Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Sunday, December 18, 2016


We've heard a lot lately about regulations, and unless I miss my guess, we can expect to hear a lot more over the next year. With that in mind, it's probably a good idea to think about what exactly we mean by regulations and their various benefits and liabilities.

Of course, regulations were originally designed to keep our individual pursuits of happiness from conflicting with the happiness of others, and that's still their purpose. We all know the old saw "My right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts," and regulations should serve to keep fists and noses separate. As a society's living standard and population increase, fists and noses come into closer proximity, meaning that regulations need to be periodically revised to keep up. But the narrative we hear most about regulations is that they're obstacles that keep market forces from doing the beneficial things they do for society. While it's true that in some instances regulations can do that, they pale in comparison to the real enemy of the 'invisible hand' of the marketplace, monopolies. Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, understood this very well two centuries ago, and what was his prescription for discouraging monopolies? Why government regulation, of course.

While regulations are necessary and can do very good things, that's not to say we should cherish them all. The regulations that affect businesses can be sorted into two piles. The first pile we'll call benevolent regulation. These laws do things like prohibiting a business from dumping waste solvents into the community's drinking water. Antitrust laws would go into this pile as well. Benevolent regulations protect a society's common resources like water, air and biodiversity. They defend citizens from powerful interests like governments and corporations. They look out for the interests of future generations against entities that would conspire to steal from them.

The second pile we can call "red tape" regulations. Most of us are familiar with these and have felt the frustration they engender. They're the sort of hoops a business has to go through that have no readily discernible function. Reasonable people will argue about which pile certain laws belong in, but we can all agree that both piles exist.

It's easy to understand the function of benevolent regulation, but red tape has an important function as well. It's a very real obstacle to that individual entrepreneur who's trying to bring a better mousetrap to market, and keeps him or her from being able to compete on level ground with Amalgamated Mousetrap Corporation.

It's not a terrible oversimplification to say that regulations in our first pile protect the weak from the powerful while the ones in the second pile protect the powerful from the weak. That's exactly why I'm skeptical when the powers that be say they're going to cut regulations. I have a pretty good idea which pile they have their eye on.
illustration:  "TRASH BIRDS--ASIAN PIED HARRIER & AFRICAN PIED WAGTAILS" (2016) India and sepia ink washes on Arches paper  19" x 24"