As readers of this blog will know and lament, bears and wolves are the latest victims of the anti-regulatory fervor infecting Congress. Last week, in a party-line vote, every Senate Republican voted in favor of a Congressional Review Act resolution rescinding a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule that banned a host of inhumane and unsporting killing practices on our national wildlife refuges – activities in which no self-respecting sportsman would engage. It’s a sad chapter in our nation’s history of wildlife management, but it’s also a hollow “victory” for self-styled enthusiasts of rolling back bureaucratic red tape.
Passing regulations aimed at tamping down animal cruelty are not in any way about putting a damper on commerce or profit to businesses. They don’t cost anything; in fact, when businesses align their conduct with humane values, they typically become more profitable. The only parties put at a disadvantage are the stubborn perpetrators of cruelty. That’s a major principle of my book The Humane Economy.
It’s a logical failure to cast all regulatory actions as inimical to business. Some regulations are needed to help business, to codify our nation’s values, and to protect us all. Very few of us, for example, would embrace a rollback of Federal Aviation Administration oversight, even if we’re more than a little irritated by flight delays or pat-downs by airport security officers.
By contrast, killing wolf pups and mothers in dens isn’t some critical component of a thriving industry in Alaska or anywhere else. Scouting bears from airplanes, landing, and then shooting them isn’t a business and it’s not scalable, any more than killing blue whales or fin whales is good business and scalable today. These are barbaric and appalling practices, and they don’t meet the threshold moral tests we should apply in a civil society. In this case, it was a case of Congress usurping long-established federal authority and handing over power to a state hell-bent on turning our national wildlife refuges into game farms.
This is part of a broader anti-regulatory zeal that is sweeping up beneficial regulatory policies. The current administration and the Republican-controlled Congress seem to be acting on the assumption that government is the enemy. In a party-line vote, the House of Representatives passed the Midnight Rules Act, which would allow for a bundling of dozens of recently enacted agency rules for repeal by a simple majority in each chamber. By bundling dozens of rules in a single package, lawmakers would necessarily sidestep any close examination of the individual rules, voting instead on the principle of regulatory reform. Such an effort would wash away the good with the bad. Let’s hope the Senate doesn’t take up this fringe idea.
There’s also the matter of enforcing the rules on the books, and it’s plain that some of Donald Trump’s nominees bring an anti-regulatory zeal with them to federal agencies. This is most notably true for Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, who filed a series of lawsuits to unwind the agency’s pollution and clean water standards as Oklahoma attorney general. If his past pronouncements are to be taken seriously, he intends to run environmental protection into the ground.
Sure, there are plenty of times the government goes too far. Bureaucracy has earned its reputation, and it can slow down private business and bungle government services. But it’s important that we don’t mistake inefficiency or overreach with categorical problems.
If President Trump wants to cut government spending, there is a target-rich environment. For decades now, the federal government has stacked the deck by doling out money or favors to private business, disrupting markets in the process. The agribusiness industry gets all manner of government assistance – through price supports, crop subsidies, predator control services, reduced grazing fees, government buy-up programs for surplus products, government-financed staff support through commodity check-off programs, and more. You cannot profess undying loyalty to the free market, claiming that government has custom-fit manacles on your wrists and ankles, but then select “all of the above” when it comes to federal support programs. That’s not a coherent ideology; it’s unconcealed opportunism and crony capitalism.
Let’s also remember that regulations often provide both safety and security, and sometimes they’re needed to protect the most vulnerable among us. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that show trainers shouldn’t torture horses by intentionally injuring their feet – that’s a regulation built on a federal law (the Horse Protection Act) duly enacted by Congress. When the USDA 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 common-sense regulation, also grounded in the law and benefiting family farmers who invest in animal care and husbandry. What decent person wouldn’t agree with these rules, or begrudge the horsemen or farmers doing things the right way and not cutting corners?
So, by all means, stop government waste and overreach – particularly where it favors special interests at the expense of the public good. But don’t fall into the trap of backing an across-the-board policy of repealing regulations as an ideological tenet of Republican thinking. The better path is trust but verify. Examine the merits of each regulation.
In the workings of government, and through the pressure applied to government, we seek to find that sweet spot where private industry flourishes and where private citizens and their interests are safeguarded. That’s the essence of a regulated capitalism and the preservation of a civil society.