All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1972

The Natural History of Governmental Intervention

Mary Peterson persuasively illustrates for seven selected agencies what might be called the natural history of governmental intervention into economic affairs: A real or fancied evil leads to demands to “do something about it”; a political coalition forms consisting of sincere high-minded reformers and equally sincere interested parties; the incompatible objectives of the members of the coalition (e.g., low prices to consumers and high prices to producers) are glossed over by fine rhetoric about “the public interest,” “fair competition,” and the like; the coalition succeeds in getting Congress (or a state legislature) to pass a law; the preamble to the law entombs the rhetoric and the body of the law grants power to governmental officials to “do something”; the high-minded reformers experience a glow of triumph and turn their attention to new causes; the interested parties go to work to make sure that the power is used for their benefit and generally succeed; success breeds its problems, requiring the scope of intervention to broaden; bureaucracy takes its toll so that even the initial special interests no longer benefit; ultimately, the effects are precisely the opposite of the noble objectives of the high-minded reformers without achieving the more mundane objectives of the special interests; yet the activity is so firmly established and so many vested interests are connected with it that repeal of the initial legislation is nearly inconceivable; instead, new governmental legislation is called for to cope with the problems produced by the old; and a new cycle begins.

From Milton Friedman’s Introduction to The Regulated Consumer by Mary Bennett Peterson (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1971).

  • Milton Friedman (1912-2006), recipient of the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution.