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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Regulation is for the birds

It isn’t often that one finds a damning indictment of state regulation in the pages of the Guardian, so I cannot possibly let this opportunity slip by unblogged.

The background to this comes courtesy of one of these ‘food safety scandals’ that periodically burst into the media spotlight and engender all manner of ‘shock, horror’ headlines before slipping quietly down the memory hole into oblivion. This time, the scandal involves chicken. Or, more accurately, a simulacrum of chicken because it appears that the British market is being flooded with cheap chicken products that have been pumped with water to artificially inflate them and stuffed full of hydrogenated beef proteins.

And the distributors are getting away with it, despite the existance of a plethora of complex food safety and labelling regulations and whole slew of portentious-sounding Euro-agencies to enforce them. The Guardian’s Felicity Lawrence is beside herself:

The food standards agency, which we might expect to be our champions in the matter of food quality, seems to think this is all right so long as someone mentions it on a label at some point. Except, of course, since they communicate in Euro-regulation speak, what the white rabbit actually says as he puts on his spectacles is: “This is a labelling issue and a composition issue. It is not a public safety issue.”

So it turns out that all these bureaucrats are good for is issuing sanctimonious press releases and little else. I believe that Ms.Lawrence has (quite accidentally of course) stumbled upon the principle of moral hazard. She, like many others, has hitherto placed her faith in regulations and state enforcers to ensure the quality and safety she requires, only to find that she is left dangling when the crunch comes.

But her tale of woe does have a happy ending. Almost certainly through frustration rather than dazzling insight, Ms.Lawrence comes to exactly the right conclusion:

We must wake up to the reality and to the fact that no one but ourselves will sort it out. Don’t buy cheap chicken.

Bingo! Hopefully Ms.Lawrence has now come to appreciate the perils of assigning over personal responsibility to agents of the state and then hoping and praying that they do the right thing by you. They rarely have and they rarely will.

Regulatory regimes are not just a waste of time and effort, they are actually damaging. They suck a huge amount of otherwise-productive wealth out of society that ends up translated into nothing except sinecure jobs and state pensions.

In any event, the only traders who bother to comply with all these regulations are the ones who are worried about their reputation and, ironically, it is those traders who can be relied upon to provide us with good quality products without the monkey of the state on their backs. They want to make money and stay in business and they don’t achieve those aims by poisoning their customers or brushing them off with inferior, shoddy goods.

So let’s take all these regulations and put them on a bonfire. Yes, there will still be rogues and con-men but, as this story has clearly illustrated, enacting more laws doesn’t stop them anyway. The combination of profit-motive on the supply side and a bit of personal responsibility on the part of the consumer is a better recipe for safety and quality than any number of faceless pen-pushers wielding absurd and counter-productive diktats.

4 comments to Regulation is for the birds

  • Malcolm

    Today’s Guardian is giving out the (surely misleading) impression that they’re starting to accept view Samizdatistas take as read. Not only is there that call to ignore the regulator and take personal responsibility, but also:

    * The Food Standard Agency tells Food Minister Michael Meacher where to stick his demands that they promote organic food

    * The Guardian explains in methodical detail how inelasticity of demand for crack cocaine means the War on Drugs is doomed to failure.

  • Andy Duncan

    My wife bought The Guardian, last Saturday, without realising the terrible gibbering effects this would have on me. I used to read this “newspaper” every day, when I was an idiot socialist, so thought I’d be able to take it; but couldn’t manage even the first page without shouting obscenities out loud, in front of the children; this nauseous rag really should be sold with a mental health warning! :-)

    So my thanks go out to you David for possessing the iron will necessary to trawl through its stinking entrails to pluck out these rare gems.

    In the meantime, I shall continue taking my Chromium Picolinate capsules with confidence, despite the Food Safety Agency’s decision to try to ban them for my own good. Heck, I think I might even just double the dosage, to really hack them off ;-)

    Used to be 17st and heading for a certain heart attack in a few years, before Dr Atkins’ wonderful diet, now I’m 15st 13lbs four weeks later, dropping 3lbs a week, and heading for relative health. Thank you Dr Atkins. Sod you, Food Safety Agency! 8-)

    (For any fatties out there, like me, who’ve tried High Fibre, less food, and more exercise, and still can’t get off a high plateau, get the Atkins book now, and get it working for you, before the do-gooders ban both it, and its treatments.)

  • I was looking for a quote by Ronald Reagan that I thought might be appropriate:

    [G]overnment’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

    However I found something even better. The text of an excellent 1998 speech by Rupert Murdoch called Reinventing Socialism which has a go at the creation of the what he reffers to as the New Class of government regulators that have sprung up.

    Today, neosocialism is being advanced, under the banner not of efficiency, but of equity. It is supposed to make things fairer, more just, according to some non-economic scheme of values, as in the case of the environment. And this turns out to be an argument that is very difficult to resist.

    The common thread, of course, is that the government still gets to tell the rest of us what to do. It has just changed its rationale and wrapped itself in a new all-embracing doctrine of political correctness. But it still asserts that individuals cannot be relied on to make their own decisions. Or as Chairman Mao said, “Put politics in command.”

    What is the underlying pattern behind this neosocialism?

    It seems to me that the central sociological fact about modern societies is the rise of what Irving Kristol has called “the New Class”-that group that makes its living from running the government and its ancillary manifestations. In Kristol’s view, the New Class includes career professional politicians, who are a relatively recent development in democracies. It includes the government bureaucracy, which in most countries is now large enough to constitute a special-interest group of its own … perhaps the largest group of all.

    There is good news though. He suggests neo-socialism will collapse just like the old one did.

    What, then, is to be done?

    The current situation is not particularly stable. Neosocialism is prone to economic breakdown, just as the old model was. It confronts an inexorable reality. If the farmer is filling out forms, he cannot be raising cattle–let alone getting rid of gophers.

    The Guardian’s article may indicate the first fissure. I hope they will develop into large cracks.

    Geting the state the hell out.

    There are many goods we all need which require a third party opinion of their quality. It may be a shock to Guardianistas but free markets provide a solution to test products on the consumer’s behalf. No government involvement required and it’s better for it.

    Here are two examples.

    I don’t know much about cars so having the AA examine one I may be about to purchase is probably a good idea. (Note to foreign readers that’s the Automobile Association – it doesn’t involve a 12 step program.)

    Instead of just checking one car there are also private organisations which test whole product lines. Products that are very important, these are designed to save lives. The product’s purchasers want a quality product and so the manufacturers are compelled to make their goods up to standard. It’s all voluntary. No one has to buy an approved product if they don’t want. The testers I would suggest are far less corruptable than any governmental employee. Everybody benefits.

    Ladies and Gentlemen I give you the Snell Memorial Foundation

    Today, Snell is known for its ongoing work in setting, maintaining and upgrading the most authoritative helmet standards in the U.S. and throughout the world. Snell tests thousands of helmets each year and maintains its objectivity by remaining independent of helmet manufacturers, as well as local and national governments. Its state-of-the-art testing facility is located in North Highlands California.

    Helmets meeting Snell Standards provide the highest level of protection available. Snell Standards significantly surpass those set by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission’s 16 CFR Part 1203.

    In order to continuously monitor the quality of helmets being sold to the public, Snell purchases and tests samples of currently certified helmets from the marketplace. These helmets are tested only in Snell labs by Snell technicians. Should a currently certified helmet fail, the helmet manufacturer must take corrective action to Snell’s satisfaction.

    Once education and health are privatised you won’t be able to move in WH Smith for What School and Which Hospital. Good. Bring it on.

  • Guy Herbert

    Must say Irving Kristol’s New Class looks awfully like Milovan Djilas’. Are they by any chance related?