Monday, October 18

The use of regulation by business, contrary to markets

There are many examples of how the conventional wisdom regarding regulation is wrong: Republicans and conservatives are in bed with government, seeking to unshackle business from the burden of government regulation. Democrats and liberals, on the other hand, are busy crafting regulations to protect the common man from the evils of big business. As it turns out, both Democrats and Republicans love creating regulations, and big business loves these regulations.

For example, in 2005 Walmart came out in favor of raising the national minimum wage. The company’s CEO said that he was concerned for the plight of working families, and that he thought the minimum wage level of $5.15 per hour was too low. If Walmart — a company the political left loves to hate as much as any other — can be in favor of increased regulation of the workplace, can regulation be a good thing? Had Walmart discovered the joys of big government?

The answer is yes. Walmart discovered a way of using government regulation as a competitive weapon. This is often the motivation for business support of regulation. In the case of Walmart, it was already paying its employees well over the current minimum wage. At the time, some sources thought that the minimum wage could be raised as much as 50 percent and not cause Walmart any additional cost — its employees already made that much.

But its competitors didn’t pay wages that high. If the minimum wage rose very much, these competitors to Walmart would be forced to increase their wages. Their costs would rise. Their ability to compete with Walmart would be harmed.

In short, Walmart supported government regulation as a way to impose higher costs on its competitors. It found a way to compete outside the marketplace. It abandoned principles of free markets and capitalism, and provided a lesson as to the difference between capitalism and business. Many, particularly liberals, make no distinction between business and capitalism. But we need to learn to recognize the difference if we are to have a thriving economy based on free-wheeling, competitive markets that foster innovation, or continue our decline into unproductive crony capitalism.

In the following excerpt from his book The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money, author Timothy P. Carney explains that big business is able to use regulation as a blunt and powerful tool against competitors, and also as a way to improve its image.

How does regulation help big business?

Excerpt from The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money, by Timothy P. Carney

If regulation is costly, why would big business favor it? Precisely because it is costly.

Regulation adds to the basic cost of doing business, thus heightening barriers to entry and reducing the number of competitors. Thinning out the competition allows surviving firms to charge higher prices to customers and demand lower prices from suppliers. Overall regulation adds to overhead and is a net boon to those who can afford it — big business.

Put another way, regulation can stultify the market. If you’re already at the top, stultification is better than the robust dynamism of the free market. And according to Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman:

The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system. Naturally, existing businesses prefer to keep out competitors in other ways. That is why the business community, despite its rhetoric, has so often been a major enemy of truly free enterprise.

There is an additional systemic reason why regulation will help big business. Congress passes the laws that order new regulations, and executive branch agencies actually construct the regulations. The politicians and government lawyers who write these rules rarely do so without input. Often the rule makers ask for advice and information from labor unions, consumer groups, environmental groups, and industry itself. Among industry the stakeholders (beltway parlance to describe affected parties) who have the most input are those who can hire the most effective and most connective lobbyists. You can guess this isn’t Mom and Pop.

As a result, the details of the regulation are often carefully crafted to benefit, or at least not hurt, big business. If something does not hurt you, or hurts you a little while seriously hindering your competition, it is a boon, on balance.

Another reason big business often cries “regulate me!” is the goodwill factor. If a politician or bureaucrat wants to play a role in some industry, and some executive says, “get lost,” he runs the risk of offending this powerful person. That’s bad diplomacy. Bureaucrats, by their nature, do not like to be told to mind their own business. Supporting the idea of regulation but lobbying for particular details is usually better politics.