07/17/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Of Bunny Rabbits and Stupid Regulations

The Department of Agriculture's efforts to require birthday party entertainer Marty the Magician to develop a written "disaster plan" for taking care of his rabbit is a clear example of the way America's regulatory state has grown out of control. But using it as a way of making the case for regulatory reform is an oversimplification that neglects a stronger -- if less talk-radio friendly -- case for the reform America needs. Put simply, silly regulations aren't always that harmful and harmful regulations aren't always that silly.

Let's start with the facts of Marty's case. While there is a decent public health case for regulating big zoos, major commercial farms, and big labs partly under federal laws (particular in relation to animal-borne diseases that might spread to humans), an owner of a single bunny rabbit should be regulated on a purely local level if at all. Any mandate on what's basically a household pet simply lies outside of federal purview. That said, it's probably not very that the impacts of the birthday-party magic bunny rabbit regulation will be that vast. Birthday party magic is not a major economic engine anywhere. The paperwork burden of a rabbit-oriented disaster plan, likewise, is probably more a nuisance than an actual impediment to anybody setting up a birthday party magic business. In short, the quantifiable harm done by the regulations on Marty appears pretty modest.

But an overgrown regulatory state can cost quite a lot. For example, the new regulations that President Obama wants to impose on power plants under the Clean Air Act are likely to have a massive cost and, coupled with other efforts to centrally plan the energy economy, could do vast economic harm. That said, as bad and detrimental as they are, the regulations aren't silly: carbon pollution and the climate change that results from it are both real problems. The fact that President Obama has proposed a poor solution to them doesn't diminish the problems. People who don't like Obama's proposals face a burden to either produce a different set of solutions or present an airtight case that the public sector action is somehow inappropriate for the issue in question. Even if the second case can be proven -- and I don't see how it can in the case of climate change -- it still doesn't make President Obama's actions self-evidently silly.
The same logic applies to most other regulations. Big, often overly complex laws intended to protect air, water, food, and workplace safety all speak to issues where overwhelming majorities of people see a need for some sort of government action. This doesn't mean that the current regulations are any good (many of them aren't) but, rather, that people who dislike them can't honestly compare them to a federal mandate for bunny-rabbit disaster planning.

Furthermore, many of the rules that have the most immediate and direct costs, furthermore, tend to be very popular. For example, the national Do Not Call list, which was so popular that Congress pushed aside other business to affirm it just hours after a court declared one version of it illegal, is one of the few regulations that destroyed jobs all by itself. (It's very rare that regulations directly outlaw work activities; most regulatory job losses come when added burdens make it unprofitable for employers to continue a specific job.)

In the end, a complex society probably needs some rules that are pretty complicated. Many of the most stupid rules probably aren't that harmful. Many regulations that are harmful aren't silly. Dealing with proposed regulations that do the most damage requires a lot more than just saying "get government out of the way."