Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently introduced an amendment to an FAA reauthorization bill that would have required the FAA to set minimum values for how narrow and close commercial airline seats may be. Fortunately, this amendment was rejected last week.  While those of us who have flown in recent years (and experienced firsthand the “Honey I Shrunk the Airplane Seat” phenomena) can all certainly sympathize with the goals of such legislation, it would nevertheless be a gross violation of the rights of the airlines to dictate how they may or may not utilize equipment THAT THEY OWN. Of course there already exists an ever-expanding regulatory framework that strangles other businesses similarly. So how is this any different? It’s not. And that’s what is so scary – it was rejected not on principal but rather because it was visible. Visible government intrusions send the wrong vibe to a supposedly freedom loving populace. But invisible intrusions go on every day and are of course perfectly fine. If the death penalty were required to take place in public it would be ended immediately; but when done behind closed doors the public in general couldn’t care less.

Such reflexive urges to regulate by those “in charge” of our lives are a predictable outcome of their glaring ignorance of basic economics. It is the usual story: government engages in Practice A which stealthily causes Harm B and so our great benefactors must now step in to save us from the very harm they caused in the first place. For example, the federal government, through its puppet the Federal Reserve, is constantly inflating the US dollar. This steadily erodes the value of said dollar until after many years the drips of annual inflation have carved a canyon of lost value. There are two ways to respond to this declining value: raise prices, or, maintain prices while reducing quantity/quality. For example, boxes of cereal now contain 15% less than they did only a few years ago but are marketed at the same price point. It is a surreptitious form of inflation that consumers don’t immediately recognize but is just as injurious to their buying power as is rising prices.

Competition has become so fierce that a game of chicken has ensued where no one wants to be the first to raise nominal prices. This has occurred with airlines as well. Although ticket prices may have risen or fluctuated with fuel prices, such prices are, all things equal, less than they otherwise would have been had seat sizes not shrunk. Getting 10-15% more seats on a plane means lower average cost for each flyer. It is simply a natural response to the incentives created by government interference in the economy (Fed money printing). Eventually seat sizes will decline to a level where ridership will drop off. At that point the industry will know they can go no lower. But that is how the market works; the feedback of profit and loss tells businesses if they are doing good or doing poorly. Top down regulations subvert that process and prevent the voice of the consumer from being heard.

Actually, progressives like Schumer should appreciate the spectrum of market prices engendered by this seating freedom. It incentivizes those who value comfort over money to pay ever-increasing prices for the larger seats. These higher prices can be used to subsidize other ticket classes thereby expanding fare access through lower prices or halting the size decline. By allowing consumers to vote with their dollars the market delivers what consumers, in aggregate, are willing to accept. While any single consumer may disagree with where that point is, it should no more be the right of a minority of consumers to dictate to all what they should be able to buy any more than a minority of busybody senators should be able to dictate to a nation how they may live their lives.