Tag: regulation

Understanding the Consequences of Internet Regulation

In an effort to achieve “network neutrality” online, the FCC is starting to write new regulations for Internet providers.  Reuters reports:

U.S. communications regulators voted unanimously Thursday to support an open Internet rule that would prevent telecom network operators from barring or blocking content based on the revenue it generates.

The proposed rule now goes to the public for comment until Jan. 14, after which the Federal Communications Commissions will review the feedback and possibly seek more comment. A final rule is not expected until the spring of next year.

Cato Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper appeared on Fox News this week to discuss the FCC decision. “This is governmental tinkering with a market place that is working really well and growing right now,” said Harper. “The last thing we need is to cut that off.”


There are ways to achieve net neutrality without regulation, says Timothy B. Lee:

An important reason for the Internet’s remarkable growth over the last quarter century is the “end-to-end” principle that networks should confine themselves to transmitting generic packets without worrying about their contents. Not only has this made deployment of internet infrastructure cheap and efficient, but it has created fertile ground for entrepreneurship. On a network that respects the end-to-end principle, prior approval from network owners is not needed to launch new applications, services, or content.

…Like these older regulatory regimes, network neutrality regulations are likely not to achieve their intended aims. Given the need for more competition in the broadband marketplace, policymakers should be especially wary of enacting regulations that could become a barrier to entry for new broadband firms.

Read the whole thing.

To Make Health Care Affordable, Don’t Add Regulations — Repeal Them

David Freddoso of the Washington Examiner reveals how the monopolies that states enjoy over licensing doctors, nurses, and other clinicians reduce access to care for low-income Americans:

Stan Brock just wants to help. The former co-star of “Wild Kingdom” wants to deliver free medical, dental and vision care to the poor. Whereas most politicians talk about “bending the cost curve” in health care, Brock simply wants to break it - to provide care free of charge, at the hands of unpaid volunteer doctors and dentists using donated equipment.

Brock’s group, Remote Area Medical, wants to bring its services to Washington, and soon. He wants his volunteer eye doctors to grind new glasses on the spot for those having trouble seeing.

He wants his dentists to pull rotten teeth and perform root canals in badly neglected mouths. He wants to give checkups and HIV tests to the uninsured and the underinsured. No questions asked.

The only question is whether the bureaucrats will let him do it.

That sounds like hyperbole.  It’s not.  Read the whole thing (it’s short) and you’ll learn how in-state clinicians shamelessly use monopolistic licensing laws to protect themselves from competition – even at the cost of denying medical care to poor people.

Yesterday, Cato released a study where I advocate breaking up the state’s licensing monopolies and making state-issued licenses portable.  Such a law would completely solve Remote Area Medical’s problem.

This Cato study by economist Shirley Svorny reveals how clinician licensing laws do more harm than good.

(Cross-posted at Cato@Liberty Politico’s Health Care Arena.)

What Caused the Crisis?

Last night National Government Radio promoted a documentary on National Government TV about the financial crisis of 2008, which concludes that the problem was … not enough government.

If the “Frontline” episode mentioned any of the ways that government created the crisis – cheap money from the central bank, tax laws that encourage debt over equity, government regulation that pressured lenders to issue mortgages to borrowers who wouldn’t be able to pay them back – NPR didn’t mention it.

For information on those causes, take a look at this paper by Lawrence H. White or get the new book Financial Fiasco by Johan Norberg, which Amity Shlaes called “a masterwork in miniature.” Available in hardcover or immediately as an e-book. Or on Kindle!

And for a warning about the dangers lurking in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, see this 2004 paper by Lawrence J. White.

Online Privacy and the Commerce Clause

I fear that with the PATRIOT Act on the brain, I’ve been remiss in continuing the colloquy on behavioral ads and privacy regulation that I’d been having with Jim Harper—who flattered me by responding in a long and thoughtful essay a couple weeks back. Because there’s so much interesting stuff there, I hope he won’t mind if I restrict myself to the first part of his reply here, in the interest of making this all a bit more digestible to those whose fascination with the topic may not be quite as consuming as ours. I’ll consider briefly the constitutional issue Jim raises, and turn to some of the specifics of the issue—and the relative merits of the common law alternative—in another post.

So like every good dorm room bull session, we begin in the weeds of  policy and quickly find ourselves breathing the rarefied air of constitutional theory. Supposing for the moment that we thought it were a good idea on policy grounds, would it be within the power of Congress to set ground rules for online advertisers who gather personal data from Web browsers? Recall that there are two particular rules that I’ve said I’d be tentatively open to, but which Jim rejects: a requirement of notice when information is being collected (say via a small link from the adspace to a privacy policy) and a rule establishing that privacy policies are enforceable, so that individual users can sue for damages if a company knowingly  violates its stated policy (thus far, courts have not generally found these to be binding). Does this fall within the power to “regulate commerce … among the several states”? I think so. I’ll start with what I hope will be some uncontroversial arguments and go from there.

So first, let’s grant that there’s one type of “original intent” that everyone ought to care about, whatever their more general interpretive stance: what Ronald Dworkin calls the linguistic intent of the Framers. That is, if words like “commerce” and “regulate” had narrower meanings in 1787 than they do today, we must, of course, read them now in that light: “Commerce” means actual interstate traffic in goods and services, rather than economic activity more generally, and “regulation” is centrally about establishing uniform rules and procedures.  With these appropriately narrowed readings in mind, I think it’s still a slam-dunk that online ads are covered.

There are, in fact, at least three different senses in which behavioral ads might be classed as interstate commerce. First, the purchase of the ad space itself is obviously a commercial transaction—frequently though not necessarily between entities in different states—and there’s a reasonable question of whether a host site with posted privacy policy is implicitly committed to applying that policy as a condition on ad space sold to third parties. The ads themselves will typically propose a commercial transaction, and in a more direct way than other ads are, can plausibly be seen as the first step in the transaction itself, as clicking on the ad will often bring you directly to a page where you can complete the purchase it recommends. Finally, the personal and behavioral user data collected is itself a valuable commodity, and many sites function with a pretty explicit informational quid pro quo: You will receive access to our content in exchange for registering and providing us with certain data. Since the Internet is borderless, most sites will be getting most of their traffic from people located in different states or countries, and even narrowly state-focused sites are likely to have substantial border-crossing traffic. So on a pretty straight reading of the constitutional language, I find very little reason to doubt that Congress may set uniform default rules for these interstate transactions, rather than leaving it to a patchwork of state rules.

Now, Jim’s reason for questioning this seems to be that the primary concern of the Framers was to prevent states from creating trade barriers. That may be, but if we skip ahead to Article 1, Section 10, we find that Congress knew perfectly well how to enact general and purely prohibitory bans on such shenanigans  using more apt “no state shall” language. Instead, they used precisely the same language for interstate commerce as they did for international commerce, where history suggests that the Framers (many of them steeped in the mercantilist economic theories of the day) had been above all concerned to preserve the ability to erect protectionist trade barriers. So we’re left with a choice between ascribing to the Framers a frankly stunning level of linguistic incompetence or supposing that the Constitution actually does grant the affirmative power that a facial reading suggests.

Needless to say, this does not require us to adopt the post–New Deal reading that places anything with the least potential influence on economic activity under Congressional purview. But we’re pretty close to the core here. Indeed, one of the early cases I know Jim considers a lodestone for the “no trade barriers” reading, Gibbons v. Ogden, involves a congressional grant of a license to operate steamboats. The court found that this superseded the monopoly New York had sought to grant another steamboat operator, which fits Jim’s point to an extent, but it’s crystal clear from that (1824) ruling that the power of Congress here is a broad authority to grant or withhold a privilege to operate interstate vessels, and establish conditions on such vessels, including restrictions on ownership and personnel. It seems to me you’d have to get awfully creative to read the clause in a way that authorizes that kind of authority over an “instrumentality” of commerce (water navigation) but forbids Congress from specifying the kind of notice a merchant must provide when initiating an actual interstate commercial transaction.

A slightly more controversial suggestion: When the specific substantive intent of the Framers is not explicitly embedded in the Constitution’s language—by which I mean, the specific use they thought a wise Congress would make of enumerated powers in light of contemporary economic theories, whether liberal or mercantilist—I am not inclined to give it very great weight. Or more bluntly, when the legal language is abstract, I don’t think we’re bound by an original conception of how or where it applied in specific cases—to the extent such a consideration is even intelligible when we’re talking about Internet advertising. Manifestly, very few people at the time of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment believed that the abstract guarantee of “equal protection” entailed a substantive right of black children to attend public schools the states restricted to whites. But insofar as what they wrote into law was the abstract guarantee, I don’t think we’re required to care what they believed. Our modern reading should be constrained by the original sense of the words used, and to some extent by the original structural purpose served (translated as necessary). But in specific application—whether privacy rules for online ads are encompassed within “regulation” of “commerce”—then even if you pulled out the Ouija board and got a personal verdict from James Madison, it would just be one more opinion.

Finally, and maybe most controversially: What kind of recommendations should we make in a world where our preferred interpretation of the Constitution lost the fight a long time ago? If the question is what we should recommend to judges, presumably we want to recommend that they start shifting back in the direction of a reading we regard as better justified. But what about when, as Jim imagines, we’re advising legislators? Should we only recommend what we believe to be authorized by what we hold to be the best reading of the Constitution, or will it sometimes make sense to endorse legislation that is plainly allowed by the current regnant interpretation, but that might be outside the scope of the interpretation we regard as superior? I think it will, partly for theoretical, and partly for pragmatic reasons.

At a practical level, both legislators and citizens widely believe Congress to have broader policy discretion than most of the authors here. So very generally speaking, I don’t think it serves limited government to refrain from weighing in on the relative merits of policy options that wouldn’t be on the table at all if our arguments had fared better at the meta-level. (Recall the old joke about the principled pacifist answer to how to respond to World War II: Don’t sign the Treaty of Versailles!) Now, on this particular question it’s not a sure thing that Congress or the FTC will act, and maybe “hands off” is the best advice to give. But there are plenty of areas where there’s no realistic chance that Congress is going to abstain altogether, even if we think that’s what the best interpretation of the Constitution requires. In those cases, I think it’s at least sometimes appropriate to flag the meta objection and then say something about the policy merits. Obviously there are limits—I don’t expect I’ll ever express a view on the “best” way to run a torture chamber—but there are plenty of issues where it seems perverse for the people most concerned with limited government to sit out the day-to-day debates and focus on getting Wickard v. Filburn overturned, glad as I am that there are folks hammering that.

That dovetails with the theoretical reason, which has to do with the broader question of why constitutional principles are binding on us at all. I assume it is not because the Founders, brilliant though they were, enjoyed some divine right of command that the inheritors of their institutions are compelled to obey. Partly it’s that the principles embedded in the Constitution are good ones, but a substantial piece of the answer, I think, is that they provide a stable framework within which we conduct our political and private lives. Judges give weight to stare decisis even when they think the case at the fountainhead of a line of precedent was poorly decided, in part because the legitimacy and authority of law are to a great extent a function of its predictability, of the way it allows us to take actions and make agreements and know pretty much what the legal consequences will be, however much else may remain unpredictable. Constitutional restraints do this one level up, establishing (albeit roughly) a domain of legal variation over the longer term. This is  not, for what it’s worth, wacky postmodern Critical Legal Studies stuff; it’s an extrapolation from Hayek. To imagine that you can remake a society’s institutions wholesale—even if your guide is the best interpretation of a founding document, and even if you’re pretty sure that interpretation held sway a couple centuries ago—is the fallacy of constructivist rationalists.

Now, I think the right account of why we should regard the Constitution as binding starts with considerations along these lines, but this has the (perhaps unfortunate) consequence that even if you had a super-awesome unanswerable argument for why the Constitution mandates libertopia, at least when read properly absent the accretions of precedent, you still wouldn’t have an argument that judges, legislators, and government officials must all start acting on this understanding as of tomorrow. What you’d have is a good starting point for a much more gradual process of paring government back down. Not, to be clear, because I think the Constitution “means whatever the Supreme Court says it does”—that would be incoherent, since the court’s practice is unintelligible, and its legitimacy illusory, unless we assume there’s an independent meaning for them to strive toward.  But an “independent” meaning can be located in a community of interpretation and practice that extends beyond the framing generation. By analogy: If I want to use language “correctly” to communicate, I don’t get to just assign whatever meanings I like to words. It’s even possible to make a strong argument that the majority of speakers at a particular historical moment are using a word—like “decimate” or “hopefully” or “brutalize”—improperly. But neither does it mean that the first person to coin the term gets to specify its legitimate uses forever. And, in fact, anyone who insisted on using “decimate” to mean only “reduce by ten percent” would probably find his attempts at communication misfiring badly. To say that meaning is necessarily public and independent—consult Hayek’s cousin Wittgenstein here—does not require a baptismal view of meaning. Or at any rate, whether it does or not depends on the function your interpretive practice serves.

So yeah, that’s all pretty far removed from our original discussion—and I’m hoping far enough below the fold that it doesn’t put me on the wrong end of another dozen arguments with colleagues. I’ll do another post later this week where I actually get to the policy question, and some potent objections that both Jim and Tim Lee have raised.

What Is Regulation?

The New York Times tries to spin the work of Nobel laureates Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson as not anti-regulation:

Neither Ms. Ostrom nor Mr. Williamson has argued against regulation. Quite the contrary, their work found that people in business adopt for themselves numerous forms of regulation and rules of behavior — called “governance” in economic jargon — doing so independently of government or without being told to do so by corporate bosses.

But none of us “anti-regulation” folks are against “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” The world is full of rules, from wearing clothes in the office to customary trade practices to the rules for managing common-pool resources that Ostrom studied. Anyone who opposed such “forms of regulation” wouldn’t be a libertarian or even an anarchist – he’d be a nihilist. (Of course, one could sensibly oppose particular rules; but no one seriously wants a world without rules of behavior.)

David Henderson analyzes one of the misunderstandings about the laureates’ findings:

Some have summarized their work by saying that institutions other than free markets often work well. But that statement can mislead you to conclude that government solutions are the answer. Free markets are only a subset of free institutions. A better way to sum up their work is that what Ms. Ostrom and Mr. Willamson really show is that voluntary associations work.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics defines “regulation” this way: “Regulation consists of requirements the government imposes on private firms and individuals to achieve government’s purposes.” That’s the kind of regulation that is controversial among economists and often criticized by libertarians. It is entirely different from “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” Those sorts of rules – often called “governance,” as the New York Times notes – are private and voluntary, made by the voluntary interactions of a few or many people.

The work of Ostrom and Williamson supports the idea of spontaneous order, an order that emerges as result of the voluntary activities of individuals and not through the commands of government. Spontaneous order can be hard to grasp, though it is the background of our entire world – language, common law, money, and the economy are all spontaneous orders (though government has intruded into some of those orders). It’s misleading to say that work of Ostrom and Williamson is somehow supportive of “regulation,” given the way that word is commonly used.

Sheldon Richman made a similar point back in June and wrote a Facebook note on the same paragraph that caught my eye.

Are Living Standards Higher in Denmark or the United States?

The left loves Scandinavia, but for the wrong reason. Nations such as Denmark and Sweden have much to admire, particularly their open markets, low levels of regulation, sound money, and honest governments. Indeed, if fiscal policy is removed from the equation, both Denmark and Sweden are more laissez-faire than the United States according to Economic Freedom of the World (as I noted in this recent video).

But fiscal policy is where the Scandinavians have serious problems. Taxes are confiscatory, punishing people who work, save, and invest. High levels of government spending, meanwhile, reduce economic growth by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy and funneling them into the stifling welfare state.

Not surprisingly, this is the reason why statists admire Scandinavian nations. Matthew Yglesias, for instance, recently expressed his great admiration for Denmark. And I suppose I would agree with him if asked to pick the world’s best welfare state. I’ve been to the country several times and there is no question that laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy have helped the nation remain relatively prosperous.

But Yglesias is a bit lovestruck about the Danes (an understandable impulse for non-economic reasons), and it leads him to make some rather strange assertion — presumably because he wants us to believe that Denmark’s good points are because of (rather than in spite of) an onerous fiscal burden. What jumped out at me was his claim that Danes enjoy a “higher average material standard of living” than Americans. I’m not sure where he gets that, since the World Bank, CIA, United Nations, and IMF all show that the United States has more per-capita economic output.

To be fair, measures of per-capita gross domestic product are not a  perfect measure, even if they are adjusted for purchasing power parity. So let’s take a look at other statistics that try to compare living standards. The two that I found (perhaps Yglesias found others, in which case I look forward to his identifying the source) are from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and, coincidentally, the Danish Finance Ministry.

The OECD, many of you already know, is not my favorite organization. The bureaucracy’s anti-tax competition campaign is a reprehensible attempt to hinder the flow of jobs and capital from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions. So surely nobody will claim that the OECD is a collection of market fundamentalists trying to manipulate statistics to make high-tax nations look bad. So let’s now look at this chart, which is based on the OECD’s calculations of average individual consumption per capita, pegged against an average for member nations of 100. It certainly appears that living standards in the United States are much higher.


Now let’s look at numbers from the Danish Finance Ministry. The bureaucrats there, in response to a parliamentary request, put together figures on per-capita individual consumption and per-capita private consumption.


I suspect the Finance Ministry is not trying to make Denmark look bad compared to the United States, yet the data certainly suggest that Americans enjoy higher living standards than their Danish counterparts.

New Paper: Would a Stricter Fed Policy and Financial Regulation Have Averted the Financial Crisis?

Many commentators have argued that if the Federal Reserve had followed a stricter monetary policy earlier this decade when the housing bubble was forming, and if Congress had not deregulated banking but had imposed tighter financial standards, the housing boom and bust—and the subsequent financial crisis and recession—would have been averted.

In a new study, Cato scholars Jagadeesh Gokhale and Peter Van Doren investigate those claims and dispute them.