Many complaints of the costs of environmental (and other) regulations give us the view from 30,000 feet. In his new article “The Long Arm of the European Community,” at American Thinker, Norman Rogers paints the picture at ground level—and it isn’t pretty. It’s not just that the regulations impose enormous costs but also that they often are based on complete, or nearly complete, ignorance of the activities being regulated.
From his 25 years of experience heading a small electronics manufacturing firm, he writes of the impact of the nonsensical strict regulation of radio emissions from, and the complete ban of lead solder in, electronics components, actions that cost the industry (and therefore electronics consumers) billions of dollars for retooling capital equipment.
Rogers then points out the perverse incentives that make such nonsense regulations both inevitable and immortal. Regulators typically lack adequate knowledge, not only of the processes they want to regulate but also, and more importantly, of the wide-ranging consequences of their regulations. They tend to respond to political pressure, which means they regulate to favor large corporations that can afford large lobbying efforts and against their smaller competitors, which can’t. Opportunity of public comment exists but is often pro forma, and few public persons know enough about the processes or the proposed regulations to comment constructively anyway. Once the regulations hit the books, overturning them is next to impossible. “The issues are often too technical for judges, much less juries, to understand. The provisions for public hearings and public comment are a farce that the agencies generally ignore.”
He suggests that one possible solution “is to have institutional B teams whose job is to operate as adversaries creating a brief against proposed or existing regulations. Obviously the B teams would have to be independent of the agencies and well enough funded to grapple with the complex issues. The existence of B teams would make the agencies fear generating stupid or unnecessary regulations.” That’s a good idea.
Another is to require sunset or reevaluation clauses in all regulations—and apply them retroactively to all existing regulations. Technological change occurs at exponentially accelerating rates, and every change in technology has the potential to make a regulation obsolete. Congress should require each new regulation to include a clause designating a specific date (perhaps no more than 10 years after adoption) on which, if not reinstated with new, up-to-date reasoning that takes new technologies into consideration, it will become void.
This would have two salutary effects. The first and more obvious one would be to remove lots of obsolete regulations from the books and prevent many new ones from dragging on eternally. The second and less obvious but perhaps even more powerful would be simply to slow the creation of new regulations by requiring regulatory agencies to spend significant portions of their time reevaluating old regulations. Together, these could significantly reduce the overall burden of regulation, which in the United States is estimated to be as high as $2 trillion ($24,000 per household of four) per year.
James Madison famously wrote, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” We need that last clause applied to regulators now more than ever.