Sunday, November 06, 2005

Regulation: a panacea?

After having been estranged from my very best friends for nearly fifteen years(roughly the duration of my ill-fated marriage)—the ones with whom I suffered ridicule for daring to experiment with ‘Punk Rock’ and…gasp…individualism and nonconformity—I recently got the opportunity to become reacquainted with many of them. Back then (and perhaps now as well), I saw myself as the least bright of those in our clique, so I was naturally curious to know how they’ve matured and/or changed, and whether or not we still have as many things in common, such as: political philosophy, world-view, interests, etc.

As it happens, I was able to spend several hours with them just yesterday, which was a lot of fun. Following the initial catch-up and the introduction of the children, the conversation turned to politics, and to a lesser extent, religion. It was as though (from my perspective anyway) the intervening decade and a half of separation simply disintegrated, as we often debated the very same topics as teenagers.

The conversation moved from exorbitant gasoline prices, to oil producers, to government regulation (among other things). In addition to my ‘libertarian’ perspective, one of the participants in the discussion was a disaffected Republican, whereas another was a self-described liberal. Contra my position, the others seemed to be content with more regulation, rather than less, with respect to the economy in general, and the ‘petroleum markets’ in particular. To the extent that I’m less than satisfied with the points I made, I’ll mention a couple of good arguments on the subject.

Russell Roberts ‘debated’ this issue on television with Jamie Court. Mr. Court said: “Well, as a populist, what I favor is making sure we have enough refinery capacity to meet demand.” How, one might ask, should this be accomplished? According to Court: ”Department of Energy, whoever controls it in the executive branch, can tell oil companies when they need to increase refining capacity to meet demand. They can stop oil companies from exporting refined product away from areas in need if there isn't enough supply to meet demand.”

From an economic liberty standpoint, the idea that DoE ought to dictate to private businesses precisely how much to produce and with whom they may or may not trade is an absurd proposition at best, and immoral at worst. The next thing you know, the various legislatures will decree that certain intimate relationships are valid, whereas others are not…oh, wait. Well, my two cents aside, Russell Roberts’ response to Jamie Court is especially insightful:
The rhetorical distinction we should be pushing is centralized vs. decentralized. Classical liberals favor the decentralization of power and the enhancement of individual freedom. The other side (statists or some other term of your choosing) favors enhancing the power of the government. People on the left romanticize that expansion of power by saying it will serve the people. People on the right romanticize that expansion of power by saying it will serve the people. But has there ever been a powerful government that served the people?


Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that modern day left of center folks think that corporations run America via their influence on the government. If you believe that, why would you want government to be more powerful? If corporations control the political process, why wouldn't you be on my side, reducing the power of government?

Why indeed! In response to Roberts’ piece, Will Wilkinson (who’s post, incidentally, examines the irrational demonization of Wal-Mart, which also came up between my friends and me) wrote the following:
This point, however, seems never to penetrate, and journalists persist in the fantasy that if only the right people had state power, then they could put the world aright. All the while, the people who have a lot to gain personally from political power continue to seek it and get it under the cover of the myth of the noble public servant.

Perhaps I’ll respond—another time—at length to the misguided notion that collectivism could really work, if in fact the right set of politicians, supreme leaders or clergy held the reigns of power.