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Professor Steve Horwitz writes:

The current mess is thus clearly shot through and through with government meddling with free markets, from the Fed-provided fuel to the CRA and land-use regulations to Fannie and Freddie creating an artificial market for risky mortgages in order to meet Congress’s demands for more home-ownership opportunities for low-income families. Thanks to that intervention, many of those families have not only lost their homes, but also the savings they could have held onto for a few more years and perhaps used to acquire a less risky mortgage on a cheaper house. All of these interventions into the market created the incentive and the means for banks to profit by originating loans that never would have taken place in a genuinely free market.

It is worth noting that these regulations, policies, and interventions were often gladly supported by the private interests involved. Fannie and Freddie made billions while home prices rose, and their CEOs got paid lavishly. The same was true of the various banks and other mortgage market intermediaries who helped spread and price the risk that was in play, including those who developed all kinds of fancy new financial instruments all designed to deal with the heightened risk of default the intervention brought with it. This was a wonderful game they were playing and the financial markets were happy to have Fannie and Freddie as voracious buyers of their risky loans, knowing that US taxpayer dollars were always there if needed. The history of business regulation in the US is the history of firms using regulation for their own purposes, regardless of the public interest patina over the top of them. This is precisely what happened in the housing market. And it’s also why calls for more regulation and more intervention are so misguided: they have failed before and will fail again because those with the profits on the line are the ones who have the resources and access to power to ensure that the game is rigged in their favor.

I know, my friends, that you are concerned about corporate power. So am I. So are many of my free-market economist colleagues. We simply believe, and we think history is on our side, that the best check against corporate power is the competitve marketplace and the power of the consumer dollar (framed, of course, by legal prohibitions on force and fraud). Competition plays mean, nasty corporations off against each other in a contest to serve us. Yes, they still have power, but its negative effects are lessened. It is when corporations can use the state to rig the rules in their favor that the negative effects of their power become magnified, precisely because it has the force of the state behind it. The current mess shows this as well as anything ever has, once you realize just what a large role the state played. If you really want to reduce the power of corporations, don’t give them access to the state by expanding the state’s regulatory powers. That’s precisely what they want, as the current battle over the $700 billion booty amply demonstrates.

Read the whole thing.  I suspect many who disagree will point to our claims that the “market did not cause this” and completely ignore the more powerful, and subtler points of this letter. Yes, corporations are greedy, they always have been. But in a truly competitive market, that greed is kept in check by the propensity of businesses to attract customers, and customers ability to have choices. When the rules of the game are rigged in such a way as to magnify the power of corporations, that is not a failure of commercial society, that is a failure of the institutions in our society.

HT: Chris Meisenzahl.

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