The argument for regulation is remarkably easy: there is an evil out there, a wrong, and if only a law or regulation was passed to control it, to constrain it, to prevent people from doing it, our world would be better. It’s not that this is a bad argument, or that it’s necessarily wrong, but that it’s a facile argument. Just like the latest slogan from the White House, “1 is 2 many,” it sounds great but for the flip side of how many people must be harmed to get that “1”?
At Overlawyered, Walter Olson posted a fascinating lesson in harsh reality:
After a long career as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives deeply unsympathetic to business concerns, he became a restaurant owner in Washington, D.C., and discovered a lot of things worth knowing about how the world works.
He was speaking of David Bonior, “former Michigan Democratic congressman, liberal pit bull, academic, antiwar firebrand and labor-union BFF.”
After leaving Congress, where he was a stalwart believer that laws and government regulations were the cure for society’s ailments, he opened a restaurant. Well, yeah, even former congressmen need to keep busy.
“Small-business people work very hard,” said the 68-year-old, who has spent most of his life in government. “If you are a small-business guy, you are out there and not as protected as a government employee. They struggle every day. A snow day, a government worker is off. A restaurant person takes a hit from that snow day. This winter was very, very tough on the [restaurant] industry.”
Bonior said if he had the power, he would lighten up on pesky regulations.
“It took us a ridiculous amount of time to get our permits. I understand regulations and . . . the necessity for it. But we lost six months of business because of that. It’s very frustrating.”
You’ve got to love the part of the quote where he says, “if he had the power.” Of course, he had the power once. And he was the problem, or at least a part of the problem. The reason is sadly obvious: while he had the power, he lacked the understanding.
It’s easy to believe in theories, to pick sides in battle and blindly believe that yours is the side of truth and justice. It’s easy to ignore and vilify the other side, bolstering your self-righteousness and steeling yourself against the misery you cause others. After all, whatever side you believe in is the side of truth.
But when you have to go to work, to actually perform the functions which other people regulate and legislate behind the curtain of their perfect society, you come face to face with the reality that every choice has a cost, and pretending that the cost doesn’t matter doesn’t make the cost go away.
Sometimes, the cost becomes clear in a single law or regulation which produces disastrous unintended collateral consequences. Sometimes, it’s the net effect of piling rule upon reg upon law, ultimately creating a situation that’s unbearably burdensome. Bonior came to his epiphany when he tried to open a restaurant. Not a nuclear reactor. Not a brain surgery clinic. A restaurant.
Sure, there are a great many concerns involved in opening a restaurant, because cleanliness and safety are important. But then as anyone who has enjoyed the good intentions of the bureaucracy quickly learns, things never seem to happen quite the way their Utopian promoters claim they will. It’s the unforeseen burdens that make life a nightmare for good people just trying to do well. It’s not a crime in America for good people to try to do well.
This is not intended as a libertarian manifesto. Indeed, there are certainly regulations that are warranted, whether because the benefits far exceed the burdens, or the benefits are so crucial that the burdens, though real and heavy, must be borne.
Rather, the point is that we must stop being swayed into complacency about reality, about the unintended burdens and costs imposed by well-intended laws and regulations, by stories of poor victims or cool marketing slogans. Without taking a meaningful measure of the harm laws and regulations do to those who aren’t engaged in any wrongdoing, who are just trying to get by, to enjoy life, to succeed, to bask in a nation that promises enough liberty that we can pursue happiness without having to fill out a form in triplicate, we become the problem.
Advocates of a law, rule or regulation invariably believe that the harm they’re seeking to cure is worth the price. What about the children? What about the victims? And the alternative, the evil doers they’re going after, rarely have any advocates to speak on their behalf. Worse still, the unintended victims of laws and regs don’t even realize the cost that will be imposed on them. So not only do they have no one to speak for them, but they don’t even realize what interests are at risk.
We must think harder, be more skeptical, question and challenge the “solutions” to problems. They range from criminal laws to the banal regulations of restaurants, which notably often overlap with criminal laws when someone fails to adhere. We can certainly pass a law that superficially appears to cure every evil people can devise, but the cost will be a society where we can go out on a Saturday night and enjoy a fabulous dinner at a wonderful, and absolutely sanitary, restaurant, if they can’t get a piece of paper from a clerk somewhere that distinguishes whether they can serve us or pay a fine.
David Bonior learned this when he left the isolation of Congress for the reality of a businessman on the street. They keep learning it just a little too late.