Standin’ at the crossroads, risin’ sun goin’ down, Standin’ at the crossroads baby, the risin’ sun goin’ down, I believe to my soul now, po’ Bob is sinkin’ down. The Robert Johnson song made famous by Eric Clapton references the rising sun. Interestingly, when the US Constitution was signed in Philadelphia in 1787 Benjamin Franklin looked towards the President’s Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted and observed , “I have often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
Today, many Americans believe that the sun is setting on the great experiment that began in Philadelphia that day, and I think they have good reason to be pessimistic. The founders had an innate mistrust of government and of political power. That made sense as they had just fought a war against Great Britain, a country that by today’s standard only lightly ruled the colonies. In fact, the tax act which was the impetus for the Boston Tea Party was a minimal 10 percent duty on legally imported tea. (We discount the fact that many of the Boston Patriots were in fact pirates and smugglers but that is for a different blog).When the Colonies protested the duty on Tea and attacked ships owned by the British East India Company, Parliament put in place a series of laws then called The Intolerable Acts. These five acts were Parliament’s attempt to reign in the colonies. They were:
– The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea and until the king was satisfied that order had been restored.
– The Massachusetts Government Act which provided that almost all positions in the colonial government were to be appointed by the governor or the king. The act also severely limited the activities of town meetings in Massachusetts to one meeting a year.
– The Administration of Justice Act allowed the governor to move trials of accused royal officials to another colony or even to Great Britain if he believed the official could not get a fair trial in Massachusetts.
– The Quartering Act, which applied to all of the colonies, and sought to create a more effective method of housing British troops in America. It granted a governor new authority to house soldiers in other buildings if suitable quarters were not provided voluntarily by the Colonists.
– The Quebec Act extended the boundaries of what was then the British Province of Quebec south to the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi, and instituted reforms generally favorable to the French Catholic inhabitants of the region.
These measures are obviously ham-fisted responses to a crisis – something that would be called Panic Policy Making today. They are not unlike many of the draconian measures and bans that have been enacted in the past 20 years across America, that were at best based on emotion or the need to “do something,” rather than on a reasoned policy response.
This week, The Economist magazine has a feature article on how America is over-regulated. In the lead editorial to the piece, the magazine states that governments of both parties continue to add stacks and stack of rules, few of which are ever analyzed for their costs and benefits. These reactionary rules include such indignities as the Gestapo like procedures adhered to by the TSA at airports – few of which can or will do anything to stop a terrorist attack, to the 848 page Dodd-Frank act that contains over 400 separate rules, to the President’s touted health care reform, that increases the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury from 18,000 to 140,000 including 9 separate codes relating to injuries caused by parrots.
I would argue that few if any of the myriad rules, regulations and bans enacted by all levels of government are necessary and that most are enacted mainly out of ignorance and political expediency. This is how silly and expensive regulations like bans on dogs get passed in Miami, or bans on trans-fats in restaurant meals get passed in New York.
No wonder business in America has become stifled, and no wonder that citizens feel put upon at every turn. Frankly, the Intolerable Acts seem a might more tolerable than the hoops that I need to go through just to keep a business running in New York City today. In fact, according to The Economist, a study for the Small Business Administration found that regulations in general add nearly $11,000 in costs per employee.
The Economist blames two things for the crazy regulatory system in the United States, political hubris and lobbying. While I agree with the first, and believe that it is the nature of all bureaucracies – both private and public – to tend toward more and more process and control until the sun finally does set on them, the idea that lobbying is a cause of the problem is based on the same sort of uneducated and unthinking reaction that causes bad policy. Rather, I would argue that the lobbying community is the only thing that keeps the government in check today.
A government that tries to control every aspect of our businesses and our lives is bound to get bogged down in minutia and stupidity. How can a city councilman understand the science behind trans-fats, or understand how businesses react to smoking bans, or alcohol sales restrictions, while at the same time weighing the pros and cons of installing traffic light cameras. They simply cannot. Nobody can be educated on such a broad range of issues at the same time. This is where the lobbying community comes in.
True, much of lobbying is about gaining access or knowing the right people, but more and more, lobbying is about educating decision makers to the pros and cons, the costs and benefits of what they are doing. And never is lobbying done in a vacuum. No matter what the issue, from tax reform, to food subsidies, to renaming a bridge, there is a lobby on both sides of the issue. And that lobby will work to ensure that decision makers understand their message.
So next time the government announces another intolerable regulation that makes business more expensive, takes away personal liberties, or is just plain stupid, we should not, like the Economist, succumb to popular belief and blame the lobbyists. We should blame ourselves for allowing our government to become the very same restrictive, overbearing and ham-fisted bureaucracy that our founding fathers revolted against over 200 years ago.