Matt Yglesias has a had a few posts up recently on how stupid regulating barber shops is. I haven't mentioned it because it's not really that interesting. Of course regulating barber shops is stupid. Doesn't everyone know that? What possible function could there be to barber shop regulation? It seemed like one of those issues where 98% of the public would agree on, but nobody would be bothered enough by it to make the effort to change the laws.
Matt has a more interesting post up today, though, that I do think is worth commenting on here. He responds to people who think his opposition to barber shop regulation makes him conservative:
"A colleague mentioned to me the other day that I’m “pretty conservative” on some state and local government issues, with reference to some recent posts on occupational licensing. Someone on twitter asked if I’m trying to score a date with a Cato staffer. I’m not. And I’m not. And I think that whole framing represents a bad way of understanding the whole situation.
I think it’s pretty clear that, as a historical matter of fact, the main thing “the state” has been used to do is to help the wealthy and powerful further enrich and entrench themselves. Think Pharaoh and his pyramids. Or more generally the fancy houses of European nobility, the plantations of Old South slaveowners, or Imelda Marcos’ shoes. The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuff—to be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege. It’s true that some useful egalitarian activism over the past 150 years has consisted of trying to get the state to take affirmative steps to help people—social insurance, the welfare state, infrastructure, schools—but dismantling efforts to use the state to help the privileged has always been on the agenda. Don’t think to yourself “we need to regulate carbon emissions therefore regulation is good therefore regulation of barbers is good.” Think to yourself “we can’t let the privileged trample all over everyone, therefore we need to regulate carbon emissions and we need to break the dentists’ cartel.”"
These kind of assumptions are why I started posting my "what was Arnold Kling thinking?" series (so far there are only two posts but I'm sure he'll give us enough material to keep going through the fall). Kling makes a habit of making really weird, dumb statements about what liberals are and think that often boil down to "liberals hate markets and trust the state", and often seem to originate in the assumption that "since I like this liberals must not like this".
Yglesias demonstrates why this absolutely isn't the case, and he actually does it in a way I wouldn't have - which is kind of nice. What I think you have to remember is that modern liberalism is grounded in the same classical liberalism that modern conservatism and modern libertarianism are. There is no presumption that markets are bad, there is a presumption that markets are good. Whether markets are always the best solution to a given problem is up in the air, but there is no natural suspicion of markets. This is what separates liberals from "the left", which did emerge from a suspicion of markets (although even many leftists, since the fall of communism, are moving away from that).
As I've said before, I'm personally not really a liberal, although obviously I have some sympathies. That's why it was kind of nice to see Yglesias's distinctly liberal (i.e., egalitarian) take on why regulation is often bad. I would have put it somewhat differently and framed it in a less egalitarian way. I would have said we know what kinds of problems markets solve well. They solve problems where agents can bargain over all costs and benefits affected by the bargain, where both agents are relatively well informed and can't take advantage of each other, and where "ability to pay" isn't a major concern (i.e. - markets aren't always the best way to feed poor people, although they are the best way to produce food for poor people and they are the best way to distribute food to the vast majority of people). Markets are the ideal social institution for situations like this. Insofar as the situation departs from these requirements, something else might be more appropriate.
Readers please take note. If you think liberals disapprove of markets, like regulation, or if you at all were suprised to read Yglesias rail against barber shop regulations then you really need to reconnect with reality. You've invented a conception of a huge swath of the public.
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