Humans are imperfect beings. Try as we may, each of us is subject to some degree of inconsistency in our own thought patterns. Even the greatest champions of liberty who have made invaluable contributions to the study of classical liberalism have fallen prey to error. And while these heroes and geniuses may come to an inconsistent conclusion every now and then, our admiration continues.
Hayek wasn’t infallible. And in chapter three of The Road to Serfdom, he makes some arguments in favor of “harmless” market intervention that call for scrutiny.
No Such Thing as Harmless Regulation
As I made my way through chapter three, I did a doubletake after coming across this passage:
To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.”
In this chapter, Hayek regularly uses the word “competition” to mean free market. He also asserts that “planning” is, in and of itself, the enemy of competition. Hayek argues that not all state action qualifies as “planning” and as an encroachment on “competition.”
Hayek reasons that since these types of regulation do not interfere with the means of production themselves, it is fully compatible with free market capitalism. He has also argued that since these are “blanket” regulations—no one can use these substances— and not individual regulations—only this group can’t use them—they do not inhibit the market’s ability to function freely. In Hayek’s mind, for example, the state limiting the number of widgets you can produce is far more intrusive than outlawing certain harmful substances.
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