Fighting Back Against “Pointless, Stupid and Tyrannical” Regulations

The Wall Street Journal published an essay by Charles Murray last week, “Regulation Run Amok — And How to Fight Back,” arguing that “America is no longer the land of the free” due to the modern regulatory state. He cites Thomas Jefferson’s definition of good government as one “which shall restrain men from injuring on another” and “shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” This presumption of freedom, says Murray, no longer holds.

He says that at last count there are nearly 5,000 federal crimes you can commit. He states that “No individual can know how to “obey” laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley (810 pages), the Affordable Care Act (1,024 pages) or Dodd-Frank (2,300 pages).” He notes that their are over 175,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations, most of which were not created by legislation but written by regulatory agencies.

He is clear that “I’m not complaining about regulations that require, say, sturdy structural supports for tunnels in coal mines.” He suggests categories that could include “pointless, stupid or tyrannical” regulations that “should come under strict scrutiny include regulations that prescribe best practice for a craft or profession; restrict access to an occupation; prohibit owners of property from using it as they wish; prescribe hiring, firing and working conditions; and prevent people from taking voluntary risks.”

Some examples:

  • “Public-school teachers typically labor under regulatory regimes that prescribe not only the curriculum but minutely spell out how that curriculum must be taught—an infantilization of teachers that drives many of the best ones from the public schools.”
  • “Workers in government offices are often governed by such strict job descriptions that chipping in to help out a co-worker or to take the initiative breaks the rules—and can even get them fired, as in the case of a Florida lifeguard who rescued a person who was drowning just outside the lifeguard’s assigned zone.”
  • “When it comes to professional best practices, most people still want a government agency to prescribe precise checklists for, say, maintaining nuclear weapons. But prescribing, for example, how much time a worker in a nursing home must spend with each resident each week is stupid. Licensing has a strong rationale when it comes to physicians and airline pilots. But can’t we rely on the market to deal with incompetent barbers, interior decorators and manicurists?”

This focus on professional licensing is an issue we at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation have fought for years and hope to make progress on next year.

All in all, an essay worth reading and a fight worth fighting.

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