R is for regulation

This week is R:

Regulations govern conduct and a well-regulated society is a well-ordered and civil society.  But bring up the topic of government regulation and expect passionately polarised responses for or against more rules or less red tape.

Government regulation can be particularly controversial when the community is deeply divided over some regulatory choice that must be made, such as the rules affecting abortion, compulsory military service at the time of the Vietnam War, or to allow or ban the Springbok tour in 1961.  But a prime role of government is to find a response that best preserves community peace and cohesion.  A society without government regulation is a fantasy.

More generally, government laws and regulations can displace, for better or for worse, rules in privately-agreed arrangements for regulating conduct, such as employment agreements, school rules and rules governing gated communities.  They can similarly displace long-accepted common law rules.

Government regulations are sometimes categorised as social (eg abortion laws), environmental, or economic.  Views about their desirability differ, particularly through time.  A major change in recent decades in New Zealand, and elsewhere, has been a rise in restrictive environmental regulation offset by major economic de-regulation.

Today much government economic regulation is ostensibly aimed at stopping businesses from exploiting or misleading suppliers, employees, customers and investors.  Yet economic research finds that businesses may support some of this regulation, perhaps judging that it most hurts competitors.  For example, the regulation of quality can raise costs disproportionately for SMEs, hurting consumers overall.  Economists call this the capture theory of regulation.  However, the theory may not explain regulations that are opposed by business.

Another proposition is that governments care not one fig about interest group pressures or contributions to political campaigns, but regulate solely for the benefit of the wider community.  This is called the public interest theory of regulation.  A major regulatory textbook dryly observes that a large amount of evidence refutes this naïve proposition.

In contrast, the mainstream economic theory of regulation proposes that interest groups lobby for changes in regulations that will particularly benefit them and politicians respond rationally to these demand since they want to get re-elected.  Political parties merely differ with respect to their favoured constituencies and ideologies.  Outcomes can be difficult to predict since they depend on the voting balance between contending considerations, but the national interest is not centre stage.

Whether a particular regulation does best serve the overall community can be difficult to determine.  Economists use cost-benefit analysis for this purpose, but it has well-known limitations.  Any analysis should anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences – the adage that intervention in a complex system commonly creates unanticipated, often undesirable, outcomes.

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