Regulation is not a dirty word

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In response to my recent post about regulation, Tim Knowles wrote a very thoughtful comment. In his comment, he detailed many of the criticisms people have leveled at regulation, and he pointed out, quite correctly, that without bad regulation, the right would be unable to attack regulations.

As examples of bad regulations, Tim pointed to his inability to get an antibiotic without a prescription. I have also had the frustrating experience of knowing exactly what medicine I needed but having to wait to see the doctor to get it. While I am not one to defend the FDA with our current opiate crisis, there are many examples of drugs that initially seemed promising that were kept off the market due to required regulatory tests.

Furthermore, we need to curb the use of antibiotics or risk their becoming completely ineffective due to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. One way to do that is through the requirement that people get prescriptions for them.

He pointed, again quite correctly, to sin taxes as examples of government efforts to control our lives. As someone who enjoys pop, my enthusiasm for higher taxes on sugary beverages is, at best, ambivalent. However, research has shown that the main reason smoking has decreased in our country, especially among young people, is due to high taxes on cigarettes. Smoking, by the way, is a true public health crisis.

The truth is that anytime we try to address a problem with regulation, there will be some people who will be needlessly burdened. Even if 90% of the people benefit from a specific regulation, in a country our size, the 10% who don’t are a lot of people.

What’s more is that government addresses a lot of issues. As a result, every person will be a part of some 10% who does not benefit from a specific regulation. It’s just that the specific regulation that annoys each person might be a different one. Putting all regulation into one basket allows everyone to hate them, even though every person benefits from some regulation and is annoyed by some others. Instead, the goal should be to look at each regulation on its own and determine if the overall effects are positive for most people, and that there is no less invasive way to address that specific issue.

A frequent refrain from those who oppose regulation is that it reduces our freedom. Again, they are quite correct. But I have two responses to that point. First, in a civilized society, we all must have our freedom curtailed somewhat out of consideration for the rest of our community. If I want the freedom to have huge parties at my house all night, that freedom must be limited by the needs of my neighbors to get a good night’s sleep.

Second, if government does not step in, someone else will. Power abhors a vacuum. As a result, where government does not impose its power, other interests will. For example, if government regulation does not help determine which drugs will be made available to the public, the pharmaceutical industries will. If government regulation does not require manufacturers to reduce their pollution, the rest of society will pay the price for the pollution that benefits the few shareholders of the company. If government regulation does not mandate that advertisers be somewhat truthful in their claims, companies will be able to lie with impunity and we will never know what is true or not. Again, private interests will benefit and society as a whole will suffer.

In short, there will always be someone trying to control society for their own benefit. The question is whether it should be private interests or government. I would assert that government is the better choice here.

Why? Because as imperfect as it is, government does to some extent represent society as a whole. Where private interests only represent their own goal of higher profits, government’s goal is to look out for the concerns of everybody. Where private companies only have to respond to the goals of their shareholders, government officials ultimately must face re-election by the public at large.

No doubt the system is imperfect. No doubt there are regulations that annoy all of us. But government and the regulations it promulgates are a reflection of our own imperfection as people, and examples of their unpopularity reflect the amazing diversity of this country. I would challenge anyone who claims to be opposed to regulation overall to dispute the fact that there is at least some regulation they benefit from. The solution should be to get rid of or improve bad regulations and promote good ones. The solution is not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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