the precise ingredients, the transportation process used, a detailed schematic of the ovens used for baking, the life stories of the baker and the wheat farmer and so on. It is obvious that the provision of this useless information would increase enormously the cost of a loaf of bread and thus make consumers worse off than they were before. The principle remains the same when the state requires seemingly more “sensible” – but still useless for the consumer – information to be provided.

The principle is also the same for the next two reasons that the state has for increasing the scope of regulation – maintaining standards of quality and standards of safety. The quality of a product is also part of the market process and cannot be subject to arbitrary standards. At any one time a higher quality product will, all else being equal, cost more than a lower quality product – meaning that more resources must be devoted to producing the higher quality product than the lower quality product. If more resources are used in creating a higher quality product then fewer resources are left over to be devoted to other things. Consumers must choose whether they wish their resources to be spent on a few higher quality or many more lower quality products through their purchasing habits. If they prefer the latter yet the government mandates that higher quality products must be produced then consumers are made worse off than they otherwise would have been. The sustainable way to increase quality is to increase the number of resources available so that such quality can now be afforded. It is here where the free market’s own regulatory mechanisms step in. If consumers, as a result of an increase of available wealth, demand that vendors produce higher quality items then quality standards are likely to develop within each industry. If vendors have to demonstrate that their products have reached a certain standard of quality then it creates a market for reputable, third party certifiers to examine the product and declare that it has met the required standards of quality that are expected by consumers. If it does not then no such declaration is made and the business must go back to the drawing board. Such third parties will be interested in making honest and trustworthy appraisals as it is the trustworthiness of their appraisals that lead to more product sales and hence, more vendors seeking their services for quality certification. Increased quality is therefore achieved through increased wealth creation which makes more resources available for this quality to be achieved, as opposed to state regulation which simply redirects existing resources from places where they are already needed.

Exactly the same is true when it comes to product safety because increasing safety also consumes valuable resources and we as consumers must determine how many resources we wish to divert from providing for other ends towards providing for more safety. With the regulation of product safety, it is important again to emphasise that we are not talking about the regulation of actions which may be defined as crimes or torts. If someone loads a child’s toy with explosives and it detonates then clearly such an action would be unlawful. Rather, what we are talking about is the regulation of safety standards that are accepted by both parties as terms of the contract – in other words, where the standards of safety sold are part of the product’s features or definition. For example, all else being equal, a car built with a thicker chassis, or a chassis constructed out of a stronger material, is likely to have greater crashworthiness than a car with a thinner chassis or a chassis constructed out of weaker material. If the latter car is purchased then the lower crashworthiness – and the resulting lower protection of the vehicle’s occupants in the event of a collision – is an accepted part of the contract and an accepted feature of the vehicle. Once again, the market’s own regulator – price – is king in this regard. All else being equal, the less safe car will be less expensive than the safer car. If consumers choose to purchase the less safe car the resources which could be spent on making the car safer are better off, from their point of view, being used somewhere else. If, however, the state steps in and mandates that, in the name of increasing safety, only the more expensive car should be sold then this would clearly lead to impoverishment. Indeed, some people may not even be able to afford the super safe car at all. They previously chose to purchase the less safe car because the value of the transportation it provided was worth the risk of being more heavily injured in the event of a crash. If state mandated “safety” standards price them out of the market so that they cannot afford a car at all then they have clearly lost very heavily. There is no such thing as a “no brainer” safety requirement that is valid in all places at all time – there is only what can be afforded. Requirements only seemingly become “no-brainer” when they can be easily afforded. And, of course, the way to increase the affordability of safety is to increase wealth creation so that more resources are available to be devoted towards increasing product safety. Just as with the increase of quality, if consumers, as a result of an increase of available wealth, demand that vendors produce safer items then industrywide standards of product safety will develop. If vendors have to demonstrate that their products have reached a certain standard of safety then, once again, the market is opened for reputable, third party certifiers to determine whether a product has achieved the standard that is expected by consumers. Underwriters Laboratories is an example of such a private, third party solution. Increased safety, like increase quality, is therefore achieved through increased wealth creation which makes more resources available for safer products to be made, as opposed to state regulation which simply confiscates existing resources from other ends.

What we have learnt from all of this is that regulation itself consumes valuable resources and so the value it produces must also take place in the societal rank of values. It cannot stand apart from the market process but must, rather, be part of it. The allegation that the markets are never “self-regulating” simply amounts to stating that people are not making the correct choices with resources that they own whereas the budding critic does. If the market is not “self-regulating” then, as we explained earlier, it means that people are not self-regulating and must be forced into making choices other than the ones that they prefer.

Earlier we explained how one of the tragic ironies of regulation is that it creates the very need for its own existence by perpetuating rash and foolish purchasing choices as people come to believe that the state is there to protect them from any possible negative consequence. Unfortunately, such a perpetuation is present on the supply side of the market as well. An increasing regulatory code heaps onto the shoulders of vendors increasing costs of compliance with that code. As well as spending money on market research, developing their products and targeting their advertising, prospective entrepreneurs not only have to hire armies of lawyers to ensure that they are complying with the regulatory code but very often the regulatory code itself will require the business to make an additional outlay – such as the requirement to publish extra information. The costs of compliance with regulation are more easily borne by large, established businesses yet they may be devastating to small start-ups or entrepreneurs with limited capital. For example, in a report for the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Nicole and Mark Crain of Lafayette University calculated that the per-employee cost of federal regulatory compliance was $10,585 for businesses with nineteen or fewer employees, but only $7,755 for companies with five hundred or more. It is for this reason why regulation is, in fact, favoured rather than opposed by large, established businesses – for it creates a cosy cartel between business and the state which shuts out most prospects of new competition while at the same time saving face when they duly comply with these regulations for the “benefit of the consumer”. However, such stifling of competition is what creates some of the very problems that regulations are supposed to solve – poor provision of information, poor quality, and poor safety features. The result, therefore, is that regulation needs to increase in order to produce standards of consumer service that the free market would have produced by itself – except now with the deduction of the enormous cost of passing, complying and monitoring the said regulations. All of the supposed pitfalls and excesses of capitalism are therefore not a product of the free market but are, in fact, spawned by the regulatory state – and the response is supposed to be more regulation and increased oversight by a growing state bureaucracy. The most complained about industries in the world today, such as utilities, public transport and healthcare, supposedly demonstrate the tragedy of allowing private actors to provide so-called “essential” goods and services. Yet it is those very industries that suffer from the heaviest state interference.

State regulation of the free market is, therefore, a truly self-perpetuating, self-growing monstrosity, creating the very problems it seeks to solve – lazy, careless, and thoughtless purchasing choices on the one hand, and an oligarchy of large, greedy, unscrupulous businesses on the other, stifling economic progress and innovation in favour of micromanagement by a faceless bureaucracy. It is also a symptom of the globalist elitist agenda to unify and harmonise state bureaucracies into international trade agreements and treaties so that the reach of control and top-down direction does not stop at the state border – an agenda that was recently rebuffed (although will probably not be solved) by both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as the next US President. If we wish to regain economic progress and win back our liberty then destroying the regulatory state must be a high priority.


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