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One Rule at a Time

The right way to cut government red tape.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By ELI LEHRER
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Some questions about regulation may really be tests of respondents’ overall faith in government. In a 2010 Pew poll, only 22 percent  of Americans said they trusted the government to do what was right all or most of the time. That is nearly the same as the 24 percent that told Gallup pollsters around the same time that they generally favored more regulation of business.

Of course, some regulations will prove popular. While President Obama’s health care plan is unpopular overall, many of its specifics aren’t. Rules to prevent insurers from refusing coverage for preexisting conditions receive such overwhelming support that even the Tea Party-inspired “Pledge to America” that served as a 2010 Republican congressional campaign manifesto includes a commitment to implement them.

Except as a synonym for “distrust in government,” supporting deregulation does not produce votes in most cases. This may not be an altogether bad thing. Only a small libertarian fringe would propose government ditch all meat inspections, solvency protections to make sure insurers pay claims, or the entire web of regulations tied to bank deposit insurance. Outside of thought experiments by economists, there are no practical proposals to replace these things with purely free market solutions anyway.

So the American people want certain types of regulation but distrust the government to implement regulations correctly and tend to dislike a wide variety of specific regulations. Proposals like the House-passed REINS Act—which would subject major regulations to specific votes in Congress—might therefore make a difference, if only by bringing more absurd regulations into public view.

In short, proponents of deregulation ought to be cautious about ineffective frontal assaults and instead focus their efforts on specific bad regulations. Doing so would almost certainly free the economy more effectively than generic attacks on the regulatory state.

Eli Lehrer is vice president of the Heartland Institute.

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