When I was a kid, rules and regulations were pretty simple and understandable. You didn't run stop signs, you couldn't wear sneakers or blue jeans to school and your parents paid their taxes. Of course, some regulations then are still in place and others are not. In fact, most have been replaced with a whole new required way of living in America. A recent article in The Economist (Feb. 18) about "Over-regulated America" made me start to think about how this country has changed in a way most of us don't recognize.
Being the "home of the free and land of the brave" has many connotations and, in particular, the feeling by most Americans that they are pretty much free to choose how to live their lives as long as it doesn't unfairly or unjustly affect anybody else.
This freedom of expression and the ability to prosper from one's entrepreneurial inclinations is one of the things that made us a great nation. It allows a guy in a garage to build something into a company like Microsoft or any number of widgets that have made inventors rich and the world better off. America has always dominated applications for patents. However, another side to that is public offerings for new companies fell from 67 percent down to 16 percent last year because of a little regulation called Sarbanes Oxley. It is just too damned expensive and puts too many people looking over your shoulder to make going public "fun" any more.
The article also mentioned some things we have to live with that just have to make you smile, like the Federal Railroad Association that requires all trains have to have an "F" on the front so you can tell which end is indeed the front, and labels on vending machines telling you to file a report if the label is not there, and the closing down of a child's lemonade stand for not being properly licensed. It is a regulatory world gone mad.
People in government seem to be chasing each other's tails and it is only a matter of time before they "turn into butter." I wrote a while back about how, in my opinion and according to some statistics, the people who work directly for the government, tangentially for the government or are dependent upon those who do, now exceed those of us who do not. The result is that they are voting more and more for increased care from the government and, in many cases, this means regulations.
I am pretty sure I stand on solid ground when I say that back in the 1950s, if my mother spilled hot restaurant coffee in her lap or my father slipped on the floor in the grocery store, they would have shrugged it off as their own stupidity. Now, the first thing one does is look around for somebody to sue. I think anybody reading this knows what I am talking about. It is never our fault, it is always somebody else's fault and the government is all too willing to step in there with regulations to make sure we get the point.
Just like no contract can anticipate every eventuality, no amount of laws can anticipate people's seemingly limitless capacity to do stupid things. Lord knows the government tries, though. They will tell businesses they must print on both sides of the paper for government contracts, mandate how many crayons are in a box in kindergartens and, in fact, what, how and when children should eat, even though it may very well be contradictory to the parents' wishes or, many times, the best interest of the children -- Styrofoam and high fructose syrup, in particular, but that's another story.
Yes, I grew up in the prehistoric age when a family had one car, one house phone and nobody had a boat. There was no television or air conditioning and the kids I went to first grade with, I graduated with from high school. The fact is, there are just a whole heck of a lot more people than there used to be and the relationships between more individuals, more companies and more groups with different agendas compel the government not to let things seek their own level but rather to micromanage them. The sad truth is, though, this complexity is expensive.
Regulations are a hidden tax on all of us when one hour of a doctor's care requires one hour of paperwork, or when literally everything requires a license. The government regulations we find in all levels of life, including OSHA, the EPA, ADA, DOT and a whole alphabet soup of other agencies, raises the cost of productivity for our workers and prices us out of world markets.
In this zeal to protect us, I would hope the people who are ginning up all these new rules will take into account what Lincoln said: "You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot lift the wage-earner up by pulling the wage-payer down. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting mass hatred. You cannot build character and courage by taking away people's initiative and independence. You cannot help people permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves."
Seems to me that is exactly what regulations in America are doing.
Chris Belland's Hindsights & Insights column appears here on Sundays. All of his previous columns are available on his blog: hindsightsandinsights.blogspot.com. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.