Can Regulation Ever Be Reasonable?

by | May 22, 2024 | Regulation

In the big picture, the best way for the government to protect my safety would be for it to protect my freedom to look after myself.

A Vox article about the Boeing safety scandal cites the following example of what it calls the FAA “get[ting it] right about airplane regulation:”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly recommends that you get a separate, secured seat for even a very young child below the age of 2 — but they haven’t banned the practice of carrying your child on your lap in your own seat.

… I’ve seen this policy criticized. “A kid being held would have been torn from the hands of their parents, and they would have been sucked out the plane,” aviation safety expert Kwasi Adjekum told the Washington Post, referring to what happened to Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on January 5. The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly recommended that the FAA ban lap children.

The FAA doesn’t ban the practice because car travel — which many people might choose if lap children were banned — is much less safe than air travel, even when children are held on a lap rather than in a separate seat.

The author praises this as an example of big-picture thinking and she is correct that the way the FAA chose to regulate does improve overall safety. But I have argued in the past that such examples of regulations that mimic rational behavior often fail to account for the cost of lost individual freedom inherent in the uncontested premise that it is appropriate for the state to do our risk calculations for us.

This is a problem I repeatedly encounter when I think about or discuss the effects of regulation, even though I am clear in my mind about the difference between central planning and legitimate laws (and the rules, called “regulations” in government, used to carry out the latter). Setting aside the fact that most people fail to be clear about such a distinction, the fact remains that many government regulations exist that are similar to standards or conventions that would evolve in a free society.

(Consider independent standards-setting bodies, free market incentives that might prove fertile for same, and evolving case law. For example, nobody wants to run a restaurant that is reputed to sicken customers with undercooked food: It’s easy to imagine industry standards that aren’t dictated top-down, and yet are widely known and followed, having been produced by something like a UL or a Consumer’s Union.)

To the degree that the government regulations are like what might have arisen anyway and are effective at achieving legitimate purposes, they will look like “good regulations” and will confound attempts to argue that central planning harms the economy. [1]

I will grant one cheer for the FAA on this matter: So long as we are saddled with a regulatory state (rather than advisory bodies), the least it can do is base its laws on hard science and err on the side of liberty. But the fact that we have dual agencies in disagreement should illustrate the peril inherent in the regulatory state: We are, in fact, lucky lap children aren’t outlawed.

I’d prefer not to leave something like that to chance.

That is the big picture that the entire regulatory state misses, but which our founders well understood and hoped to protect us against when, long ago, they declared:

The only legitimate purpose of government is make sure that these individual rights are protected…

I, for one, would rather make up my own mind about what is safest for myself and my children, than have my safety and my options hemmed in by the whims of bureaucrats. In the big picture, the best way for the government to protect my safety would be for it to protect my freedom to look after myself.

Anyone who advocates capitalism should approach regulations with great caution, and should always qualify them by bringing up the hidden cost: freedom. That is, government resources which should be devoted to protecting individual rights are instead being used to violate them. In the process, the body politic grows accustomed to its chains, and less likely to notice new ones.


[1] Put another way, while regulatory harm is not a central argument in favor of limited government, demonstrating it can bolster one’s case. Conversely, failing to do so (or doing so poorly) can cause one’s case to be overlooked for appearing weak or even discredited. See also the many pitfalls of cost-benefit analysis. That said, I regard it as a fundamental error to consider regulation in terms of its economic impact, absent first asking whether regulation violates individual rights.

Gus Van Horn is a scientist residing in Houston, Texas. He is the author of a popular pro-reason, pro-individual rights political and cultural blog.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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