The first century after the founding of the United States of America is remembered as one of the greatest success stories of all time. By laying down a simple set of rules limiting the role of government to protecting property rights and allowing citizens to conduct business as they saw fit, we developed from a fledgling nation to an economic superpower that was envied the world over.
This was a time before federal income taxes, before mandatory education, before child labor laws, before antitrust laws, before labor unions and before occupational licensure. The Bayer Company sold headache pills and cough syrup marketed under the brand name “Heroin” and popular consumer products Coca-Cola regularly contained narcotics.
Yet, as the country grew, so grew the regulatory power of government until these freedoms have become unthinkable to the average American. Today, proposals to eliminate even the most obviously burdensome regulations are met with howls of dismay, followed by a parade of horribles relating the consequences of such irresponsible legislation. When the prosperous days of laissez-faire economics are brought up, the response is usually some variant on the following: that society is much more complex now, and with greater complexity comes the need for stricter government control. The invisible hand of the marketplace may have been fine for Adam Smith, they say, but to apply it to our modern world would result in disaster.
In fact, this is exactly the opposite of the truth. More complex, technologically advanced societies provide the strongest argument for deregulation. Not only does technology make us freer, it makes freedom more desirable and more practical.
Common arguments against free-market capitalism invoke price gauging monopolists, public health and safety, and the importance of having an educated populace, but advances in technology have rendered many of these threats much less credible. For example, residents of small communities in 1850 would have had few options for dealing with a monopolist. They would either have to accept the inflated price for necessary goods or somehow do without. Now, improvements in transportation and communications make such situations improbable. The ability of customers to drive to other stores or simply order goods through the internet has severely limited the market power of large firms.
Similarly, occupation licenses were originally instituted in order to protect consumers from unqualified charlatans in markets where the quality of a good is difficult or impossible to verify prior to purchase. A snake oil salesman could roll through town, making grandiose promises and taking honest people’s money. By the time his goods were revealed to be useless or even dangerous, he would have moved on, never to be heard from again. Such schemes are much less feasible today, however, due to the extreme ease of long distance communication. Websites such as Angie’s List provide consumer reports of small businesses and one can find user reviews of almost any product on the market. Directories of known scammers and spammers are readily accessible to anyone who cares to look. In short, deceitful and incompetent businesses have never been more easy to detect and avoid.
Another result of improved communications is the increased potential for self-education. The rote memorization of facts may have been an important component to education in the 19th century, when verification may have required traveling great distances to some obscure library. Now that a few keystrokes can access the entire wealth of human knowledge, compulsory schooling seems like much less of a necessity.
Technology has also improved public safety considerably. He widespread claim that the world is more dangerous than ever before overlooks innovations such as rapid response security firms and the ability to call 911 from anywhere at any time. Surveillance technology, not to mention the fact that every teenager now carries a camera phone at all times, makes it almost impossible to commit a crime in public without being photographed and subsequently apprehended.
In short, a complex, technologically advanced society provides us with more information, more options and greater recourse against those who would attempt to profit through dubious means. Just as we shrug off the constraints of childhood and demand our independence as adults, so should we lift the regulations once needed for our own protection as we begin to outgrow them.