Topic: Regulatory Studies

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.

Your Choices Are Unacceptable

Through my work on agriculture, I get occasional media calls on obesity and the agri-industrial complex supposedly behind it.  On Sunday, for example, I gave an interview on NPR about the USDA’s push for – and subsidisation of – farmers markets and “eating locally” as the solution to poor nutrition. (This a recurrent theme of the Obama administration: Michelle Obama has made people’s food habits her business, growing a White House Garden and driving in a convoy of 36 vehicles to the H Street farmers’ market in a photo-op to promote it. The USDA even has a “People’s Garden”.)

So an article in today’s New York Times caught my eye. According to a recent study, the push for calorie postings in restaurants has had no affect on people’s eating habits in certain low-income areas of New York City.  People’s choices are, apparently, pretty impermeable to the information that nutrition and public health advocates assured us was the key to better choices.

You would be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the matter and we could go on eating what we like unharassed. Think again:

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

I hope I’m not coming across as hyperbolic, but I find it difficult to believe that healthy eating advocates will be content to accept that people are making choices, unpalatable though they may be to the ”slow food” movement, based on the benefits and costs of the alternatives available to them. If people won’t voluntarily submit to the food police – even when information is available – then I suspect calls for regulation will soon follow.

(HT: Radley Balko)

Nanny State Doesn’t Like Competition - the English Version

A previous post by David Boaz poked fun at bureaucrats in Michigan for threatening a woman for the ostensible crime of keeping an eye on her neighbors’ kids without a government permit. English bureaucrats are equally clueless, badgering two women who take turns caring for each other’s kids. The common theme, of course, is that bureaucrats lack common sense – but the real lesson is that this is the inevitable consequence of government intervention (especially when politicians say they are “doing it for the children). The BBC reports:

England’s Children’s Minister wants a review of the case of two police officers told they were breaking the law, caring for each other’s children.

Ofsted said the arrangement contravened the Childcare Act because it lasted for longer than two hours a day, and constituted receiving “a reward”.

It said the women would have to be registered as childminders.

…Ms Shepherd, who serves with Thames Valley Police, recalled: “A lady came to the front door and she identified herself as being from Ofsted. She said a complaint had been made that I was illegally childminding.

“I was just shocked - I thought they were a bit confused about the arrangement between us. So I invited her in and told her situation - the arrangement between Lucy and I - and I was shocked when she told me I was breaking the law.”

…Minister for Children, Schools and Families Vernon Coaker insisted the Childcare Act 2006 was in place “to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children”.

Online Privacy and Regulation by Default

My colleague Jim Harper and I have been having a friendly internal argument about Internet privacy regulation that strikes me as having potential implications for other contexts, so I thought I might as well pick it up here in case it’s of interest to anyone else. Unsurprisingly, neither of us are particularly sanguine about elaborate regulatory schemes—and I’m sympathetic to the general tenor of his recent post on the topic. But unlike Jim, as I recently wrote here, I can think of two rules that might be appropriate: A notice requirement that says third-party trackers must provide a link to an ordinary-language explanation of what information is being collected, and for what purpose, combined with a clear rule making those stated privacy policies enforceable in court. Jim regards this as paternalistic meddling with online markets; I regard it as establishing the conditions for the smooth functioning of a market. What do those differences come down to?

First, a question of expectations. Jim thinks it’s unreasonable for people to expect any privacy in information they “release” publicly—and when he’s talking about messages posted to public fora or Facebook pages, that’s certainly right. But it’s not always right, and as we navigate the Internet our computers can be coaxed into “releasing” information in ways that are far from transparent to the ordinary user. Consider this analogy. You go to the mall to buy some jeans; you’re out in public and clearly in plain view of many other people—most of whom, in this day and age, are probably carrying cameras built into their cell phones. You can hardly complain about being observed, and possibly caught on camera, as you make your way to the store. But what about when you make your way to the changing room at The Gap to try on those jeans? If the management has placed an unobtrusive camera behind a mirror to catch shoplifters, can the law require that the store post a sign informing you that you’re being taped in a location and context where—even though it’s someone else’s property—most people would expect privacy? Current U.S. law does, and really it’s just one special case of the law laying down default rules to stabilize expectations.  I think Jim sees the reasonable expectation in the online context as “everything is potentially monitored and archived all the time, unless you’ve explicitly been warned otherwise.” Empirically, this is not what most people expect—though they might begin to as a result of a notice requirement.

Now, as Jim well knows, there are many cases in which the law sets defaults to stabilize expectations. Under the common law doctrine of implied warranty, when you go out and buy a toaster, you do not explicitly write out a contract in which it’s stipulated that the thing will turn on when you get home and plug it in, that it will toast bread without bursting into flames, and so on. Markets would not function terribly well if you did have to do this constantly. Rather, it’s understood that there are some minimal expectations built into the transaction—toasters toast bread!—unless the seller provides explicit notice that this is an “as is” sale. This brings us to a second point of divergence: Like Jim, I think the evolutionary mechanism of the common law is generally the best way to establish these market-structuring defaults. Unlike Jim, I think sometimes it’s appropriate to resort to statute instead. This story from Techdirt should suggest why:

It’s still not entirely clear what online agreements are actually enforceable and which aren’t. We’ve seen cases go both ways, with a recent ruling even noting that terms that are a hyperlink away, rather than on the agreement page itself, may be enforceable. But the latest case, involving online retailer Overstock went in the other direction. A court found that Overstock’s arbitration requirement was unenforceable, because, as “browserwrap,” the user was not adequately notified. Eventually, it seems that someone’s going to have to make it clear what sorts of online terms are actually enforceable (if any). Until then, we’re going to see a lot more lawsuits like this one.

Evolutionary mechanisms are great, but they’re also slow, incremental, and in the case of the common law typically parasitic on the parallel evolution of broader social norms and expectations. That makes it an uneasy fit with novel and rapidly changing technological platforms for interaction. The tradeoff is that, while it’s slow, the discovery process tends to settle on efficient rules. But sometimes having a clear rule is actually more important—maybe significantly more important—than getting the rule just right. These features seem to me to weigh in favor of allowing Congress, not to say what standards of privacy must look like, but to step in and lay down public default rules that provide a stable basis for informed consumers and sellers to reach their own mutually beneficial agreements.

Finally, there’s the question of whether it’s constitutionally appropriate for federal legislators, rather than courts, to make that kind of decision. I scruple to say how “the Founders intended” the Constitution to apply to e-commerce, but even on a very narrow reading of the Commerce Clause, this seems to fall safely within the purview of a power to “make regular” commerce between the several states by establishing uniform rules for transactions across a network that pays no heed to state boundaries. A patchwork of divergent standards imposed by judges and state legislators does not strike me as an especially market-friendly response to people’s online privacy concerns, but that appears to be the alternative. If there’s a way to address those concerns that’s both constitutionally appropriate and works by enabling informed choice and contract rather than nannying consumers or micromanaging business practices, then it seems to me that it makes sense for supporters of limited government to point that solution out.

Reform Needed, but Obama Plan Would Result in More Financial Crises, not Less

Today President Obama took his financial reform plan to the airwaves.  While there is no doubt our financial system is in need of financial reform, the President’s plan would make bailouts a permanent feature of the regulatory landscape.  Rather than ending “too big to fail” – the President wants us to believe that with additional discretion and power, the same Federal Reserve that missed the boat last time will save us next time.

The truth is that the President’s plan will result in a small number of companies being viewed by debtholders as “too big to fail”.  These companies would see their funding costs decline, allowing them to gain market-share at the expense of their rivals, making these firms even larger.  Greater concentration in our financial services industry is the last thing we need, yet the Obama plan all but guarantees it.

Obama also chooses myth’s over facts.  The President claims that de-regulation and competition among regulators caused the crisis.  The facts could not be more different.  Those institutions at the center of the crisis – Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman –could not choose their regulator.

The President’s plan chooses convenient targets and protects entrenched interests, rather than address the true underlying causes of the crisis.  At no time have we heard the President discuss the expansionary monetary policies that helped fuel the bubble.  Nor has the President talked about the global imbalances – the global savings glut that poured surplus savings from the rest of the world into the US.  But then the President appears to hope that loose monetary policy and continued American consumption funded by China will get him out of his own political problems with the economy.  It is especially striking that the President makes little mention of the housing bubble, as if it was only the bust that was the problem.

The President continues to say he inherited this crisis.  While true, he did not inherit the same individuals – Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke – who were at the center of creating the crisis.  All Obama needs to do is find a position for Hank Paulson and he will have completely re-assembled the Bush financial team.

Without real reform – fixing Fannie and Freddie, scaling back the massive subsidies for leverage in our tax code, loose monetary policy – it will only be a matter of time before the next crisis hits.  If we implement the President’s plan, we will, however, guarantee that the next crisis will be even larger and severe than the current one.

We’re Terribly Czarry

My former colleague Dave Weigel makes the excellent point that the supposed explosion of “Czars” under this administration is, in significant part, a function of journalists trying to make the same old “deputy undersecretary” sound sexier. Which is a shame, since it means that the pernicious and the benign get lumped together under the same sensationalist label – one whose public effect is to normalize the idea of unaccountable individuals within the executive branch given sweeping powers to solve specific problems, whether or not that picture is accurate.

I don’t know how much it can be attributed to the Czarmania, but I’m especially puzzled by the apparent emergence of legal scholar and prospective OIRA Adminstrator Cass Sunstein as the new hot bogeyman for conservatives. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which Sunstein’s been tapped to head, was created in 1980 and is precisely the sort of agency conservatives should love – tasked with catching inefficient and excessively burdensome regulations before they go into effect. It has, unsurprisingly, been most active under conservative presidents, and is one of the few offices where fans of limited government should want a vigorous, influential, and intellectually formidable director at the helm.

Now, Cass Sunstein is not somebody I agree with on a great number of things. On the day he’s tapped for a seat on the Supreme Court bench, I’ll break out in hives. But it’s awfully hard to imagine any realistic alternative – anyone Obama might actually have appointed – who would be better in the OIRA post from a limited government perspective. (I considered some of the specific concerns being raised about Sunstein back in the spring and found that they ranged from exaggerated to simply mendacious.) That’s one reason hardcore progressives have, in fact, been freaking out over his nomination. They must be pinching themselves  now that it seems Glenn Beck is out to do their work for them. Say what you will about the tenets of “libertarian paternalism,” but at least it’s an ethos that would demand a far lighter touch on markets than the unreconstructed technocracy of your average regulator.