Government is widely distrusted, no doubt. But the fact remains that when it's run right, it's absolutely necessary. illustration by Phil Foster

Why We Need Regulations

Government is widely distrusted, no doubt. But the fact remains that when it’s run right, it’s absolutely necessary.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Apollo 13.

NASA’s miracle rescue of three astronauts left drifting in space after an explosion aboard their spacecraft in 1970 gives me chills every time I see it. I particularly love when flight director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) implores his engineers to figure out a way to jury-rig equipment to preserve crucial oxygen. “Failure is not an option!” he declares.  

That scene depicts America at its best. Some days, I wonder if we could do it again. The botched rollout of the Obamacare website last fall was just the latest letdown in the nation’s capital. War, the financial crisis, skyrocketing debt, and Congressional paralysis have all gutted Uncle Sam’s credibility, leaving many to doubt that the government can do what it promises any more. Meanwhile, the rise of the tea party, with its laser focus on federal largesse, has spawned a set of politicians who question the very need for institutions like the Federal Reserve or the Internal Revenue Service.

Of course, we need the Fed and the IRS. And we need a competent federal government—to ensure that our food is safe, our airplanes don’t fly into each other, and our banks protect our savings, to name a few roles. 

But are the feds too involved in the business world? And can’t the government do its job more efficiently?

Yes and yes.

Without a doubt, the regulatory pendulum has swung back hard after eight years under George W. Bush. The Obama administration has enacted major reforms in the last five years, including the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Affordable Care Act, and a host of environmental initiatives.

According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, spending on regulatory agencies in Obama’s first term increased by more than 10 percent, to more than $51.5 billion in the 2012 fiscal year. And the federal regulatory workforce grew by more than 21,000 positions, to 283,615 full-time equivalents, during a time when many private-sector employers have had to do more with less.

Diane Katz, a research fellow at Heritage who co-authored that report, says the result is a lot of misplaced regulation. New rules tend to be piled atop old ones, leading to duplication, increased costs for business, and a federal bureaucracy that grows bigger and bigger. She contends that new mortgage rules enacted under Dodd-Frank, for example, will make it harder to get home loans, but do little to prevent another housing crisis. 

The Government Accountability Office underscores her point. In its annual report on government efficiency (or lack thereof) last spring, the nonpartisan Congressional watchdog listed more than 30 areas where the U.S. can save billions by eliminating programs that overlap or duplicate. For example, the GAO found 23 agencies with nearly 700 different renewable energy initiatives, some offering the very same incentives.  

“Underlying the regulatory framework is this idea that government can zero out risk,” Katz says. “But of course that’s not the case. There’s always going to be risk.”

Still, controlling risk is necessary in our freewheeling economy. This is painfully obvious after watching unscrupulous lenders and reckless Wall Street traders almost crater the world’s financial markets. 

It’s also obvious to the residents of Azle, in western Tarrant County, where a series of earthquakes rattled the community late last year. They suspect that injection wells, used to dispose of wastewater from natural gas drilling, are causing the seismic activity. 

Should they have to rely on industry to figure out what’s going on? Or should they have a government they can trust to step in and act for the public good? James Galbraith, a progressive economist at the University of Texas at Austin, says regulation is an integral part of our modern world—like it or not.

“Without regulation, the economy we have now would collapse altogether,” says Galbraith, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. “The banking sector will fall apart if one does not have a minimal level of trust in the way it handles people’s assets. The transportation sector will fall apart if we don’t keep the air traffic control system running. The food sector will fall apart if we don’t have reasonably trustworthy controls over food quality.”

Galbraith speaks from the left, to be sure. But some of his words ring true regardless of your politics.  

“Running an effective or reasonably honest government is hard,” he says soberly. But it can be done. I’m sure we could even rescue astronauts again, if we still have a NASA.