Regulation: Necessary Evil, or Evil Necessity?

Average ThinkProgress Commentor

Progressive blogger Matt Yglesias took flak earlier this week for taking the position that some regulations, sometimes, in some specific factual circumstances, could conceivably be unnecessary. The thoughtful, respectful, intelligent commentors at ThinkProgress took issue with even this tepid, half-hearted backing of a narrowly specific kind of liberty.

I’ll be charitable and note that Matt is essentially correct when he says “it’s [ed: occupational licensing boards] overwhelmingly composed of people from the industry whose incentive is to limit competition and raise prices.” Yes, this is the downside to trade licensing.

Pretty much everything else in the post is idiotic, for reasons that 13 other commenters have covered.

The black fly in the chardonnay here is that Matt’s rants against state and local regulations are essentially the same dumb libertarian arguments against federal regulations that Matt correctly mocks in the context of national politics… variations on the theme of “Regulatory capture means we’re better off not regulating at all.” (Ed note: emphasis added.)

So the lesson is … something bad on the local level is good on the national level? The reverse? I’m not totally sure what the point is, but fortunately, neither is the author.

Regardless, Matt followed this up with a cogent post arguing that regulations aren’t per se good.

I think it’s pretty clear that, as a historical matter of fact, the main thing “the state” has been used to do is to help the wealthy and powerful further enrich and entrench themselves. Think Pharaoh and his pyramids. Or more generally the fancy houses of European nobility, the plantations of Old South slave owners, or Imelda Marcos’ shoes. The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuff—to be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege. . . .

Don’t think to yourself “we need to regulate carbon emissions therefore regulation is good therefore regulation of barbers is good.” Think to yourself “we can’t let the privileged trample all over everyone, therefore we need to regulate carbon emissions and we need to break the dentists’ cartel.”

I broadly agree. The dissemination of liberty to more and more people has, as a historical fact, checked the abuse of the many by the few.

Where I disagree with Matt is in the thing we’re opposed too. He’s primarily concerned with “privilege”, that is, inequality. I’m concerned with arbitrary privilege. He doesn’t want people to go without, I don’t want people to keep what they haven’t earned. His examples don’t really fit his point; slave owners weren’t bad because they had more stuff than their slaves, they were bad because they were using horrific violence to maintain their lifestyle. Ditto the pharaohs, and European nobility. As a moral claim, you shouldn’t be forced to live your life for someone else. Whether slave or peasant, it’s merely arguments of degree. We should disdain that discussion the same as we would treat one weighing the relative merits of being field slaves or house slaves.

No libertarians make the case that we need zero regulations. Those are anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, anarcho-syndicalists, or some other fancy hybrid words. I’m not one, so I won’t purport to describe their entire philosophy in one paragraph. But just as liberals instinctively think of regulations are per se good, libertarians tend to consider them per se bad. The truth is more subtle.

Instead, we should agree that regulations are a dirty necessity, something to which we are driven to stoop, not aspire. As George Washington wrote, upon being named virtual dictator by the Congress fleeing Philadelphia;

Instead of thinking myself freed from all civil obligations by this mark of their confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.

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9 Responses to Regulation: Necessary Evil, or Evil Necessity?

  1. Seth Goldin says:

    I’m not even comfortable with advocating for free markets on the grounds that they reward people with what they deserve. Hayek addressed this by pointing out that markets don’t reward merit, nor would we want them to. They reward the creation of value. Paris Hilton is arbitrarily privileged, but I don’t see any kind of moral or institutional problem arising from this fact.

    • Aaron says:

      I’m not using “deserve” in an a priori sense, but in the sense of something earned. There is no a priori.

      http://web.gc.cuny.edu/philosophy/faculty/devitt/noaprior.pdf

      • Seth Goldin says:

        I agree that “there is no a priori,” but it’s a red herring to my point. By the way, I tweeted Will’s post that included that paper. It was a great post, and a great paper.

        Anyway, what I am rejecting here are Lockean notions of the labor theory of value. What do you mean by “earn?” How is that tied to what people “deserve?”

        • Aaron says:

          “Earn” – transitive verb
          1. a: to receive as return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.

          In the sense used in the post; to gain or accrue by personally creating or bargaining, as opposed to taking, stealing, or coercing.

  2. Aaron says:

    You brought up Paris, I didn’t. Are you arguing that irrational is the same as arbitrary? Paris apparently creates value for some people, and they choose to sacrifice a certain amount of time, money, and brain power paying attention to her.

    Those payments may be irrational or silly, but they’re not arbitrary. Paying attention to Paris because she’s the daughter of a rich family is arbitrary.

    The ability to bargain, whether it’s done wisely or foolishly, implies at least a basic level of equality. From there, relative statuses create bargaining positions from strength or weakness. Matt wants absolute equality of bargaining, which is stupid. If bargaining power is relative, it is also therefore fluid. As circumstances change, relative statuses and relevant partners change, leading to a new set of power distributions.

    If anyone can transcend the system, which is very easy when you start establishing the kind of meta-rules Matt advocates, than it becomes easier and easier for someone to rig the game.

    • Seth Goldin says:

      No, sorry, I should have clarified. I’m not talking about Paris after she picked up projects for which she generated valuable attention; I meant just by inheriting so much money and not herself producing something of value for others, at least those projects, if she had done something immoral.

      • Aaron says:

        No, a windfall isn’t immoral. The recipient isn’t the moral focus of a question of inheritance, the deceased is. The old saw is “you can’t pick your parents”. That is arbitrary, but it’s an arbitrary fact of life far beyond our plans or control.

        Death-tax style takings are immoral, vis-a-vis the deceased. The state says, explicitly, that in addition to all income, sales, capitol gains, corporate, state, county, and local taxes, at your death an additional 55 percent of all your worldly goods become the government’s.

        There’s no valid moral claim to abridging property rights like that, and no moral imperative to dishonor one’s last wishes for disposing of property like that. Paris is lucky, but that’s not the same as arbitrary.

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