From the top-floor conference room of the Copenhagen headquarters of ISS Group, I could see the constant Danish rain trickling down the windows. An employee was giving a presentation on their corporate strategy.
ISS works in facilities management, employing janitors, groundskeepers, caterers, etc. The presentation was pretty standard fare for a business student on a corporate visit, but his talk of regulation stuck in my mind.
“We want to professionalize the industry,” he said, describing their lobbying efforts with the European Union. He told us that under present laws, anyone with a mop and a bucket could call themselves facilities managers and go into business. That, ISS Group reckoned, wasn’t fair to customers who couldn’t tell the difference between themselves and amateurs. I fidgeted in my seat, taking something from his presentation very different from what he must have intended.
What I heard was, “I hate poor people, and we shouldn’t let them compete with us.”
ISS is not an evil company. All the buildings I’ve seen them service were immaculate, and the presenter seemed to genuinely believe that greater regulation of their industry would be a good thing. But the sorts of regulations they were advocating create clear barriers to competition. The result: ISS wins; poor Mr. Mop-and-bucket loses.
Big businesses like ISS frequently look to government regulation to avoid the pains of competition. Examples of laws protecting established interests are too numerous to count.
American sugar growers have enjoyed tariffs on foreign sugar since 1789. The result? Americans pay on average twice as much for sugar than the rest of the world. Ever wonder why your Coca-Cola is full of high-fructose corn syrup? Wonder no more.
Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” created an uproar about the sanitation among Chicago meat packers. Despite criticisms of embellishment from fellow socialist Jack London and President Theodore Roosevelt, the public demanded new inspection laws. How did the biggest players in the business react? They supported the idea without reservations. New regulations would not only restore consumer confidence, but also slam smaller meat houses with new costs.
Sometimes business regulations do more than raise prices. Last summer I met Clark Neily, a senior attorney with civil liberties law firm Institute for Justice.
Clark told me the story of a woman he was representing who arranged flowers in Louisiana. She was forced out of work because of unfair licensing requirements, lobbied for by state florists. Impoverished, without work and displaced by Hurricane Katrina, she fell ill and died alone in a hotel room before her case could be decided.
In the wake of the financial crisis, it’s easy to clamor for more government regulation of business. But as history shows, business interests know how to bend allegedly public-spirited legislation to their own ends. The result often kills off competition — and sometimes, it literally ends human lives.
The best medicine for this societal ill is a healthy dose of skepticism for ever-increasing regulation.
Tom VanAntwerp is a senior business major from Gastonia. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org