02/01/2011 03:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Do Progressives Favor Regulation -- and Should We?

One of the key differences between Progressives and Conservatives is their attitudes about government regulation. The former tend to favor it, the latter to oppose it. Why? And might Progressives benefit from gaining an understanding of Conservative opposition to such regulation, whether in healthcare, education, and taxation?

As Progressives, we often take what appears to us to be a pragmatic approach. An unrestrained market system does not appear to do a good job in certain areas. Clearly, in healthcare, we have a wealthy country, yet there remain tens of millions of people lacking insurance at all, and tens of millions more with inadequate insurance or inadequate access to healthcare. In societies with greater regulation, such as those in Europe, healthcare is not only provided universally, but for less money per capita and with better outcomes than we get here in the United States.

So, with better outcomes at a lower cost, why is there such opposition, even fear, over healthcare reform in the United States?

It comes down, in large part, to a matter of trust. Progressives tend to trust public institutions and officials to spend money more wisely and with less overhead than the private sector. For all the outcry over Medicare, the system runs on much less overhead than private insurance companies (as researched and reported in the past by The Commonwealth Fund). And, in a critical area like healthcare, Progressives worry that the private sector's profit motive trumps providing quality care.

Conservatives challenge this. With healthcare, as with government spending more generally, they wonder why we should trust the government to spend our money any more wisely than we would as individuals? After all, will we not pursue our own interests better than government bureaucrats? And if the reality is that most people tend to make poor choices (in part because they are overwhelmed by the variety of choices), the principle is more important than the outcome, ideology more important than results. Indeed, Conservatives see the regulatory approach as patronizing and fundamentally immoral. For Libertarians, any government taxation and regulation are necessary evils, to defend society.

And do Progressives not know from mistrusting government? When it comes to keeping secrets, Progressives understand that government and government officials ought not always to be trusted. Take, for example, former Vice President Cheney's secret meetings on energy policy. And surely there is corruption and waste throughout government, as with most institutions to one degree or another.

Furthermore, Progressives distrust the use of government to promote the agenda of Social Conservatives, to restrict various practices or to impose others.

So, why should Progressives trust government with their money and with regulation more generally?

Well, despite the serious criticisms, regulation not only works, but is necessary, at least in certain areas.

For example, securing the safety of our water system or our food system (inasmuch as the latter has been a mess, it has not been due not to over-regulation but to a confused regulatory system, spread over many agencies with sometimes conflicting responsibilities and authority). The market simply will not do a good enough job of protecting the water supply. People will cut corners, and we could wind up at a place where only the wealthy can purchase clean water. And in consumer protection and product safety, does anyone doubt that at least a minority of manufacturers would sell dangerous products to unwary customers? What would happen if we had to purchase consumer protection on the market? Most of us would have to do with taking our chances on what we buy. Without regulation, companies could continue to sell paint and gasoline and children's products containing lead. And can we risk waiting for the market to respond correctively by putting such companies out of business?

And for the financial markets, there are endless debates as to whether the recent crisis was caused by under-regulation or over-regulation, but what remains clear is that the financial community socialized their risks: when things went well, they favored a market system and reaped great profits; when things went bad, they turned to the public coffers to finance their losses. It is not clear that recent regulations will prevent this from happening once again.

In the end, Progressives should take Conservatives seriously in their concern over regulation, and even oppose regulation when it is ineffective or unnecessary. But in areas where regulation protects public safety or is much more efficient than the market in providing services such as healthcare, Progressives should proudly embrace it and champion its virtues. The irony of the healthcare debate is that despite the seemingly fierce opposition to the reform legislation, most Americans support its main components when taken individually. It is the fear of change and dread of regulation that fuel the opposition, so that many people oppose both what will likely benefit them and what they actually say they want.