In recent years a depressing cry has gone up for more regulation of anything that goes wrong. Often the things that have most let us down are already heavily regulated. Then the cry goes up for more regulation, and different regulation.
Too many people seem to believe in the perfectibiltiy of man and woman, as long as they are strictly controlled by tough regulators. If we have more regulators banks will no longer lend too much and go bust, financial service businesses will no longer offer products which lose people money, journalists will no longer get stories wrong, employers will no longer be unfair to employees, trains and cars will not crash, people will not slip up on icy pavements. The list of wrongs that can be righted and accidents that can be avoided gets longer by the day.
Every disaster understandably brings forth a “Something must be done” crusade. Ministers of all parties solemnly tell the Commons that action will be taken to make sure it will never happen again. That tendency of human nature to make mistakes, to do things too casually and come unstuck, the criminal tendency to be greedy at others expense, will be miracled away by a new and enlarged generation of regulators.
All of us have long agreed and accepted that there are some types of conduct which are unacceptable. We make these offences under the Statutory criminal law. Businesses must not kill their customers. Commerce has to use fair contracts to supply goods and services. Theft is a crime. Most of the things that go wrong and most bug us are already crimes. They are therefore already under Statutory regulation. We more often have an enforcement problem than a shortage of rules and laws. We all want to know that if a major food company supplied food that poisoned us, or if a public transport company drove us recklessly on train or bus making an accident very likely, there would b e criminal sanctions against the management and perpetrators.
The Regulators come in both to buttress the police in enforcing the criminal law, and to impose a whole series of rules or mini laws on practitioners governing matters that fall short of being crimes. Before allowing such regulators access to our wallets and free rein over competitive busiensses, we need to ask what value do they add?
It is possible that allowing regulators to ask many questions of businesses, and to demand certain practices of businesses, they might cut the incidence of crime, or turn evidence of crime over to the authorities more quickly. It is more often the caee, however, that potential crime is unearthed by customers who report it. They could equally well report it to the police as to the Regulators. Regulators in general can be an expensive and cumbersome way of strengthening the police force and the capacity of the police to tackle business crime.
The main preoccupation of Regulators becomes the encouragement or imposition of best practice on their captive industry or regulated groups. This may ensure some of the poorer performers in the profession or industry do a better job. It also may limit innovation, prevent some from experimenting with better answers. It can ensure the errors of the majority are enforced on the majority. In Statutory financial regulation we saw this in the period 2000-2007 after its introduciton in the UK. The Regulators bought the common thesis of the day that new ways of spreading risk made massive gearing safe. They not merely allowed it, but helped spread the damaging doctrine.
We do need to ask who regulates the regulators. Parliament should do this. In its current mood Parliament is not that willing to question the need for so much regulation, its wisdom, or its consequences. Not all regulaiton is good. Much of it is wasteful. Some of it is positively harmful.