12/28/2011 07:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 27, 2012

Republican Nonsense on Regulation

A persistent GOP line of attack against President Obama is that he's inflicted an intolerable "regulatory burden" on American businesses. Mitt Romney, for instance, has been telling campaign crowds that the Obama administration has issued four times as much regulation as past presidents. This claim is false. According to Bloomberg news, the Obama administration has issued 613 new federal rules so far in his presidency. During the same period in the presidency of George W. Bush, his administration had issued 643 new rules.

Romney has, in fact, repeatedly misrepresented the Obama administration's regulatory record. As with so many Republican Party talking points these days, his claims about Obama and regulation are not intended to be factual statements. Instead, they're meant to advance a larger conservative meme: that regulations are necessarily and inherently bad. The standard GOP view of regulations is that they impose a cost on business and "kill" jobs in the process, while delivering no benefit to the economy or society more broadly. Examples to the contrary abound. For example, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Obama administration issued new rules on deep sea oil drilling. Those regulations might cost industry $200 million or so. But it's quite obvious that the problem in this case isn't "excessive" regulation -- it's that the regulation didn't come soon enough (a disastrous oversight for which the Obama administration bears some responsibility).

The direct costs alone of the Deepwater Horizon disaster could exceed $16 billion. Had the new rules been in place prior to the disaster, billions of dollars would have been saved and a larger environmental catastrophe could have been avoided. In that vein, among the most far-reaching regulations has been the Clean Air Act, whose estimated cost savings since its passage run into the trillions of dollars. In addition, while Republicans repeatedly decry the job-destroying effects of regulations, most sober-minded economists say that the overall effects of regulations on jobs are minimal.

The GOP's attack on regulation is part of a larger attempt to discredit the idea that government can play a positive role in people's lives. That attack is itself based on a fantasy -- that in the absence of the distorting and freedom-destroying effects of government, human action would yield generally optimal outcomes for society as a whole. Such notions themselves hearken back to Adam Smith's discussion of an "invisible hand." Leaving aside repeated misrepresentations of what Smith meant by that phrase, he was no fantasist and endorsed myriad public works and a range of what we would now call government regulations. Smith's quite sensible views on the matter derive from a simple point, one that most grown-ups acknowledge in their day-to-day lives: Our actions can have adverse consequences for others.

Government regulations can, of course, impose burdensome costs. But that's not the same as arguing that any regulation imposes a cost on individuals or businesses that otherwise would not exist. As the economist Dean Baker explains, if I dump toxic sludge onto your lawn and a law requires me to clean it up, you can argue that the "cost" of the regulation is simply the cost I incur to take care of the problem. There is, however, also a price that you pay for having toxic sludge on your lawn. Regulation, seen in this light, does not create new costs. Instead, it seeks to assign existing costs to the responsible parties by forcing them to clean up their messes, or by preventing those parties from creating the mess in the first place. Blanket condemnations of regulation, of the type that are de rigueur among Republicans these days, refuse to acknowledge this basic truth.

Republicans also decry the incredibly lengthy and unwieldy nature of federal rules, running as they do to thousands or tens of thousands of pages in some cases. Kevin Drum has pointed out that this is often not the result of liberals' insatiable desire to kill more trees. For example, when the so-called Volcker rule was first conceived -- the purpose of which was to limit federally insured banks' ability to engage in speculative investment -- it was pretty simple and straightforward. That was before the lobbyists set upon it like shape-shifting sorcerers. The result: a law whose preamble alone was 215 pages with nearly 400 footnotes. Drum notes that, in general, regulators prefer simple, clear rules. Industry, on the other hand, has an incentive to make those rules as unwieldy and exemption-ridden as possible. Simple rules are bad for business, Drum says, because they're "hard to evade." Of course, big business interests will publicly lament laws that run to thousands of pages. Privately, though, they're paying attorneys a lot of money to render those laws more obscure, complex, unmanageable and difficult to enforce than any regulator would ever want.

That regulation is fully justifiable when it mitigates the harm that some private actors might otherwise inflict on others ought to be the minimally agreed upon foundation for a larger conversation about the proper limits and potential pitfalls of specific kinds of government regulation. Instead of joining such a conversation, one of our two major parties offers up a fairy tale version of the economy. The simple idea that private interests, left to their own devices, have the potential to hurt others and undermine the public good is denounced as "socialistic" thinking and un-American. Wealthy private interests are heroic job creators that could and would build a nearly perfect society, if only they were left alone to work their job-creating magic. In that world, only the lazy and undeserving would fail to prosper. Such fantasies ought to have been finally discredited by the disastrous role that deregulation played in the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, the anti-regulatory zealots have doubled down on this delusion and spun a particularly inventive -- and typically fact-free -- tale about how the financial crisis was itself caused by the evils of government regulation (and Barney Frank), a zombie lie that just won't die.

This article originally appeared in the Independent Weekly of North Carolina.