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06/28/2012 11:17 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2012

The Nature of Regulation I: Breaking Out of Our Narrative Prisons

Regulation is one of the most charged words in politics. If you're a conservative, then you're likely to think that regulation is a bad thing that erodes personal responsibility and prevents the free enterprise system from working its magic. If you're a liberal, then you're likely to think that regulation is essential to prevent the inefficiencies and abuses that pervade modern life.

Actually, if you're a liberal, you're unlikely to use the word regulation at all. Conservatives have largely won the battle over its meaning, stigmatizing it for everyone. Conservatives will get votes by calling for less regulation. Liberals won't get votes by calling for more regulation, so they are forced to tiptoe around the word to make their arguments.

I'm neither a liberal nor a conservative. I'm a biologist. A biologist must use the word regulation because life depends on it. The processes that cause such things as our hearts to beat, our lungs to breathe, and our brains to think are regulated in a thousand different ways. No regulation means dying for an organism. But it's not a matter of "more" or "less" regulation. It's a matter of just the right kind of regulation for each and every process.

Politics has become pathological to use the word regulation as it does. In this series of essays, I will review how the word is used in biology and why it should be used in the same way for the regulation of human society. Applying biological concepts to human society is fraught with difficulties, but some things are so elementary (at least in retrospect) that they are unlikely to be wrong. So it is with the nature of regulation, or at least so I will argue.

Before we can think clearly about regulation, we need to think clearly about another important word: narrative. A narrative is a story that organizes our experience and compels certain actions. We need narratives, because the real world is too complex to comprehend without simplification. Narratives are invariably distortions of the real world because otherwise they could not perform their simplifying function. The simpler and more compelling a narrative the better--but only if it compels us to do the right thing. When a narrative compels us to do the wrong thing, then it traps us like a prison that we cannot easily escape because of the way that the narrative has structured our experience. The only way to break out of a narrative prison is to challenge and replace the narrative. The new narrative will also be a simplification, but one that is hopefully better anchored in reality and compels us to do the right thing.

When we examine the current liberal and conservative narratives about regulation, we see two prisons. Each is compelling, in the sense that any reasonable person who accepts the story will be driven to act in a certain way. Each is a prison, in the sense that the actions motivated by the narratives won't solve our current problems. We need to challenge both narratives and tell a new story, more firmly anchored in reality, that leads to more effective action. Centering the political concept of regulation on the biological concept is the beginning of a new story.

Two opinion pieces, one by the liberal commentator Paul Krugman and the other by the conservative commentator David Brooks, which appeared on the same day (June 14, 2012) in the New York Times, illustrate what I mean by narrative prisons. Krugman's piece is titled "We Don't Need No Education" and criticizes the conservative policy of reducing the size of government. According to Krugman, "Conservatives love to pretend that there are vast armies of bureaucrats doing who knows what" but that "in reality, a majority of government workers are employed providing either education (teachers) or public protection (police officers and fire fighters)." He then cites "a lot of evidence" that cutting public jobs hurts rather than helps the economy, especially during hard economic times. An effective narrative can't review the evidence in detail, so instead we get conclusions that are impossible to assess based on the information given. Cutting public-sector jobs has not stimulated private-sector jobs during this recession. The conservative prescription has proven to be disastrous for European countries that have followed them to the letter. The bottom line: the conservative policy of reducing government will result in fewer teachers, firemen, and policemen and will put the economy in a tailspin. Tellingly, Krugman does not use the word regulation.

Brooks' piece is titled "What Republicans Think" and begins with the claim that from Eisenhower through George W. Bush, Republicans have accepted the 20th century concept of the welfare state. "Sure, they wanted to cut taxes and devolve power, but in practice, they sustained the system, often funding it more lavishly than the Democrats." What's new is that many republicans have reached the conclusion that "the welfare-state model is in its death throes". Brooks also uses the problems in Europe to support his position. According to him, European nations are failing not because they are following the conservative prescription, but because they are the first welfare states to collapse, soon to be followed by the USA unless something is done. "Successive presidents have layered on regulations and loopholes, creating a form of state capitalism in which big businesses thrive because they have political connections and small businesses struggle." For Brooks, regulation contributes to unfairness and reducing it will "spark an efficiency explosion, laying the groundwork for an economic revival."

I invite readers of this essay to read the pieces by Krugman and Brooks and ask themselves the following question: How would a reasonable person who accepted the narrative provided by each author vote during the upcoming presidential elections? The answer, of course, is that 100% of reasonable people who accepted Krugman's narrative at face value would vote for Obama and 100% of reasonable people who accepted Brook's narrative at face value would vote for Romney. Never mind that both authors used the same evidence (the economic problems in Europe) to support their positions. I didn't even bother to recount the rhetorical flourishes that portray the other side as stupid, dishonest, and even diseased. This is what I mean by narratives as like prisons that confine reasonable people to certain actions by organizing their experience so that no other options appear reasonable. Krugman and Brooks are better than most political commentators, and even they are narrative prison-keepers.

A new narrative is needed that is more firmly anchored to reality and that allows reasonable people to use their own intelligence to decide how to act. The way to begin crafting a new narrative is by asking how the word "regulation" is used in biology. Think of it as your "get out of jail free" card.

To be continued

This piece was first published at Evolution: This View of Life