Maybe Government Shouldn’t Just “Get Out Of The Way”

A number of years ago, I read a book by a well-regarded libertarian academic, arguing against most government regulation. I don’t remember a great deal of it, but I do vividly recall his argument against the FAA’s assignment of air lanes (and actually, the agency’s very existence): he argued that the choice of airplane paths should be left to the airlines. Once a couple of planes collided midair and they got sued for big bucks, airline CEOs would get together to work out routes and ensure that it didn’t happen again.

Maybe I’m just a weenie, but I’d prefer not to be on one of those planes that collided.

I thought about that argument when I read the Sunday New York Times article attributing the two Boeing disasters to lax government regulation. Evidently, the officials charged with oversight allowed Boeing to “self-certify” the safety of many of its components and processes–as a result, regulators had never independently assessed the risks of the software known as MCAS when they approved the plane in 2017.

When you put the fox in charge of the henhouse…..

It has been an article of faith of the GOP that there is just too much government regulation–their default position is that most state intrusion into the marketplace is illegitimate and unnecessary. They seem unable to comprehend why government regulations were ever created.

Not long after the events that triggered the Great Recession, the New York Times ran a column by Edward Glaeser, in which he discussed the importance of both the public and private sectors in sustaining a workable market economy. Among his points:

Markets are built on both private entrepreneurs and public law enforcement. For centuries, investors have relied on courts to enforce contracts. Who would buy a company’s shares if the law didn’t impose a fiduciary duty on their issuer? Every person with a bank account in the United States relies on the government to protect his or her assets. Taxpayers also trust that the government can make the costs of overseeing the banking system reasonable.

So who failed? Certainly, the shenanigans on Wall Street remind us that capitalists are not angels, and that unchecked, their mischief can do much harm. But the point of financial market regulation was to ensure that misbehavior would not imperil the entire system.

Are some regulations onerous? Stupid? Unneeded? Sure. But even bigger problems emerge from inadequate regulation and/or enforcement.

Glaeser was writing about the importance of government’s role in financial oversight, an issue that Elizabeth Warren has consistently raised. It takes only a short walk down memory lane to remind us of numerous others.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf has been attributed to inadequate inspections of drilling machinery; the collapse of the I35W bridge was attributed to deficient government infrastructure inspections; the mine collapse in West Virginia occurred because regulators failed to cite and punish the owner for refusing to install required safety equipment; the Enron, Worldcon and Madoff scandals were enabled by a lax SEC.

As a consequences of such inadequate oversight, thousands of people were harmed. Hundreds died.

We rely upon the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that our medications are safe and effective, our chickens free of e coli. (As I tell my students when we discuss regulatory processes, I’d just as soon not have to test the chicken I buy in the supermarket myself when I get it home.)

We rely on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ensure that the toys we buy our children are free from toxic paint and dangerous parts.

We rely on the FAA to independently inspect the aircraft we fly in, and to regulate those flight paths so that we don’t meet midair.

Caveat emptor is no substitute for competent government oversight–and right now, Americans do not have a competent government.

Sheila Kennedy