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SALT LAKE CITY — Last Thursday evening, something remarkable happened. As the referees took the field at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to officiate the game between the Ravens and the visiting Cleveland Browns, they received a standing ovation from the crowd.
The refs. A standing ovation. From the fans.
Before the NFL locked out its regular referees in June, it would have been difficult to envision a crowd doing more than tolerating the men in striped shirts, let alone standing and cheering. But that was before the NFL subjected itself to inadequate officiating at the hands of replacement referees. That was before fans began to see the game they love change before their eyes, before players began to make different decisions to take advantage of the inconsistent application of the rules or to avoid the often dangerous consequences, and before coaches began to speak up.
The regular referees had argued from the beginning that they could not be replaced so easily, and their replacements proved the point. The NFL suffered through a months-long, disappointing display of missed calls, blown calls, and general confusion, culminating in the instantly infamous Fail Mary, which gave the Seattle Seahawks an undeserved win over the Green Bay Packers. One lesson to be drawn from all of this is that rules matter. We witnessed what can happen when rules are enforced ineffectively, and saw hints of what a league without rules would look like. Far from stifling competition, the development of rules, and their fair administration, is crucial for getting the results the fans, players, coaches and owners want out of the NFL.
The same is true of The Market, writ large. However, in the last few years some politicians and pundits seem to have declared war on the very idea of applying rules to the marketplace, and many in the GOP have taken up arms in the battle. The dogmatic notion that rules and regulation, in general, are bad for the economy has become orthodox thinking in some Republican circles. It seems that some politicians cannot even say the word "regulation" without prefacing it with the epithet "job-killing," trivializing an issue that is far more complicated.
Luckily, the GOP is not in lockstep on the issue. As one important Republican recently remarked, the GOP has, at times, "misspoken by just saying we're for deregulation -- to some that means we want to get rid of all regulation. That's not true." This dissenter went on to explain: "There's no question but that regulations are essential to the functioning of markets. Of course, you have to have laws and regulations to make free markets able to produce and to be effective. But you have to make the regulations modern and up-to-date."
Who is this maverick, taking his party to task? None other than Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (never mind that his campaign website seems inconsistent, at least in tone, with his remarks on the topic).
Make no mistake: The only thing that may be worse than no rules is bad rules. Governor Romney and President Obama have very different views on whether certain rules should stay or go. But it's heartening to see two candidates who agree that rules matter, and that regulation is important for markets to function well. Hopefully, that shared understanding will produce presidential debates that are interesting and informative, debates that highlight the differences between the candidates' points of view and explore how we can make and apply rules to get the results we want. My fingers are crossed.