An interesting question came up yesterday that challenges my position from a previous post that libertarians should be utilitarians.
Yesterday I had a discussion with a friend over one of the ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, the so-called “Right to Repair” law. The law forces car manufacturers to allow competing repair shops to buy technology from them which will allow the repair shops to read code generated by a customer’s car’s internal computer. This allows the shop to diagnose vehicle malfunctions. As it is now, only the manufacturer has the ability to read this read this code.
I stated that I oppose the law for several reasons, mainly based on the facts that the law undermines contracts between individual dealers and manufacturers, makes it less profitable for dealers to enter into exclusive relationships with manufacturers in the first place, and discourages manufacturers from incurring research and development costs to create new technology that can then be bought up by competitors. Each of these would lead to a poorer market for consumers.
But to be fair, the real-world impact that the law would be likely to have in any of these areas is probably very small. My friend said that, even if she accepted all of my arguments, the costs that the new law imposes on car manufacturers is so remote to her that it would still be worth it to vote “yes” to the new law. After all, most people only enter the retail market for cars around once or twice a decade. But they got to repair shops much more often.
How does this affect my position on utilitarianism?
Well, if we judge restrictions on freedom by their negative consequences, what about those laws, like this one, that have not much of any consequences at all? What, for instance, should a libertarian say about the birth control ban in Griswold v. Connecticut, which was on the books but never enforced? What about a rent control ordinance that caps rent so far above the market clearing price (say, $5 million/month) that no one would ever violate it? Or a law regulating a dying industry like the absbestos or quill-pen industries? If we judge laws by their consequences, does that mean we can’t make any judgments about laws with few, if any, bad consequences?
I don’t think so. Indeed, I think everyone should oppose all the laws I’ve mentioned.
Before we start judging the utility of individual regulatory laws, it makes sense to first judge the utility of the entire concept of the regulatory state itself. To state a few of the most obvious problems, government regulations distort the market by substituting the choices of bureaucrats for the choices of free consumers and therefore make people worse off then if they were left free to pursue their own ends. By their involuntariness, regulations also introduce social conflict into what was once free and mutually beneficial exchange (as in subsidies or tariffs, which direct consumers’ money away from where the consumers want it and toward government-favored industries). The fact that they can be changed at will makes it harder for people to predict the future and disincentivizes people from entering long-term contracts, given that those contracts could be negated at any time by a change in the law. The regulatory states’ enforcement mechanism also consumes huge amounts of tax money which could otherwise by invested in more productive areas. Moreover, taxation itself leads to a decline in net income, which means that people have less money to invest or to put toward their own futures.
When we understand this destructive nature of the regulatory state, it is no longer necessary to judge each new regulation on its own terms, entirely independent of the rest. Rather, we can understand that, though the new car law probably won’t have a huge effect on the market, to support it is to support a principle of interventionism that has been and will continue to be hugely destructive of civilized society.
Of course, it may be difficult to find the terms to oppose seemingly inconsequential laws in any given case. But if we fail to do so, then we risk giving up necessary ground to the interventionists. The burden should be on them to prove why any given law is so necessary that we should support it, rather than on us to show how each of their new machinations will be harmful in any given case.