“Hardly anybody has heard of the Roman poet Juvenal these days, which is a great shame. He was the first, as far as we know, to ask one of the central questions of political philosophy: “Who will guard the guardians?” He was rightly paranoid, arguing that someone must watch the watchmen, those who are entrusted to look after us – such as, to pick one example at random that he couldn’t possibly have conceived of, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). The problem, of course, is who will watch those who watch the watchmen? But Juvenal’s realism is not shared in the current political culture. We tend to assume that regulators are self-evidently superior to profit-seeking capitalists. Unlike the supposedly rapacious bankers, our regulator-kings are thought to be motivated by higher aims: the pursuit of the common good and other disinterested, noble goals. Not for them power or pay hikes.”
He is talking about the FCA’s recent impact on the UK insurance industry. Not exactly stellar performances from the regulator. But then with all such bureaucracies, the “mission-creep” problem exists. Dragons are sought to be killed, mountains are built to be climbed. The FCA, like its counterparts in most other developed nations, is constantly looking to “consult” on new initiatives, such as cracking down on such naughtiness as “peer-to-peer” lending and crowdfunding; its recent regulatory overhaul on the UK wealth management sector, through what is called the Retail Distribution Review, has led a number of firms to drastically increase the minimum sums of assets a potential client must have to be taken on, creating what is called the “financial orphan” problem. The FCA’s predecessor, the Financial Services Authority (part of that organisation’s powers were sent back to the Bank of England by the current UK government about two years’ ago) was not particularly prescient or effective in heading off the sub-prime debt disaster, although no doubt some of its officials had worries.
The issue, as Allister Heath says, to remember about such organisations is not to single out individuals for wrath; some of them are highly intelligent and diligent people. I think it was Hayek or Friedman (Milton) who cautioned champions of free markets against the ad hominem fallacy of bashing civil servants. Rather, they said, if you create bodies with sweeping powers, and create incentive structures for empire-building, then this is the sort of problem you get. To take a different case, look at how the US War on Drugs, and greater budgetary powers, has led to the militarisation of US police.
The problem with the FCA is that it exists. Had we stuck to an order where laws were strictly enforced against force and fraud, and where people were enjoined to remember “let the buyer beware”, rather than treat consumers of financial services as nervous children, we’d be a lot better off. Yes, financial services can be complex, and yes, some of them sound very odd (try explaining financial derivatives to your average Joe). But in general terms there is no more reason why sales of such services should require any more state oversight than the sale of groceries or bathroom fittings.