The importance of regulation

Capitalism without regulation is prone to excesses, driven by individuals pursuing their own self-interest. Price-gouging and provision of inferior quality goods and services are held in check by competition, but there are other aberrations against public morals, or not in the public interest, that require regulation. Historical examples would be the use of slaves, the opium trade, usury, prostitution, child labor, conquest and exploitation of primitive cultures, and sale of weapons or related technology to a nation’s enemies.

Regulation is also required to curb monopolistic practices, where competition is ineffective. There is much talk of the importance of free markets, but unregulated markets are not free. They are prone to cheating, corruption and abuse of market power. What is needed are efficient markets, where there are:

  • low barriers to entry for new participants
  • low transaction costs
  • equal access to information, at the same time

Stock markets are often quoted as an example of an efficient market. Regulation has contributed to this over the years by policing illegal activities such as insider trading, front-running, wash sales, pump and dump, price manipulation, squeezes, and disseminating false or misleading information. But lately the prevalence of high-speed trading has eroded investor confidence, as most market participants no longer have access to price information at the same time. If this continues, the onus is on regulators to allow competitors to set up efficient markets for investors.


Peter Boettke teaches economics at George Mason University. He writes that ongoing economic woes demand drastic reduction in state intervention into free markets:

The great expansion of trade and technology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has produced a level of material wealth that enabled the cost of government intervention to be offset, and remain largely hidden to many observers. This possibility is not a new phenomenon. Adam Smith pointed out long ago that the power of self-interest exercised in the market economy is so strong that it can overcome a ‘hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations.’ But it is important to stress that the great material progress realised over the past 100 years was not caused by the expansion of state invention into the economy but in spite of those interventions. And the tipping point is when the number of ‘impertinent obstructions’ grow from hundreds to thousands so that the market economy can no longer hide the costs of the folly of human laws.

It is important to distinguish between state intervention in the free market and state regulation of free markets. Regulation is essential for orderly functioning of the market place. Compare the early days of stock exchanges to the benefits of current regulation regarding insider trading, market manipulation and stock flotation. State intervention, on the other hand, is disruptive to the orderly functioning of markets — distorting price signals which can lead to massive imbalances. The most obvious recent example of state intervention is the Fed suppression of interest rates in the early 2000s which led to a massive property bubble and global financial crisis in 2008.


Praise for good regulation –

[Economist Stephen King] is generally quick to remind us that regulation creates markets. Without property law and contract law, markets, as we know them, won’t be able function at all. The framework in which to understand regulation is that good regulation creates functional markets and balances benefits between market players and society at large. Bad regulation creates dysfunctional markets, or none at all, and can impede production by market agents by creating new risks, and costly hurdles.

via Praise for good regulation – |