JP Floru is a Senior Research Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and the author of What the Immigrant Saw and Heavens on Earth: How to Create Mass Prosperity

A quick google search resulted in the following:

UK MP calls for ban on : 95,400,000 results
UK MP wants to allow:   31,100,000 results
UK MP wants to repeal : 13,800,000 results

Is banmania the new tulip mania?  There are calls to ban a wide range of human activity and products varying from the mildly eccentric to the extremely serious. Journalist Lucy Tobin wants to ban food of more than 2,500 calories. Civil servants are considering banning the sale of mobile phones designed to resemble car key fobs as they risk being smuggled into prisons. Newcastle East Labour MP Nick Brown wants to ban unsightly “To Let” boards.

During the 2011 riots Tottenham MP David Lammy wanted to ban BlackBerry Messenger to disrupt the plans of would-be rioters.  LibDem Jeremy Browne came up with banning the veil.  At the Labour Party Conference, there were calls to ban goods from the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and to ban cold calling.  Red Ed surprised by rejecting banning the Page 3 Girl (for now) but is going for a ban on energy price increases.  And from our own side…let’s just cover it with the mantle of bias for now.

Optimists say that banmania just proves how free our society is. As virtually everything is allowed, statistically political action is likely to pull in the other direction. Indeed, if you google “Saudi Arabia bans” 618,000 results come up whereas “Saudi Arabia wants to allow” heralds a meagre …4 results.  But to those of us who love these freedom-loving Isles every call for a ban sends shivers down our spines.  Or…perhaps not.  We all have our own pet banning project (one friend received large numbers of Facebook “likes” when he proposed to ban the under-threes from planes).  But whereas most of our banning proposals are a quick joke, when it comes to politicians it is more serious.

What causes banmania? I can think of three causes:

1 The Something Must be Done Culture: A politician who DOES something is highly regarded – at public meetings it sounds almost like the mantra of a sect.  BBC Radio 4 even devotes an entire programme to it, You and Yours, where at the end of every alleged calamity the question seems to be “What is the Government going to do about that?”  Too often we forget that banning means that someone else’s freedom is going out of the window.  We complain about red tape but forget that there exists a quicker solution than undoing it after the facts: making sure it never takes place in the first place.

2 Public Choice Theory explains behaviour patterns by looking at the self-interest motives of the individuals involved.  Individuals will usually sell their self-interested policies to the rest of us by claiming public benefit.  A politician who wants to be re-elected has a vested interest in receiving the support of well-organised pressure groups.  The opposite is true, too – pressure groups can make life very unpleasant for the politician.  The pressure groups calling for bans usually consist of strong-willed individuals who have a bee in their bonnet about that specific issue.  They will be highly motivated, assertive, and vocal.  Those who will have to change their chosen behaviour as a result of the ban will be less well organised.  They may not even be aware that lobbying for assorted bans is going on in Westminster or – dare we mention the B-word – Brussels.  In the battle between specialised interests and dispersed costs special interests are likely to win. (Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh recently called for a ban on benefits for people who don’t vote – in other words: likely Labour voters would be forced to go!)

3 Regulatory Failure Spiral: Whenever there is a call to tackle a perceived problem, politicians regulate.  The regulation fails, because politicians are not aware of all the factors on the ground (Hayek’s and von Mises’s Knowledge Problem).  More regulation is added – this in turn fails, including by way of side effects stemming from the latest regulation.  Ultimately, the only way the problem will go away is by banning it completely.

Are we on a path towards ever greater illiberty?  Perhaps it is time for freedom-lovers to ask our politicians “to do something” else:

–         Ronald Reagan famously said: “Don’t just sit there, undo something”.  Sadly, apart from the 12 MPs who recently called for a review of the smoking ban, I can’t think of any. In their defence, many Conservative politicians deregulate “on the quiet” in order not to cause vicious reactions.

–         Bakers bake bread and politicians make laws.  If you want fewer regulations and bans, make sure that there are either fewer politicians and/or make sure they are harmless.  The Texan legislator only sits every other year, meaning that they have less time to limit our freedoms – last year Texas also created half the new jobs in the USA.  Sunset clauses in Acts of Parliament could be meaningless as a fresh vote in parliament could reinstate the Act – but if there are many, there simply won’t be time to do so.

–         Term limits for all politicians would mean that lobbying would be less likely to succeed.  Politicians would be less powerful, therefore less able to regulate or enact the ban fashion of the day.  In the United States every local referendum proposing to introduce term limits has been won.

–         City AM’s Managing Editor Marc Sidwell recommends praising lazy politicians who don’t try to interfere in all we do.  John Cowperthwaite, te senior civil servant who was responsible for Hong Kong’s laissez-faire attitude and therefore its economic success, famously downplayed his own role by saying that “he had just been very lazy”. Lazy he was certainly not – but a brilliant mind he did enjoy: he realised that when the state backs off, people advance.

30 comments for: J P Floru: Banmania – and how to ban it

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