|Montréal, 17 mars 2001 / No 79||
by David MacRae
In the last six months of his presidency, Bill Clinton doubled the size of the Federal Register, the list of all regulations ordered by the US federal government, from 40,000 to 80,000 pages. In the last week alone, he added a thousand pages a day. Can anyone believe that due care and attention were observed through this frenzy? Aside from reading this stuff, he had to find time to pardon donors to his library. Yet once he nodded his head, these words obtained the force of law, exactly as if Congress had enacted them.
The exact same method is used to pass regulations here in Canada. The Prime
Minister proclaims them through an Order-in-Council and they become instant
law. Regulations cover everything you can imagine. The type of gasoline
you can use in your car. The size of child support awards. The rules of
the stock market. Welfare rates. When and how new drugs can be introduced.
The type of materials you can use in building your house. In fact, almost
every facet of ordinary life is covered by regulations of one sort or another.
It is time to put a stop to this pernicious practice. Not only is rampant regulation inimical to our freedom and liberty, it is fundamentally anti-democratic (for some reason, most people seem to think that democracy is more important than freedom). Regulations are made by bureaucrats; laws are made by politicians. For all their faults, the latter are infinitely preferable to the former.
The Poof! Methods
Lawmaking takes place in public and politicians must justify their proposals beforehand. They are obliged to put a Bill before the House of Commons and to read it three times. The opposition can raise objections and make amendments. Most of the time, their efforts come to naught but occasionally a useful modification is made. Even more rarely, a big enough public furor will incite the government to back down. Most importantly, we become aware of the issue, which might lead us to exercise our option to vote out the scoundrels at the next election.
Regulations, in contrast, take effect by a simple proclamation of the cabinet. It is difficult to mobilize opposition to a regulation because you’re dealing with a fait accompli. In practice you have to fight to have a law enacted to repeal the regulation, a far harder task than fighting its initial implementation. Your job is complicated enormously by the fact that the government obviously favours the regulation. It just implemented the damn thing, after all.
Some gnome toiling away in his hole decides that air pollution standards need to be tightened. His reasons, more often than not, relate more to empire building than to any real need but he will order up some pseudo-scientific study to prove his point. His superior will re-write the proposal into lawyerese, pass the new rule up to the cabinet and – Poof! Instant law.
Chrétien wants to reward some of his cronies in Shawinigan. Poof! It’s done.
Landry wants to extend some outrageous bribe to a foreign company to convince it to set up shop in Quebec? Poof! Billions of dollars appear.
Our rulers far prefer Poof! methods to open and honest debate. Consequently, the use of regulations has spread like wildfire in recent years. In fact, they are a relatively new phenomenon, rare only thirty years ago. In the sixties, cars did not have to have seat belts (although most did because of consumer demand). You could build your home pretty much any way you wanted.
Cars and houses
It is estimated that government regulations add about 40% to the cost of consumer goods. These regulations hit especially hard at the bottom end of the market for big-ticket consumer goods like automobiles and houses.
Virtually everyone today would insist on having seat belts in theirs cars, and shoulder belts too. There may even be a valid argument in making them obligatory. Similarly, the logic behind the standardization of bumper heights also makes some sense.
But what is the justification for 5 MPH bumpers? Is it possible that some people might want to take a chance on denting the car? Especially if their choice was between a dented car and no car at all? Why shouldn’t they have the right to choose?
How about air bags? Aside from knee-jerk statists, have you ever run across anyone who has a good word to say about these things? They kill about 200 people every year and injure tens of thousands more. My pet peeve about them is that I can never find the horn when I need it since the stupid cartridge covers almost the entire steering column. How many more people die because some driver couldn’t find the @#$^&* horn? Can you really imagine that a law forcing the use of air bags would have been enacted if it had to stand up to public scrutiny?
Every automobile built today has to have all of this stuff, as well as many more things I haven’t mentioned, from catalytic converters to God-knows-what. I recently received a recall notice on my own car, something about how the power windows can be activated in an illegal manner. After making a quick check to verify that the windows wouldn’t open without the key, I threw the stupid letter out. Who cares? Some nameless bureaucrat. Who pays? We all do.
Since the cost tends to be the same for all cars (there isn’t much difference between one air bag and the next), the poor pay more than the well off.
In 1970, the price of an entry-level car like the Volkswagen Beetle was about $7000 in today’s dollars, taxes and seatbelts included. Over the last thirty years the prices of most manufactured goods have fallen relative to the Consumer Price Index. Despite this, a basic car costs about twice as much today as it did thirty years ago. The Chevy Geo, the Kia Rio and the Hyundai Accent all start at slightly under $14,000 (the New Beetle costs about $25,000 but this is not a fair comparison since it has gone from being a People’s car to a Yuppie toy).
This difference in price is almost entirely due to the cost of regulation. Once again, government sticks it to the poor. One of the great socialist myths is that government is there to help those who are less fortunate. This is garbage. Government helps the well-connected, not the needy. Well-connected doesn’t always mean rich (more often, it means politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers) but ask yourself, between the rich and the poor, who is more likely to have connections?
Dad was right
I can remember my father railing against some law enacted around 1969, not because of the contents of the law but because of the fact that it permitted the government to change the rules by a simple Order-in-Council. I have never heard anyone make a similar complaint since. At the time, I failed to catch his point. A majority government can do what it wants. What difference whether they use a law or an Order-in-Council to achieve their goals?
Well, Dad was right. There is a difference. Orders-in-Council are tools of a tyrant. It is no accident that Orders-in-Council are proclaimed, just as the whims of a king once were. The reasons why they are proclaimed are inscrutable, hidden from view. It is effectively impossible to mobilize opposition to them.
It is time that regulations were banned.
Let me be clear. I am not arguing against the right of government to force people to wear seatbelts or to force manufacturers to incorporate them in the design of cars. Such arguments are clearly at the heart of the libertarian project but today, I simply want to point out that, given the fact that government has this right, it should exercise it by making laws, not regulations.
This means that all rules should be enacted by legislation, right down to the question of whether there should be a stop sign instead of a stoplight at some obscure intersection out in the burbs. Inevitably, the powers that be will respond by enacting omnibus bills which cover a myriad of small issues. Fine. Let them do so. Just give us a chance to react before these rules are given the force of law.
In the long run, the only way to defeat Leviathan is through education. In this regard, the Internet – and e-zines like this one – offers real hope. The burgeoning home-schooling movement is even more important. Still there are concrete measures which libertarians and other small-government advocates can push for today, measures which even lefties can support.
A push to ban regulations, combined with sunset clauses on laws themselves, is an achievable goal in the near future. Think tanks like the Fraser Institute and the Montreal Economic Institute should be pushing the case, backed by pressure groups like the National Citizens' Coalition. Genuinely conservative parties like that of Ralph Klein should be open to the idea. Let’s fight on principle all
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