Often when I argue the case for individual rights and radical departure from government regulation, I hear words to the effect that it is the collectively financed government regulation that creates the framework for a civilized life, from which everyone benefits.

Essentially my opponents’ claim comes down to the following. Of course, they say, the achievers can only achieve so much because the government regulation saves them a huge amount of time they would otherwise have to spend trying to tell good bankers from bad bankers, good lawyers from bad lawyers, good doctors from bad doctors, good builders from bad builders, food from poison, gold from brass, and so on.

Indeed, there are benefits to not having to question the quality of every single service or good that one uses or buys. Even the most independent of individualists would soon find it too burdensome to personally research the work history of every single baker, cobbler, taxi driver, or plumber.

What is more valuable, regulators argue, the unregulated freedom or the ability to concentrate on important things, while the government takes care of the ‘civilization’? But this is a false choice. Henri Poincaré has once famously said, “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.” It is just as moronic to always disregard the collective wisdom of the market as it is to always blindly follow it. Just because the government has determined that only goods and services meeting certain criteria can be offered, does not mean that there is no demand for goods and services that do not meet these criteria.

Take lawyers for example. Admittedly, there is some value to the fact that a group of lawyers has taken upon itself to inform the public about certain standards which it deems necessary for every lawyer to meet. Admittedly, there is some value to the fact that this group informs the public which lawyers do and which lawyers do not meet such standards. Indeed, in many cases clients want to choose their lawyer from the cohort of professionals nominated by one organization or the other. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem starts, however, when the government makes it illegal for mentally competent individuals to voluntarily obtain legal services from those who are not a part of the cohort.
Same with food and drugs inspections. Admittedly, there is some value to the fact that a group of people has taken upon itself to inform the public about whether certain food or drugs are safe. Many people would gladly defer to such conclusions. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. The problem starts when a mentally competent individual is legally prohibited from voluntarily buying a product because someone else has determined that it does not meet certain standards.

While most people would probably defer to the conclusion that child car seats marked with the government’s blessing are safe, it is wrong to legally prevent people who knowingly want to purchase an unapproved car seat from doing so.

While there is nothing wrong with voluntary certification, there is everything wrong when uncertified goods and services are legally prohibited. Aside from the issue of immorality of forced redistribution of wealth (because regulation requires a lot of dough, directly and indirectly), the problem is that the government thus limits everyone’s options, regardless of whether one wishes to agree with the government’s evaluation of a service or a product. On this Thomas Jefferson wrote, “… rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”

To the extent certification constitutes a service that people are free to rely on voluntarily, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Moreover, the abundance of all sorts of customer reviews and ratings demonstrates that people are generally interested in opinions of experts or former and existing consumers.

Let us for a second imagine that most people are not evil idiots whose ability to make independent decisions does not extend beyond electing the right ruler once every four years. Are we really to believe that if the government does not force a certification down our throats, we would not be able to rely on our own judgment based in part on voluntary certification or the earned reputation of the manufacturer or the service provider? In the day and age when information about virtually anything becomes available on the internet in a matter of seconds?

A few more examples. Ask yourself a question, how many people buy Ferraris because they meet governmental requirements for automobiles, as opposed to because of the reputation of the brand? When buying a piano, how many people care whether it meets certain prescribed criteria, if they are buying a Steinway? Am I to honestly believe that my favourite steakhouse will immediately start serving rotten meat if the government loosens its grip on meet producers?

There is nothing wrong with voluntarily deferring to someone else’s opinion in matters where a person is either not competent or where the potential value of an independent investigation is overshadowed by the related expense. Deferring to someone else’s opinion, if voluntarily, is just as much a free choice as deciding based on one’s own research.

If the government suddenly decided to abandon the practice of spending the money extorted from one group of people to legally curtail the choices of all, the public would not face an irresolvable dilemma between spending inordinate amounts of time to research whether a good or a service meets certain criteria or having to resort to the heads or tails method to determine whether a seller is trustworthy.

What the government regulation is creating is a society where people are no longer trained to rely on themselves to make meaningful choices. Henry Ford said, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” It was the competition that made him change his mind. However, when the government prescribes that no one can obtain a service unless it is provided by someone who meets a particular standard, not only does the government limit the choices of consumers, it also automatically legally prevents the providers from demonstrating the ridiculousness of such limitations.

Civilization is not about mindless following of algorithms designed by the government in its unsurpassed wisdom. Civilization is about free individuals understanding and defending the value of fair and informed voluntary exchange. And the more the government usurps the role of an oracle, the further away from civilization we are. Just because concentration camps had meticulously detailed procedures for killing people does not mean that these procedures brought about civilization.

As Ayn Rand put it, “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

The government does have a role in building civilization. Its proper role in this regard is limited to supplying an efficient judiciary which could promptly and affordably address instances of fraud and breach of contract. Unfortunately, this is the role at which governments regularly fail. Instead of doing what they have been hired for, the governments come up with yet more creative ways to use the money of those who hired it to force these same people into mindless and helpless submission.

Be reminded, civilization is not about having a prescribed set of mandatory rules for anything and everything. It is about people realizing that the free and voluntary exchange of values far outweighs questionable benefits of special privileges and government regulation.

Free people do not need legal prohibitions to properly assess the quality of goods and services. All they need is the government to leave them alone until their individual rights have been or are about to be violated. Not only does the government regulation not ensure that people’s rights are not being violated. It is the very regulation that violates individual rights.1