Making the Best of Regulation

By Hilton, Anthony | The Evening Standard (London, England), July 8, 2003 | Go to article overview

Making the Best of Regulation


Hilton, Anthony, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: ANTHONY HILTON

THE Institute of Directors has a seminar coming up that will look at the rising tide of regulation in Britain and what can be done about it. It is to be chaired by King Canute - or the modern day alternative, Ruth Lea, head of the Institute's policy unit.

Actually, that is a bit unfair to Canute. He knew the tide could not be halted. The IoD, in contrast, is in the position of his courtiers, still believing that with the right words or the right leadership it can. I fear it is likely to get its feet wet.

These things go in cycles. Voters demand liberalisation when they realise how wasteful and inefficient regulation is. They vote for regulation when they are disgusted by the excess or unfairness of unregulated markets and have forgotten how wasteful regulation is. At both ends of the range the pendulum swings too far - too much regulation and too much liberalisation.

Thus the free-for-all of the 1920s led to excess which was corrected - or rather countered - by the regulation of the 1930s, which for fairly sensible reasons ran on through the war. The decontrol and relative economic freedom of the 1950s led to more regulation in the 1960s, followed by stagnation in the 1970s. That created the climate for Thatcherism and now we have had that boom - 20 years of it - the public has forgotten, if it was of an age to know, just how difficult it was to live, work and do business in the trade union-dominated world of 30 years ago. So the pendulum is on the way back.

The pressure groups are in place, resistance to further privatisation finds popular support, opinion-formers rail against globalisation, the business community alienates even its friends with displays of boardroom greed and governments, which see themselves increasingly as providers of services rather than leaders of nations, pass the laws to give the people what they think they want.

Nor are they actively discouraged in this. There is a veritable army of lawyers and accountants and a whole industry of compliance who profess to be concerned at the increase in regulation but who make a good living as a result of it.

And the more Americanised our system becomes, the more they and other advisers demand a written rule book they can follow rather than rely on the British tradition of principles and judgment.

We also fool ourselves by how much liberalisation actually takes place in good part of the cycle. …

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