Deregulation “Unleashed Powerful Forces of Innovation and Consumer Benefit”

(p. A13) The railroads harmed small merchants who were tied to the older system of roads and canals. But even those who benefited from railroads—notably farmers and producers of raw materials—feared the power of the enterprises that provided them with large new markets. The anxieties of innumerable small players generated powerful political energy, culminating in the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which created the ICC—and with it the template of the independent regulatory commission.

The historian Gabriel Kolko famously argued that the ICC was created by and for the railroads themselves, as a solution to a problem of intense competition. But more-recent research has shown that the interests of shippers were also at play, and by the early 20th century the ICC had essentially been captured by the shippers. The result for the railroads was absurdly low rates of return and an inability to raise capital. The ICC also became a bottleneck through which virtually all railroad business decisions had to pass.

Thus began the long and steady decline of the American railroad industry, which wasn’t arrested until surface freight was deregulated (and the ICC ultimately abolished) in the 1970s. Throughout its life, the ICC repeatedly stood in the way of innovation, including containerized shipping.

. . .

It is fashionable nowadays to dismiss unleashed powerful forces of innovation and consumer benefit of the late 20th century as an unfortunate if fleeting episode of “neoliberalism.” In fact, dismantling some of America’s rigid and retrogressive regulatory institutions unleashed powerful forces of innovation and consumer benefit. Before we attempt to rebuild those structures, we need to examine the lessons of history.

For the full commentary, see:

Richard N. Langlois. “Warren and Graham Emulate History’s Failed Regulators.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 4, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Langlois’s commentary can be viewed as an application of the narrative in his book:

Langlois, Richard N. The Corporation and the Twentieth Century: The History of American Business Enterprise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023.

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