Do USB Cables Need Regulation?
Frequent travelers know the pain of being out on the road without the correct charging plugs for their phones and other electronic devices, just as parents know the difficulties of lacking the right cord to power up a child's video-game system or tablet.
In prototypically European fashion, the European Union's bureaucrats in Brussels have promised to address problems like these by regulatory decree. Under pending rules, all portable electronics sold in the 28-nation EU region must, by January 2017, use the "micro-USB" connector that's already the dominant standard for most smartphones, e-readers, and other devices.
The U.S. shouldn't follow suit -- but not for the reasons free-marketeers typically offer when arguing against regulation.
In some ways, the EU's plan appears inoffensive. Standardized connections likely will have some cost efficiencies, at least in the short term, both for device makers and for consumers. Free-market advocates are wont to point to the proliferation of "job-killing regulations," but it's hard to identify anyone likely to lose a job because of a rule like this.
Indeed, many of the purported negative consequences of regulation just simply aren't borne out in the data. According to surveys by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employers blame regulations for fewer than 1 percent of all layoffs. This suggests the rosy projections of economic growth often offered by partisans of regulatory relief should be taken with an enormous grain of salt; deregulation simply isn't likely to create a significant number of jobs in the short term.
Moreover, much of what the regulatory state does is actually to codify ground rules that evolved from common sense and the wisdom of voluntary market institutions. Abruptly dismantling regulatory bureaucracies without serious plans to replace their beneficial functions -- food safety, basic environmental protection, enforcement of civil rights -- would almost certainly do more harm than good.
Rather than a full-bore attack on the regulatory state writ large, free-market advocates are better served to focus on where regulatory proposals most often come up short -- particularly in lawmakers and regulators' inability to anticipate unintended consequences.
Take the European USB regulations: While the micro-USB would have seemed amazing even a decade ago, it's only an incremental improvement over what came before it. Other port designs, like the "lightning" connector that Apple uses for most of its devices, can provide slimmer port openings and faster data transfer. According to many technophiles, not-yet-widespread USB-Type C ports and "universal connectors" are better still.
Even if these technologies aren't really superior, there's little reason to think that the EU's chosen standard represents the very best way that humanity will ever devise to charge and communicate with mobile devices. Mandating it as the only standard will, at best, retard progress, as there would be little incentive to develop something better.
Some regulations destroy jobs, some degrade services, and nearly all cost someone money. But the real cost of regulation is often unmeasurable, as it comes from shutting out the creative advances we never knew we were missing.
Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of the R Street Institute.