This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on September 12, 2011.
President Obama’s job speech last Thursday made a bold statement about getting rid of unnecessary regulation: “We should have no more regulation than the health, safety and security of the American people require. Every rule should meet that common-sense test.”
But what does that mean? Just a couple of weeks ago the Administration announced federal agencies’ plans to prune unnecessary regulation—promising savings of about $2 billion per year, or about one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s annual regulatory cost. Whatever one thinks about the particular proposals, it is unlikely to stimulate the economy. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty trivial.
Republicans are engaged in a full-throated roar about “getting rid of regulation.” Michelle Bachmann proposes to eliminate EPA, which most Americans won’t subscribe to. Majority Leader Eric Cantor has helpfully listed his top 10 job-killing regulations. Some are clearly correct, but most object to proposed EPA rules tightening emissions on pollutants. The rules may be inefficient, but the cure is not to abandon regulating those harmful pollutants.
What’s wrong with regulation is not generally that the goals are bad, or overreaching—most Americans want clean water and air, and safe workplaces, and toys without lead paint on them. What’s wrong is that regulation is suffocating—it tells us exactly how to do things, diverting energy from the job at hand to mindless compliance.
Regulation should set goals and provide a mechanism of enforcement—but not tell people how to meet the goals. Regulation in America has become central planning. It literally tells people how to do anything—and imagines the worst possible scenario. For example, consider this OSHA rule: “In a multistory building, when a stairwell is being used, it shall be properly illuminated by either natural or artificial means.” No kidding. Do we think that without this rule people were groping their way up and down floors, often injuring themselves in the process? Why not have rules on the Bunn-O-Matic?
Throw a dart at the Code of Federal Regulations and you are likely to hit a stupid rule designed to meet a sensible goal. Stupid bureaucratic implementation is a damper on economic activity. Small business owners struggle to comply with all the rules—and that is just with ones they know about. Surely some are missed and others overlooked because they can’t be comprehended.
What’s the solution? Regulation needs to be rewritten for real people. It should set goals, and guiding principles. Think the Constitution, a document of barely 10 pages. For example: “Tools and equipment should be reasonably suited to the use intended, in accord with industry standards.” That one phrase could replace several thousand rules. Can people disagree at the margin on what’s reasonable? Sure, but I’d give the presumption to the safety inspector, and have a quick mechanism for resolution.
There are some areas that are unavoidably complex—like levels of toxins. Even there, however, regulation should generally set goals, not dictate how to meet them.
The burden of regulation in America is crushing everyone. There are 160 million words of binding federal law and regulation. Add in state and local law, and the total becomes billions. Real people can’t deal with it. This is not “the rule of law” but a vast network of tripwires that can get people in trouble for anything that they do.
Regulation needs to be re-humanized. It must address the real people who are expected to comply, not some bureaucratic abstraction.