Let me start out by setting some ground rules. I want to explore the rationale for a possible exception to an important principle, not question the principle itself. So even if we’re considering the exception, I want us to do so from the position of valuing and fighting for the principle.
Basically, the principle is this:
Coercion is wrong, and more specifically to this particular discussion, it is wrong for the government to set rules on who can trade with who and how as long as the two parties involved are voluntarily choosing to interact. No person should face any government enforced obligation to provide a good or a service to someone else unless they choose to do so.
The question then, is this: economically, complete information is ultimately very very good for people’s ability to interact and trade with each other. The lack of reliable information about products and services creates a considerable loss of surplus, whether because of buyer’s/seller’s remorse, or people simply not buying or selling at all when they would have been willing to. So, should the role of even a very limited government (nigh the libertarian one) include enforcing or at least encouraging (via subsidy) buyers and sellers to provide all the complete information they have about the products involved in the transaction, or even invest in researching it themselves?
I’m thinking about things like requiring resturants to post their smoking/non-smoking policy outside so that people can make an informed decision. I’ve been pretty hard line before on these boards about how wrong it is for governments to force resturant owners to ban smoking, when both they and their customers can freely choose whether to offer smoking, or pass the place by because of the smoking policy, respectively. But I realize that in practice this can be sticky: people who want more non-smoking resturants don’t have a good way to collectively select what they want, and vice-versa.
Finally, a caveat, which creates the problem: information is not costless to provide. Safety testing a product, doing research into social costs, even posting signs or advertising information to potential buyers, is expensive. So we can’t avoid the fact that, by asking people to provide relevant information on request, we ARE engaging in a form of coercion.