Regulators Gone Wild

I’m not always a fan of the Libertarian Party, but this poster nails it about the frivolousness of the populist, Occupy Wall Street Left:

Which brings me to today’s tales of regulatory stupidity and perverse results.  Liberals everywhere love regulation to protect consumers from harm, right?  But slow-learning liberals (with a few notable exceptions) never seem to notice how regulations often become anti-competitive barriers to new competition, protecting lazy incumbent industries from innovators and upstarts.

My favorite example right now is Ubercars, the smart-phone app that summons you a pre-vetted, clean nearby limo within five minutes.  So guess what the taxicab companies are doing?  Running to regulators and the city councils in the places where Uber has opened for business and demanding that Uber be shut down.  You just can’t go offering consumers choices, you know, like premium car service.  A few liberals, like Matt Yglesias at Slate, get it, but generally you can hear the crickets chirping from the usual goo-goo “consumer advocates.”

And then there’s Minnesota.  Right now the newest thing in higher education is the unfolding of online education.  I have a keen interest in this, as I’m teaching a section of my Ashbrook Center master’s degree course on American political economy online on Wednesday afternoons for the next eight weeks.  (I’ve also posted a couple of short YouTube mini-lectures as supplements to class: here’s a 5-minute video with a few observations on the income tax.  We’re likely to expand this whole effort at the Ashbrook Center over time.)  The big player in this field is Coursera, which is offering online courses from some of the nation’s leading universities, including Stanford and MIT.  In some cases, you can pay a small fee, take exams, and earn a certificate.  Coursera’s mission is described thusly:

We hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

This is not merely the future of education, but offers access to high quality instructional material potentially to millions of people who otherwise wouldn’t have it.  It represents a great democratizing force.

So what does Minnesota do?  Naturally Coursera has to be stopped.  Earlier this week it tried to prohibit online courses in Minnesota.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Thursday:

Coursera offers free, online courses to people around the world, but if you live in Minnesota, company officials are urging you to log off or head for the border.

The state’s Office of Higher Education has informed the popular provider of massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, that Coursera is unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there. It’s unclear how the law could be enforced when the content is freely available on the Web, but Coursera updated its Terms of Service to include the following caution:

Notice for Minnesota Users:

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

I’m pleased to report that this idiocy lasted less than 24 hours.  Yesterday Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education backed down, though it is too late to unwind their total beclowning.  (I like Katherine Mangu-Ward’s headline over at “Minnesota Decides Not to Suck After All.”)  Like Ubercars, the bureaucrats were working to protect incumbent universities (especially their lazy assistant professors of sociology and such) from competition, as well as their own phoney-baloney jobs, to borrow the great (and accurate) description of Mel Brooks.

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