Democrats & Liberals Archives

Right Regulation

Arguments today about government regulation often degenerate into citations of examples intended to prove either that there is too much regulation or too little regulation. Of course it is easy to find such examples to support either argument, which suggests to me that “too much vs. too little” is the wrong argument. Regulations are not, nor can they ever be, a perfect tool for enforcing responsible behavior on the part of individuals and corporations. Does that mean we should start eliminating them every time we see a case where someone is unjustly hurt or inconvenienced by their enforcement? Of course not!

It's work, but the emphasis should always be on making regulations right and reasonable, tweaking them as necessary to assure that the worst abuses are outlawed, while harmless practices are not punished.

It is a useful metaphor to think of that which needs to be controlled, whether it is pollution, or mistreatment of employees, or the creation of unsafe products, as a body of water on a hill which ought to be constrained from flowing down the hill. Gravity is analogous to the greed or convenience, which would cause the bad stuff to escape. Dams are analogous to the regulations, which hold it back. It is not necessary or desirable to place a concrete cap over the whole lake to control it (over-regulation), but it is foolish to allow a torrent of water to cascade from a gaping mouth in the lake (under-regulation). The thing that people don't seem to get is that it is possible to have both over-regulation and under-regulation within a single system. In fact, sadly, it is often easier to establish rules, which control minor leakages, than to fight for the major regulation that would stanch the rampant abuses. In my analogy, this is like creating little dams to stop places where rivulets are escaping from the lake, while allowing the gaping mouth to remain open.

Those who fight regulations at every turn are forever shining a spotlight on those cases where onerous requirements prevent reasonable actions, and arguing that we are fundamentally over-regulated. Those who want to keep misbehavior in check will shine the spotlight on the rampant abuses, and sometimes argue that we are thus under-regulated and therefore defend even ineffective regulations on the grounds that we can't afford to undo regulations if they have any effect on curbing something undesirable. This desire to protect one’s turf is natural, but if in doing so the opposition is given the ammunition to label all regulation as over-zealous, then is it really worth it? It's time to concede that there is both under-regulation and over-regulation, and for both sides to cede ground in the regulation wars. My fear is that it is always easier to blow up those little dams controlling the rivulets than it is to construct the big one that would block the gaping mouth.

Posted by Walker Willingham at July 23, 2004 11:20 AM