I probably watched too much television as a kid.
There was an episode of Fantasy Island that I remember where a psychologist is trying to figure out what makes “bad girls” tick. The suave and slightly magical Mr. Roarke — whose perfectly pressed white suit had not yet been supplemented with post “Wrath of Khan” chest baring shirts — gives her a potion and admonishes her to only take 3 drops at a time. Her newly released Inner Bad Girl is such a hit that her Good Girl self is kidnapped by Bad Boys who decide that if a little of this potion makes her Bad, even more will make her even More Bad — in a Good way of course. At this point she becomes completely uncontrollable.
Regulation and Deregulation are much the same way. A little is probably a good thing, but too much makes things uncontrollable. Most regulation happens because a clearly bad situation has arisen. For example, Texas has a state law saying landlords have to change locks between residents on their rental properties. A common sense thing that reputable landlords have always done had to be made into a law because some landlords weren’t doing the right thing. Whenever I see a particularly odd law, I remind myself that some legislative body thought it was important enough to draw up, vote on, and get somebody to sign.
This is in contrast to various laws that had unexpected consequences. For example, when the Social Security Number was invented, nobody thought it would be used as a universal identification number. In fact, the law prohibits using it in this way. By way of a more recent example, the No Child Left Behind Act states the lofty goal of improving performance in every sub-group of every school. Failure to do so has Federal implications. However, this does not allow much flexibility to the few truly excellent public schools, who must somehow surpass the extraordinary each year. By not providing a baseline performance other than “better,” they fail before they begin.
Regulations made by various government agencies are a slightly different animal. Since these agencies are not elected, and are often difficult to reign in, they sometimes seem to make rules just for the sake of making rules. Some of these rules will have clear valid reasons, others will be compromises between multiple points of view, some will be indirect political favors, and some will be nothing more than a wild hair. Some of these will indeed be so egregious that Legislators or the Courts will step in.
With many sources and years of regulation, it is easy to see how the rules can get very complicated and perhaps even contradictory. In addition, it can be expensive to figure out what the rules are and comply with them. The fundamental idea behind Deregulation is that by taking away unnecessary rules, it will be easier to do business. Theoretically this can even create jobs. The truth is that deregulation is just as prone to unintended consequence, abuse of authority, and political intrigue. Not only does deregulation tend to “throw the baby out with the bath-water,” it tends to rewrite rather than revise regulation.
Two prime examples are playing out in Washington as we speak. In the wake of August’s massive blackout, calls for reform are being answered with Bush’s original proposed Energy Policy, drilling in the Arctic and all. Congress is not amused. They asked specifically how drilling holes in the ground up in Alaska was going to keep power on in the lower 48 and as nearly as anyone can tell did not get an acceptable answer.
The other current example of bad deregulation deals with a law you may never have heard of called EMTALA. That’s the law that says (if I may oversimplify) that Emergency Rooms have to see anyone who comes in regardless of insurance, and that specialists have to be on call to help patients. The one main problem is a grey area: hospital owned clinics. Does a hospital’s off-site clinic fall under the same rules as the main campus? Rather than simply clarify this issue, the rules will be gutted. As a patient, you will risk becoming a human pinball if you have the wrong kind of insurance, or the wrong kind of injury, or simply come in at the wrong time of day. Because this is a “rule” amended by the Bush Administration, it will be very difficult to overrule, but not impossible.
Maybe you’d better not have a medical emergency after November 10, 2003.