Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Free-market, Small Government and Regulations

The free-market has been used to argue against regulations and for small government for years. However, I believe that the major supporters of using the free-market argument are disingenuous in their application of the argument. In addition, the free-market is a flawed theory which needs to be revisited by neoclassical scholars and adjusted.

The free-market theory comes from the idea that there is an invisible hand that guides the market towards equilibrium between supply and demand. This assumes that once the equilibrium is hit it will stay at that point until there is some shock to the system which would find a new equilibrium. Each time that there is a shock, the invisible hand would push the market into a new equilibrium. This idea came as a side comment in the Wealth of Nations. This idea has become enshrined in the minds of neoclassical economics in a manner that Newtonian Physics was presumed to be accurate. In both cases the theory is incorrect. Relativistic Physics has replaced Newtonian, but in Economics the free-market is still the prevailing mechanism for policy creation. There has been no evidence for an invisible hand at all. In fact Metcalf created the theory of a networked economy which argues that the value of a good becomes more valuable as more people use it. I've mentioned this in the past. Essentially, this will prevent any equilibrium from every being found as the price can increase and people will still adopt the networked item because it's becoming more valuable to the user. Or the price can remain constant even when it should drop for other factors such as a reduction in cost of production. A perfect example is the iPhone. According to research Apple has a whopping 72% margins on the iPhone, even if production was moved to the US Apple would still make 42% margin on the iPhone. There also is an over production of the iPhone and strong competition, which would indicate that the iPhone should drop prices as they are capable with that large of a margin. This market has a great deal of competition and has a large number of companies producing, which indicates that it Apple should be under pressure to drop prices. However this isn't happening because of the networked value of the iPhone. There are a huge number of apps for the phone, the apps are high quality and the product works well with other iPhones. The market has had no impact on the cost of the iPhone.

However, free-market champions would look at any effort to change the labor practices of Apple as wrong headed and regulation that isn't required. The Market isn't demanding any change to labor practices because the market can bear the current prices and the demand indicates that people don't care about labor practices. However, it's well known that there are no alternatives to Apple's iPhone that are produced in an ethical manner. So voting with your money wouldn't actually work here. The problem arises because there is something of a monopoly in the manufacturing of the smart phones in FoxConn. In this case there is a market failure. Which is something that neoclassical theorists argue cannot occur. The market cannot send a signal to firms because there is no mechanism in which the market could send a signal. This is can be understood if you view this industry as a networked economy. Where you see the ties between manufacturers and handset companies, which would show a massive connection to FoxConn.

Efforts to regulate the manufacturing of devices have been argued as the reason for moving the manufacturing to other countries. However, this is not the case in the case of Apple, as they would still have huge margins. It's because the company is attempting to maximize profits, not reduce costs to be profitable. The same arguments have been used to argue for smaller government. Saying that since there are no market failures the government should not intervene in the industry.

The unfortunate thing is that these arguments immediately disappear when it comes to protecting the profits of record industries. The same free-market advocates then move to argue that intellectual property must be protected. Essentially, creating protection for a specific product through IP causes a market failure and prevents the market from operating at its most efficient because there are not other competitors in the market. Creating IP requires a huge regulatory framework from the mechanisms of registering, logging complaints and prosecuting actors that infringe on the IP.

This type of industrial policy is typically derided by the small government fans, as it is a type of regulation that selects a "winner" (IP owners) over "losers" (non IP owners). Which may be fine. However, whenever this selection pushes our government to select a winner (Music) over the fastest growing, possibly only growing, part of our economy (internet based companies) there is a serious risk to the future. As I've mentioned before these laws represent huge risks for innovation.

These laws are SOPA and PIPA, which I've discussed extensively. However, the next round of internet regulations come in the form of CISPA. This bill, which requires allows companies to share extensively with government agencies. This type of sharing of user data and information about the activities going on at the company would not go over very well from the the free-market advocates if this was a request for data about customer data for car dealerships or steel mills. Essentially, this is going to increase the cost of doing business in the US. This may prevent companies from working in the US and prevent innovation. If I was to create a company that dealt with social data I would not want to do so after the passing of this bill. It would be likely that I would be blackmailed into giving the government data about my users that I had no desire to give them.

The internet is the perfect example of a networked economy. Facebook's value comes from the fact that it has a huge user base. This is true for Google, Amazon and Instagram (List of companies that support CISPA). Without the users the services is literally worthless. With the users a company without any revenues can be worth $1 Billion (Instagram). The difference between this bill and other bills like SOPA and PIPA is that the agreement is bidirectional. The government will likely help Facebook and Google fight Chinese attacks and give information to each other about the activities of online hacktivist groups like Anonymous. It is likely that 4chan will end up giving over IP data and other information related to anonymous and Anonymous users.

This is regulation that the internet doesn't need and will stifle innovation. The government already has these powers, which maybe why the Obama administration is opposed to CISPA. It is also ironic that Obama plans on sanctioning countries that use Tech to abuse human rights specifically committing genocide. A whistle blower has recently announced that the NSA has intercepted 20 TRILLION emails and likely has copies of all of these stored somewhere. The passing of CISPA and any other law of similar persuasion  would likely protect companies like AT&T from future lawsuits for being complicit with these activities.

For devotes of the Free-Market these laws create market distortions and will cause serious harm to innovation on the internet. For people that understand networked economies, this will greatly undermine the value of these networks as users will likely change their behavior to mitigate the amount of information the Government can compile on them. CISPA and its sister laws SOPA and PIPA represent big government actions attempting to control and regulate industries that do not need to be regulated. In this case there is no market failure that needs to be addressed. Privacy is something that the users have been pushing for and Facebook and Google have steadily improved on those accounts. Surprisingly industry is doing a decent job at regulating itself. Finally, regulations being pushed by advocates of small government and free-market smack of hypocrisy and a lack of understanding. These laws require a deep understanding of the internet and how the market of the internet works. Without this understanding terrible laws will be passed that will damage our privacy and freedoms. For the issues that this law would protect from there are other methods that could be employed to gain the desired results without passing laws.

Contact your congressional members to fight against this bill.


  1. You argue against small government, less regulations and then say that the government should not pass legislation protecting record labels. Which one is it? Small Government = less regulation.

    I can't figure out what side of the fence you are on. You say you're against small government but then your argument is for less government involvement. Any time you mention "small government" I could replace it with "big government" and it would apply. When I think of big government my mind instantly thinks of over-regulation and less personal freedom.

    Either way I enjoy reading your stuff man. Don't take this as an attack, it's not intended to be. I'm legitimately curious what side of the fence you are on. Sounds like we agree on stuff but are on different "teams".

    1. Personally, I feel that regulations should only be put into place when there is a market failure. So there are times when I advocate some cases of regulation, such as in the case of mountain top removal for coal mining, other times when I'm against it, such as the internet. The reason for some of the differences comes from the fact that there are inherently less negative externalities with companies on the internet.

      I'm also attempting to indicate that there is something of a contradiction within the free market and small government arguments over regulation. So, when there are cases where people are advocating increasing regulation we need to look at the reasons for the advocation. Additionally when people advocate reducing the regulation we need to really understand why they are saying it.

      So, as to your question if I'm for more or less regulation, it really depends on the context. I don't think you can have a blanket none or all stance. It's just not possible with the complexity of society around us. In this case I'm really against this new regulation. I think it will negatively impact the internet in a way that could destroy it's value. Which would really suck.