Friday, 23 July 2004

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 any regulations if they have any effect on curbing something undesirable. This is what I call turf-protecting, and I see that many environmentalists are guilty of 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. [End of Post]


AC said...

Good analogy, Walker. You do write well.

Walker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Walker said...

This post has generated some lively discussion over at

J. Goard said...


One must be careful not to confuse *government* regulation with regulation in general (as seems to better fit your dam metaphor). Only a very few extreme libertarians are completely against the former, but noone with a speck of sanity is completely against the latter. In fact, the arguments of libertarians (and I'm a moderate one) often come down to some critical regulatory mechanism that works well when driven by a combination of profit motive and local moral checks, but terribly when it's ultimately driven by simplistic election-morality and by campaign contributions.

One of the clearest examples, IMHO, is the public primary and secondary schools. First, teachers' unions have constructed many obstacles to regulation of teacher quality, including tenure systems, lack of regular teacher-testing on content, and especially credential programs that seem like a sick joke to most intelligent people with real degrees. Second, political timidity has resulted in misregulation of student misbehavior: if they show deep disrespect for learning, it's okay, but if they make any reference to guns, alcohol, or drugs, that's an easy suspension. In this case, it's *more* good regulation that will come with taking centralized government control out of education.

Walker said...


I agree with many of your specific points, and concede that centralized control of regulation comes with problems born of political timidity, which I guess is my point that we need more boldness about what and how we regulate. I ask though, and this is a real question, not a rhetorical one, what are the primary non-government entities involved in regulation, and what are the enforcement mechanisms for those? This is a tough problem, but one that in certain fields, for instance if one accepts that global warming really exists, demands intelligent attention.

>...critical regulatory mechanism that works well
>when driven by a combination of profit motive >and local moral checks...

Again I'm curious what these 'local moral checks' are? They surely operate better in some fields where common sense can be applied then in others where technical analysis is necessary and those with access to the tools tend to have a vested interest in limiting regulation.

Roger, Gone Green said...

Right (government) regulation will always be elusive until incorporated businesses are free to pursue Right Livelihood.

That is, the current legal setting requires corporations to pursue profit above all else, to breach contracts if the breach and any legal obligations that arise are less profitable than some new agreement, to disregard the secondary effects of pollution, injury to consumers, injury to workers etc. unless there is a business case for it.

Now with increasing consumer demand for ethical business practices, the business case for what Buddhists call Right Livelihood is starting to emerge -- but it is not legally acceptable for a company with shareholders to do "right" without a profit motivation.

Couple this basic premise with our free-market concept legal concept that "that which is not prohibited is permitted" and you will see that government regulations are not an issue of too much or too little, but of the right regulations to keep the whole thing from destroying itself.

It would all be much easier if corporate business entities were allowed (or even required) to make an ethical decision even if a less-ethical but legal decision was more profitable.