Yesterday, I got a lift to the Portland (Oregon) airport, took a cross-country flight to National Airport, and jumped in a cab to head home, hugging my dog and scratching my cat’s head for a good long time after walking through the door. Long-distance travel is a matter of routine for many of us now, but if I think about it, it’s still remarkable that you can wake up on the west coast and get to the east coast before the sun sets. I’ve been doing it for 30 years, and knock on wood, I’ve never had a major safety incident.
I got a lift to the airport, in a vehicle much more fuel efficient than when I first started driving more than three decades ago. I buckled up because it’s the law and also because it’s the smart thing to do. I felt all the safer that we and all the other drivers on the road observed government-imposed speed limits. Here, too, the data remind us that accident rates spike with increased speeds.
The pilots and ground crew working on my flight home, as a matter of routine for them, went through a series of checks before getting cleared to fly, and air traffic controllers gave them the go-ahead to get that bird in the air. With a tail wind, we were moving at 600 miles per hour. No need for speed limits at 30,000 feet and only open skies ahead.
In our country, an extraordinary record of airline safety has been achieved, and it’s become an expectation in society. It’s been achieved because individual people perform their tasks and jobs with precision, because the airlines and the other businesses that serve the customers commit themselves to quality control and high standards of safety, and because government imposes standards that place checks on the actions of private businesses. Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration is a big part of the explanation for the safety outcomes, and it enforces legal standards when it comes to airline safety.
I was thinking about these government regulations and rules – local, state, and federal – because there is so much talk of federal regulatory reform in the news. The incoming president says he’s going to freeze many new regulations, and roll back many existing ones. For every new regulation, he says, he wants two rolled back. Members of the House and Senate majorities are talking about invoking the Congressional Review Act, which allows some second-term Obama Administration regulations to be overturned with simple majorities in each chamber of Congress. And Congress is likely to take up the REINS Act early next month, which would require congressional approval of all “major” regulations – complicating the already difficult path for the final adoption of regulations.
Many of Donald Trump’s nominees are echoing the thoughts of the president-elect, as you’d expect. One of them, Scott Pruitt, a dedicated opponent of the Environmental Protection Agency and a guy who used the agency as a whipping post in his stump speeches, has been tapped to run the agency. How does that happen? An anti-environmentalist running the EPA is like having a well-known computer hacker run the Department of Homeland Security. It’s a square peg in a round hole.
To my many friends who despise federal regulations, I say, yes, there are plenty of times the government overreaches. Bureaucracy is a real thing, and it can slow down private business and a wide range of government services. There’s also the matter of government subsidies. I’ve written many times how the government stacks the deck against the people and their businesses by doling out money or favors to private business, disrupting markets in the process On this blog, I’ve written about how the agribusiness industry gets all manner of government favors – with price supports, crop subsidies, predator control services, reduced grazing fees, government buy-up programs for surplus products, government-financed staff support and promotions through check-off programs, trade promotion, and so much more. I know how hard so many people involved with agriculture work, but you cannot claim undying loyalty to the free market, fight reasonable regulations, express hatred toward the government, and then take advantage of this extraordinary matrix of government support programs. That’s not a coherent ideology, but just blatant opportunism.
It’s hardly just agribusiness. The wildlife management industry gets an enormous infusion of tax dollars — millions a year – from the states and the federal government. So much of it comes from a tax on gun owners, who often unwittingly see their dollars directed to support sport hunting programs, even though the vast majority of gun owners have no interest in sport hunting and many dislike it.
Mind you, The HSUS and so many other animal protection groups are private. We get no subsidies. We exist because people make voluntary contributions to our work. That said, like all other charities, we benefit from Internal Revenue Service rules that allows for charitable deductions. That’s mighty important to the working of more than a million charities in the United States, which collectively provide 10 percent of all jobs in the American workforce.
But let’s probe this anti-regulatory rhetoric further. While there are legitimate arguments to be made about over-regulation and crony capitalism, there’s also very little argument about the value of having so many regulations in our society. And that’s true when it comes to animals, who are vulnerable to people who would exploit them solely for profit or recreation. When the Obama Administration says that horse show trainers shouldn’t torture horses by intentionally injuring their feet – a practice known as “soring” — that’s a regulation. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the term “organic” should mean that animals are not confined in small cages or mutilated as a routine husbandry practice, that’s a regulation. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bans the aerial scouting and shooting of wolves or trapping of grizzly bears on National Wildlife Refuges — yes, on places called refuges – that’s a regulation.
What decent person wouldn’t agree with these things? Perhaps the people perpetrating these acts, or the politicians beholden to them.
It’s a regulation to have car manufacturers build automobiles with greater fuel efficiency so we are not so dependent on foreign oil, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect the planet. It’s a regulation to have anti-salmonella standards and humane slaughter standards for the food we eat, so we don’t die when we eat or animals don’t needlessly suffer.
We live in a society that observes standards of regulated capitalism. We never had a purely free market. It’s an American value for business to operate with tremendous freedom and latitude, but businesses must also be subject to reasonable standards, which are derivative of the laws made by the people directly or through their elected representatives. Minimum wages, occupational safety, limits on the number of hours worked in a week, no child labor, and the like are results of this interplay. These are all accepted values in our society, and we may debate about the size of the minimum wage or the safety standards in the workplace, but no sane person today debates whether we should have these standards at all.
So, yes, from me and others at The HSUS, you’ll hear about government waste and overreach, usually when government pampers special interests. But you’ll also hear how government must protect us from special interests and other actors who might harm the public, the environment, or animals in selfish pursuits. In government, and through the pressure applied to government, we seek to find that sweet spot – where private industry can flourish and create jobs and wealth, but also to protect those of us who eat, drink, and breathe, and who want to see the other tenets of a civil society embodied in the law.