“Regulations” vs. “Laws”

Our new Congress is ready to get to work eliminating regulations, which, they believe stand in the way of a healthy economy by placing burdens on business. The president has even proposed eliminating all regulations through an exponential process in which the passage of any new regulation would require the elimination of two other regulations. “We want to create some guidelines for self-driving cars, so do you want to allow glass in your food or to get rid of the codes that ensure bridges don’t fall down?”

“Regulations” in our current political climate are almost always presented as bad, whereas “laws” are good. It is often the same candidate who runs on a platform of law and order and eliminating regulations. Yet on their most basic level, laws and regulations are the same thing. They are guidelines that set the boundaries of how we are to live together as citizens. In common parlance, if you have a coal company and you want to dump your coal dust in local waterways, there is a regulation about that.  If you want to stand at the edge of a public pool and piss into it, you are violating the law. (Congress is sympathetic to one of these uses of shared water. Can you guess which one?)

Whether a it is called regulation or a law, it is an instruction that limits certain behaviors by imposing a penalty that is socially enforced by courts and police. By their nature, they stand in the way of someone’s interests in balance of the interests of others. Having a speed limit means that we can’t get where we’re going as fast as we’d like, but we’re less likely to have fatal road accidents. If you have a nearby park and would like to use it to swim naked in the fountain you will be thwarted by law. Now frolicking naked is a perfectly legitimate way to spend an afternoon, and people who want to pic nic without seeing your bare behind just have a competing way they’d like to use the space, but legislators decided that there are probably more people who want parks without nudity than those that do and the only way to be sure that this happens is to make it a law.

Regulations work the same way. It may be cheaper for a company to create a workplace where, occasionally a laborer falls into a shredder than to install safety devices. Yet we’ve decided as a society that protecting the life of the laborer should outweigh the inconvenience and cost to the employer and we legislated accordingly.

Talking about being tough on “crime” (breaking the law) while wanting to eliminate “regulations” generally speaking protects the interests of one social class over another. It is a law that the poor person cannot steal from a store. It is a regulation that the store has to give its employees reasonable work hours, breaks and overtime pay. In both cases, there is an entity that is harmed. The owner of the store is harmed by theft. The employee is harmed by being required to put in unpaid overtime. The financial value of these two infractions could be equal if the shoplifter can lift a lot of big screen TVs, but the value of the underpayment is likely to be more. If you’re tough on the crime of theft and think it should be up to the business owner to determine what is fair, you are siding with the store owner in each case. The philosophy behind this seems to be that the person who owns a business is by virtue of his social status to be trusted, whereas everyday workers and citizens need to have their behavior controlled.

In July 2015, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was celebrating its 25th anniversary, the New Republic wondered if there was any chance it would be passed today. It was signed into law by George W. Bush, but, Brian Beutler wrote, “these protections are the products of a lost era in which Republican politics didn’t reactively foreclose the idea of using federal power in service of the common good.” He concluded that if the ADA did not already exist, we would not get it.

Laws and regulations are restrictions and they can make sense or not. (Example: the Alabama law that says you can’t wear a fake mustache that makes people laugh in church.) Society is not static, and it makes sense to revisit our laws and regulations from time to time. In the UK, for example, they just posthumously pardoned thousands of gay men who had been jailed for the crime of “gross indecency with another male person.” At the time, it seemed to the citizenry, that requiring sexual non-conformists to behave was a social good and that the cost to the individuals was outweighed by the need of the community to impose a heterosexual norm. There were some high profile cases that started to make people wonder if the benefits of conformity were really worth the cost to society of, say, cutting short the lives and careers of Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde. British society has decided not only to change the law, but to symbolically show they regret that they had ever written it. (Of course, the realization comes a bit late for the other men whose lives were torn apart and the friends and families who were hurt along with them.)

To talk about eliminating “regulations” in the abstract makes no sense. When it comes to regulations, the real question should be, who is inconvenienced or harmed by having or not having the regulation, how much, how effective is the regulation at protecting those it was designed to protect, is there a way to achieve that end that is less of a burden to other stakeholders. In short, what are the social costs of making (or keeping) a rule or not making a rule.