Regulation or rule of law, Gov. Romney?
He's in ''campaigning'' mode now. In a speech at the University of Chicago on Monday, the Republican presidential candidate was seeking his inner Ronald Reagan when he cited supply-side Nobel economist and University of Chicago legend Milton Friedman:
"Milton Friedman knew what President Obama still has not learned, even after three years and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending: The government does not create prosperity; free markets and free people do."
Well, after a fashion.
Regulations, he said, ''erode our freedoms.'' Yet much of the "freedom" he talks about for business and markets can't exist, much less thrive, without government.
Businesses don't want to do business in countries that don't have the government structures in place to protect them -- look at Iraq, for starters.
Businesses want to do business in nations that have law enforcement that isn't corrupt and court systems that can guarantee that contracts are enforced by laws, not by guns.
Businesses want a culture and a legal climate that operate by the rule of law, not by bribery or nepotism. They want a government that enacts and enforces regulations and laws that guarantee and protect intellectual property, patents and copyrights laws, and thus make it easier for enterprise and creativity to flourish.
Businesses also enjoy the advantages of publicly planned and publicly built and publicly maintained railroads and harbors and roads and highways that make the movement of goods and services and workers and customers possible. I don't see Wal-Mart constructing its own ports and railroads.
Businesses depend on deep-pocket, government-created, reliable infrastructure networks and systems like sewers and electricity and water. It's hard to do business in a place where power and water sources are haphazard, available for just a few hours a day. Businesses need to know that when a client or employee or they themselves flip on a light switch or flush a toilet or turn on a tap, the light comes on, the sewage is processed and cleaned and not dumped raw into the water supply, and the water that comes out of the faucet is potable and free of diseases that can weaken the health and therefore the buying power of consumers and workers alike.
Schools -- good schools -- can provide a competent workforce to businesses and prosperous customers to buy their products.
Business and government work hand in glove; good government is one big reason that business can work. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney crafted a climate protection plan, and he praised a regional greenhouse gas initiative as "good business."
Government can be the safety net for business at its best -- and its worst, protecting business from its own excesses and pitfalls.
Regulations can help to keep the public's -- meaning the customers' -- faith in business. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt created the precursor to the FDA, which gives consumers the confidence to buy the products, to eat the food and to take the pills that businesses produce.
"Caveat emptor" only goes so far. If you choose an airline flying planes whose standards of construction and material quality are not quality-inspected, and the plane crashes, then you, the passenger, never get the chance to make the consumer's choice to fly another airline.
When tainted food gets into the food chain and people die (it's happened, from fast food beef burgers to spinach) people stop buying it until they hear reassurances -- not from the food producer but from federal inspectors -- that the problem has been found and addressed, and the food is safe to eat.
And business and consumers are the beneficiaries. People make choices about what restaurants are safer to eat in, what cars are safer to buy, even what amusement park rides are safe enough to put their kids on, in part because someone who doesn't work for the company that made those products -- a government inspector or regulator -- set some quality and safety standards, and enforced them.
There are similarities here to what I wrote when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inveighed against taxation "in principle" -- and presumably the things taxes pay for. I suggested that if he really wanted to do without taxes, he, like all of us, would be faced with paving his own roads, pouring his own sidewalks and digging his own sewers. In which case, I said, I'd be over to borrow a shovel.
Photo: Mitt Romney speaks on economic freedom and the threat the U.S. deficit has for future generations at the University of Chicago on March 19. Credit: Tannen Maury / EPA