Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Truth-in-Prosecution Law

I found out today that New York City has something called a "Truth-In-Pricing Law" (scroll to the middle of the page after clicking the link). The law is described as follows:
Truth-In-Pricing Law
Businesses are free to charge what they like, and consumers are free to look elsewhere for a better price. When businesses give false information about an item, consumers get burned. That’s why the truth-in-pricing law requires that price displays provide adequate information to the consumer. Violators will be fined.
Upon reading the first sentence in the explanation, I was delighted to see just how well lawmakers have the potential to understand the workings of the free market. In a free market, all association and transactions are done on a voluntary basis. Someone might be mean, but you don't have to interact with him. Someone might try to rip you off, but you don't have to buy what he is selling. When individuals engage each other on a voluntary basis, everyone is better off because each person is allowed to make decisions he deems best (not necessarily the "right" decision, but the decision made is always the person's best available option determined however he chooses to determine it). When interactions take place under force, someone is always worse off at the expense of someone else (the one who is forced is worse off at the expense of the one doing the forcing).

I then read the second sentence of the law and became puzzled because I thought I understood what the first sentence said (the two sentences contradict each other). Isn't giving false information about an item potentially (but most likely rarely) part of the bargaining process between two individuals, and therefore should be left up to the two individuals to decide? Isn't it true that if a seller engages in giving false information to customers long enough, word will spread about his lies and he will lose business? Doesn't it therefore mean that when businesses give false information about an item, businesses too get burned? Why do we assume that a lawmaker, or the government agency enforcing this law, will be more adept than a customer at determining what is and is not false information? Isn't it at least remotely possible that this law could be used to prosecute more harshly some businesses that are specifically targeted by the enforcement agency, while ignoring other businesses, for any number of reasons (friendships, connections, bribes, etc)? Why is the government agency presumed to act better than the business?

This law is just one of many examples of legislation that is useless at best and dangerously tyrannical at worst. Look at it this way: do you think you should be more concerned about a business lying to you knowing the business would probably like to maintain a good reputation (otherwise it loses customers), or do you think you should be more concerned about individuals at a government agency promising to protect your interactions when those government agents are not necessarily likely to be any different from a lying business-owner but have the force of law behind them unlike the business-owner? Laws passed by the government are not necessarily good just because the government passes them, and individuals who enforce government laws are not necessarily brilliant or selfless just because they work for the government.