Epstein Questions the Role of Consumer Regulation

Vanguard Or Rearguard?
Richard A. Epstein
July 14, 2009

Rahm Emanuel's one enduring contribution to political theory is his oft-quoted aphorism that a crisis is too important to be wasted. His remark implicitly recognizes that the current political equilibrium makes passing new laws an uphill battle in the face of an organized interest-group opposition. The crisis changes the equilibrium by making the issue salient to outsiders who are vocal enough to upset the status quo. And so each new crisis leads to more, not less, regulation.

Libertarians should naturally ask whether the next round of regulation addresses the crisis that spawned it. All too often, it doesn't. Exhibit A is a recent column, Caveat Mortgagor. James Surowiecki's use of "Caveat mortgagor," let the mortgagor beware, makes a none too subtle allusion to the hoary laissez-faire doctrine of caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. Roughly speaking, the unwise purchaser had only himself to blame, at least if he were not the victim of fraud, concealment or other form of sharp dealing. Self-protection was the first and strongest line against becoming taken advantage of by others.

Richard A. Epstein