Justification for Markets
But if we really want to understand the “big picture,” the full ethical context within which to situate the question of regulating DTC genetic tests, it’s worth considering the way in which the ethical justification of regulation is rooted in the ethical justification of market behavior more generally.
We generally think that people ought to be free to buy and sell according to their own needs, interests, and preferences. This implies a freedom to conduct exchanges in a relatively self-centered (or profit-seeking) way. But it’s worth considering what the ethical underpinning is for that freedom.
The ethical underpinning lies in the idea that free exchange on the market is mutually beneficial, and that a relatively free market is good for society, as a whole, in the long run. But it’s widely recognized that, whatever the properties of ideal markets, real markets are far from perfect, and in order to be beneficial for all concerned, they sometimes need to be nudged or even bridled by regulation.
We often see the least need to impose regulatory restrictions when trade goes on among equals, on a roughly level playing field. So, for example, when two companies, both with a sophisticated technical understanding of the product being bought and sold, do business, there seems to be relatively little need for regulation. Regulatory agencies (and courts for that matter) have little to do but act as a kind of referee.
But in the world of retail—selling things directly to a large number of very imperfectly informed consumers—the situation is somewhat different.