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Why Regulate the Economy at All?

15 January, 2016 - 09:30

The market often does not work properly, as economists often note. Monopolies, for example, happen in the natural course of human events but are not always desirable. To fix this, well-conceived and objectively enforced competition law (what is called antitrust law in the United States) is needed.

Negative externalities must be “fixed,” as well. For example, as we see in tort law ( Introduction to Tort Law ), people and business organizations often do things that impose costs (damages) on others, and the legal system will try—through the award of compensatory damages—to make fair adjustments. In terms of the ideal conditions for a free market, think of tort law as the legal system’s attempt to compensate for negative externalities: those costs imposed on people who have not voluntarily consented to bear those costs.

In terms of freedoms to enter or leave the market, the US constitutional guarantees of equal protection can prevent local, state, and federal governments from imposing discriminatory rules for commerce that would keep minorities, women, and gay people from full participation in business. For example, if the small town of Xenophobia, Colorado, passed a law that required all business owners and their employees to be Christian, heterosexual, and married, the equal protection clause (as well as numerous state and federal equal opportunity employment laws) would empower plaintiffs to go to court and have the law struck down as unconstitutional.

Knowing that information is power, we will see many laws administered by regulatory agencies that seek to level the playing field of economic competition by requiring disclosure of the most pertinent information for consumers (consumer protection laws), investors (securities laws), and citizens (e.g., the toxics release inventory laws in environmental law).

Ideal Conditions for a Free Market

  1. There are many buyers and many sellers, and none of them has a substantial share of the market.
  2. All buyers and sellers in the market are free to enter the market or leave it.
  3. All buyers and all sellers have full and perfect knowledge of what other buyers and sellers are up to, including knowledge of prices, quantity, and quality of all goods being bought or sold.
  4. The goods being sold in the market are similar enough to each other that participants do not have strong preferences as to which seller or buyer they deal with.
  5. The costs and benefits of making or using the goods that are exchanged in the market are borne only by those who buy or sell those goods and not by third parties or people “external” to the market transaction. (That is, there are no “externalities.”)
  6. All buyers and sellers are utility maximizers; each participant in the market tries to get as much as possible for as little as possible.
  7. There are no parties, institutions, or governmental units regulating the price, quantity, or quality of any of the goods being bought and sold in the market.

In short, some forms of legislation and regulation are needed to counter a tendency toward consolidation of economic power and discriminatory attitudes toward certain individuals and groups ( Employment Law ) and to insist that people and companies clean up their own messes and not hide information that would empower voluntary choices in the free market.

But there are additional reasons to regulate. For example, in economic systems, it is likely for natural monopolies to occur. These are where one firm can most efficiently supply all of the good or service. Having duplicate (or triplicate) systems for supplying electricity, for example, would be inefficient, so most states have a public utilities commission to determine both price and quality of service. This is direct regulation.

Sometimes destructive competition can result if there is no regulation. Banking and insurance are good examples of this. Without government regulation of banks (setting standards and methods), open and fierce competition would result in widespread bank failures. That would erode public confidence in banks and business generally. The current situation (circa 2011) of six major banks that are “too big to fail” is, however, an example of destructive noncompetition.

Other market imperfections can yield a demand for regulation. For example, there is a need to regulate frequencies for public broadcast on radio, television, and other wireless transmissions (for police, fire, national defense, etc.). Many economists would also list an adequate supply of public goods as something that must be created by government. On its own, for example, the market would not provide public goods such as education, a highway system, lighthouses, a military for defense.

True laissez-faire capitalism—a market free from any regulation—would not try to deal with market imperfections and would also allow people to freely choose products, services, and other arrangements that historically have been deemed socially unacceptable. These would include making enforceable contracts for the sale and purchase of persons (slavery), sexual services, “street drugs” such as heroin or crack cocaine, votes for public office, grades for this course in business law, and even marriage partnership.

Thus the free market in actual terms—and not in theory—consists of commerce legally constrained by what is economically desirable and by what is socially desirable as well. Public policy objectives in the social arena include ensuring equal opportunity in employment, protecting employees from unhealthy or unsafe work environments, preserving environmental quality and resources, and protecting consumers from unsafe products. Sometimes these objectives are met by giving individuals statutory rights that can be used in bringing a complaint (e.g., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for employment discrimination), and sometimes they are met by creating agencies with the right to investigate and monitor and enforce statutory law and regulations created to enforce such law (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency, for bringing a lawsuit against a polluting company).