Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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 paternalistic-ally--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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