“Corporate capitalists don’t want free markets. They want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush the competition by controlling the government.” – RFK, Jr.
It is often claimed in “progressive” and “liberal” circles that we need more regulation to curb the influence and power of big business. This belief is based largely on a misconception as to the origin, purpose and result of regulations.
During the period between the end of the American Civil War and roughly the 1890s, business in the US tried to cartelise but found it could not. In general, cartels can only control a market when force is introduced. During this period, every attempt to form a cartel and raise prices led to new competitors that realised they could undercut the cartels. In response, big business began lobbying the government to pass laws “in the public interest” (as all laws are claimed to be) that would enable them to keep competitors out. It worked. (Find a large amount of research on the subject here.)
Today, regulations and other laws protecting business include corporate personhood, accounting standards, safety standards, environmental standards and intellectual property. In addition, there are subsidies (“corporate welfare”), amounting to perhaps $98b a year, selective tax breaks and contracting. In each of these categories, government and industry have made a variety of laws enabling large firms to eliminate competition. As such, they are a kind of tax taken from consumers who would pay lower prices and entrepreneurs who would be able to make their livings doing what they want. The tax is given to business owners who would be forced to lower prices or improve services in a free market. The Small Business Administration in 2005 estimated the total cost of these regulations at $1.1 trillion.
Accounting standards are widely considered necessary to prove a firm is not cooking the books. But in the absence of state regulation, concerned investors would find a way to insure against this possibility with audits. An example of the enormous and unnecessary complication of accounting standards is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal and failure. The Act made accounting more complicated. Implementing it costs a firm millions of dollars. Millions of dollars is pocket change for a big corporation, but prohibitively expensive for new and small businesses that could otherwise rival them. As a result, fewer businesses are created, and wealth and power are concentrated in the larger firms. We now have a complex tax code that could not be implemented by less than a team of accountants. The same is true of the legal code. The modern legal code was designed so that teams of high-priced lawyers can get away with murder and people without money see no justice.
Sarbanes-Oxley is, of course, but one law in a sea of other laws. Those who say the 2008 financial crash was caused by a lack of regulation may do well to realise there were thousands of lines of financial regulations already. They often cite the repeal of parts of the Glass-Steagal Act as the only incidence of deregulation they can think of, but this change did nothing to enable banks to make bad loans. A look at the facts indicates very clearly that regulation was the main cause of the bubble that caused the massive destruction of wealth for all but those whose ties to the state got them trillion-dollar bailouts.
Negative externalities, which seem to be the reason people beg the government to get involved in the market, are easily externalised in a statist society. The same big corporations pollute and break the law repeatedly. They are sued by the government, they pay the government, which means it gets another legal donation from an interest group, and then they are allowed to continue business as usual. The lawsuits are a bone thrown to voters and the corporations shake them off like lice. But they give the appearance that justice has been done. The corporations nonetheless retain all the benefits they get from the state in the form of legal personhood, subsidies, tax loopholes, intellectual property and regulatory barriers to competition. The state does not protect us against negative externalities.
Intellectual property enables firms to monopolise virtually anything they create. Consider the effects of IP laws in the pharmaceutical industry. Kevin Carson explains that drug patents are unnecessary to recoup expenses and develop the most effective drugs.
First of all, there has been a dramatic shift away from fundamentally new kinds of blockbuster drugs, because it’s much more cost-effective to put money into tweaking the formulas of drugs whose patents are about to expire just enough to qualify for repatenting them—so-called ‘me, too drugs.’ Second, a great deal of the basic research on which drug development is based is carried out at government expense in publicly-funded universities. Around half of the overall cost of drug R&D is taxpayer-funded. And in the United States, under the terms of legislation passed in the 1980s, the patents on drugs developed entirely at taxpayer expense are given away—free of charge—to the drug companies that produce and market them. Third, most of the actual R&D cost for developing drugs comes, not from testing the version of a drug actually marketed, but from securing patent lockdown on all the other major possible variants.
Generic drugs do not get developed, or get banned as soon as they are, because they are competition. The poor people who need them most do not get them. Intellectual property, Carson concludes, is murder.
We can divine the purpose of regulation from its results. We now have giant, multinational corporations straddling the Earth, with no government willing or able to oppose them, with the exception of a few populist, anti-imperialist holdouts. Large corporations’ alliance with the state has enabled the two to control natural resources and all manner of other markets. Consumers thus have fewer choices and higher prices than in a market freed from regulation. But freedom is always preferable to laws and regulations imposed by the state. Freedom allows economies and the arts to flourish. It means scientific advances and technological innovation. And it forces responsibility on those able to handle it while still allowing for us to help each other.
The solution to the control of markets by cartels is to free them. That would make customers the true regulators. If they decry a firm’s practices, they can stop buying from it and start buying from its competitor. If you abhor business, you are free to start and join one of the thousands of cooperatives in the world or simply produce and give to your neighbours. But demanding more regulation to prevent big-business malfeasance is akin to shooting oneself in the head to cure one’s headache.