Antitrust Policy and Business Regulation

Read this chapter to learn about how government policies have been in place to curve the power of imperfect competition. Also identify what the US has used regulations to protect consumers and limit the excesses of businesses via antitrust policies.

4. Regulation: Protecting People from the Market

4.1. Case in Point: Do Consumer Protection Laws Protect Consumers?

Economist W. Kip Viscusi of the Harvard Law School has long advocated economic approaches to health and safety regulations. Economic approaches recognize 1) behavioral responses to technological regulations; 2) performance-oriented standards as opposed to command-and-control regulations; and 3) the opportunity cost of regulations. Below are some examples of how these economic approaches would improve health and safety policy.

Behavioral responses: Consider the requirement, imposed in 1972, that aspirin containers have childproof caps. That technological change seemed straightforward enough. But, according to Mr. Viscusi, the result has not been what regulators expected. Mr. Viscusi points out that childproof caps are more difficult to open. They thus increase the cost of closing the containers properly. An increase in the cost of any activity reduces the quantity demanded. So, childproof caps result in fewer properly closed aspirin containers.

Mr. Viscusi calls the response to childproof caps a "lulling effect". Parents apparently think of containers as safer and are, as a result, less careful with them. Aspirin containers, as well as other drugs with childproof caps, tend to be left open. Mr. Viscusi says that the tragic result is a dramatic increase in the number of children poisoned each year. Hence, he urges government regulators to take behavioral responses into account when promulgating technological solutions. He also advocates well-articulated hazard warnings that give consumers information on which to make their own choices.

Performance-oriented standards: Once a health and safety problem has been identified, the economic approach would be to allow individuals or firms discretion in how to address the problem as opposed to mandating a precise solution. Flexibility allows a standard to be met in a less costly way and can have greater impact than command-and-control approaches. Mr. Viscusi cites empirical evidence that worker fatality rates would be about one-third higher were it not for the financial incentives firms derive from creating a safer workplace and thereby reducing the workers’ compensation premiums they pay. In contrast, empirical estimates of the impact of OSHA regulations, most of which are of the command-and-control type, range from nil to a five to six percent reduction in worker accidents that involve days lost from work.

Opportunity cost of regulations: Mr. Viscusi has estimated the cost per life saved on scores of regulations. Some health and safety standards have fairly low cost per life saved. For example, car seat belts and airplane cabin fire protection cost about $100,000 per life saved. Automobile side impact standards and the children’s sleepwear flammability ban, at about $1 million per life saved, are also fairly inexpensive. In contrast, the asbestos ban costs $131 million per life saved, regulations concerning municipal solid waste landfills cost about $23 billion per life saved, and regulations on Atrazine/alachlor in drinking water cost a whopping $100 billion per life saved. "A regulatory system based on sound economic principles would reallocate resources from the high-cost to the low-cost regulations. That would result in more lives saved at the same cost to society".