Consumer interests are best served through the medium of education as opposed to government regulation. While regulations may be conceived to protect the interests of consumers, education respects an individual’s freedom of choice. The education approach also recognises the fact that all people make rational decisions, even if some decisions may turn out to be ill-advised. And we will all make mistakes, even government officials, since we are human and not infallible. Learning to accept and deal with the consequences of our decisions is all part of the education approach.
Government regulations are, by definition, coercive. They are mandatory and legally enforceable. They are premised on a perception that consumers are ignorant simpletons, incapable of making rational decisions in their best interests. That consumers are not smart enough to decide what products they should or should not purchase. That, we, you and I, need to be protected.
Curiously, the ruling parties within a government tend to be the most vociferous in their calls for more regulation and indulge in the profuse enactment of regulations. This phenomenon Leon Louw eloquently refers to as ‘legislative diarrhoea’. Something that afflicts virtually all governments throughout the world.
Regulatory initiatives have an awful tendency to progress and become an end in themselves. Regulation becomes the panacea for all sorts of problems, real or imagined, that governments may perceive to exist in the broader society. More and more regulations are piled on top of others, especially when the bureaucrats realise that previous inflicted regulations have failed in their objectives. William Pitt (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1804 -1806) was acutely aware of this danger in 1783 when he warned that “necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves”.
Faced with the failure to achieve their stated regulatory objectives, bureaucrats see the only solution to be a further tightening of the screws. They propose more regulations to close the ‘loopholes’. In some cases it goes on ad infinitum. They build empires of people and administrative personnel to manage the increased legislative burden. It never occurs to them to revisit the original rationale to examine whether any regulation is indeed necessary and to justify its continuance. Generally, governments are rather disinclined to repeal existing legislation, even if it is demonstrably bad or counterproductive. The inevitable result of all this regulation is the suffocation of the spirit of enterprise.
For businesses, the costs of implementing government imposed regulations become onerous and cumbersome. This deters further investment and domestic investors start exploring alternative markets. Foreign investors get the cue from their South African counterparts and they, in turn, look at other business friendly, less regulated markets. Unfortunately, companies tend to be reticent about directly confronting government on its erroneous policies so policymakers often remain ignorant of the real consequences of their good intentions.
Justice Casey Percell may have wisely admonished that “It is not the responsibility of government or the legal system to protect a citizen from himself”, but politicians and government officials so skilfully weave the façade of a caring government that, absurdly, as consumers, people, generally, tend to endorse, and even welcome, regulatory intrusions into their freedoms. They are virtually brainwashed into believing that interventionist government measures are the only effective means for consumers (usually meaning ‘other people, not me’) to be wrapped in cottonwool and protected against the harsh realities of possible ill-advised consumer choice.
Governments, as in the case with anti-smoking and anti-liquor quasi-mafia era prohibitionist regulations, create a glowing halo around their heads and persuade consumers to swallow their regulatory feast hook, line and sinker without applying their minds to the insidious encroachment those regulations make on their personal liberties. Bureaucrats close their eyes and certainly do not publicise the fact that, in America, the prohibitionist, anti-liquor regulations that were in effect from 1920 to 1933 (The Volstead Act being the enabling policy), notoriously set organised crime up in business, most notably Al Capone and his mafia cronies. Policymakers don gilded blindfolds and loiter in their mental ivory towers. They just never learn!
It is incumbent on consumers who treasure their personal freedom to be vigilant at all times to guard every one of us against government’s tendency to violate our liberty. This has to be the case even when it might concern only one sector of citizenry and not affect us all. After all “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” Wendell Phillips (1811 -1884) said.
Author: Temba A Nolutshungu is a Director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and may not be shared by the members of the Foundation.