The New National Nightmare

The tip point is among the most familiar phenomena of our everyday life. A child discovers the tip ‘point of a tricycle and a teeter-totter. A boatman perceives the turning of a tide. A baseball umpire will take so much sass from a player and then no more. At a certain point, matter will boil, freeze, crystalize, or jell. The tip point is the moment at which conditions change not in degree, but in kind, or in direction.

Two hundred years after our free society began, we are close to such a tip point now. We are within a drop or two of the critical moment at which freedom crystallizes into regimentation, when the people no longer are masters of government, but government is master of the people.

The dangers are widely perceived, but they are separately and not collectively perceived. It is the occluded vision of the man who cannot see the forest for the trees. Doctors see one part of the picture, educators another, businessmen yet another. We dwell in small rooms, in little shut-off cells, and sometimes we labor to breathe. "It is stifling in here," we complain. And we are not always aware that air is being sucked from the next room also. Yet the atmospheric changes are so slow, so gradual, so apparently insignificant, that we seldom complain at all. We do not understand what is missing: It is the very air of freedom.

Thomas A. Murphy, chairman of General Motors, recently spoke to the National Association of Accountants. As a businessman, he spoke from his own small room:

"Our economic system, founded with our nation 200 years ago, has come more and more under government control. Very conspicuously in the marketplace, the government, by mandate and edict, is substituting its sovereignty for that of the individual consumer. Government, rather than the buying public, is increasingly determining the kinds of products and services offered for sale, and government regulations are influencing their costs and consequently their prices. What is of greatest concern is that each intrusion of government, because it takes decision-making power away from the individual consumer, diminishes his economic freedom."

Dr. Murray L. Weidenbaum, director of the Center for the Study of American Business, notes a "second managerial revolution." The first such revolution saw the rise of professional managers, as distinct from owners. "This new revolution is far more subtle. It involves the shift of decision-making from managers, who represent the shareholders, to a cadre of government officials, government inspectors, government regulators." [See "Where Overregulation Can Lead," Nation's Business, June, 1975.]

The Age of the Regulators

The last word is the key word: regulators. If we were to give a name to the ominous new age that lies ahead, the age beyond the tip point, we might well term it the Age of the Regulators. A part of the ominous aspect of the approaching era is that many Americans see nothing ominous in regulation. It is a friendly word. We are favorably inclined toward a regular fellow. We shy from the irregular. The dictionary lumps regular with "normal, typical, natural," as in "a regular pulse." A regulated life is popularly thought to be a good life.

This very complaisance contributes to the creeping oppression. "The people never give up their liberties," said Edmund Burke, "but under some delusion." Here the delusion is that, if a little regulation is good, more regulation is better. On the sound premise that freedom cannot exist without order, a fallacious conclusion is erected: the more order, the more freedom. It does not work that way.

The enveloping process begins with a perceived ill. Thalidomide. Smog. Racial discrimination. The fly-by-night private school. The fire ant. The rickety ladder. The dangerous toy. In our struggle toward a more perfect society, it is altogether natural and desirable that ills be remedied. A boy drowns at summer camp; a little girl dies when her nightgown catches fire. Such tragedies pluck at the heart; and compassionate government responds.

But the vice of regulation is that it follows an inexorable process: first a little, then a lot. Within the Congress — and the state legislatures are not materially different — there develops what John Randolph called the legislative itch. On the body politic a rash is seen; it must be scratched. Statutes tumble upon statutes, head over heels, pell-mell, laws upon laws, and these laws must be administered. They must be interpreted, construed, amplified, extended, and enforced. Enter the regulator. He is a decent man, more often than not, eager to do good. But his passion is to regulate. It becomes a consuming passion.

Out of the perceived ill of thalidomide came the straitjacketing procedures that now govern new drug applications; and these procedures have stifled the drug industry. Out of the perceived ill of smog came the staggering array of environmental controls — controls that have accomplished some good and have added billions of dollars to the cost of consumer goods.

Reverse Discrimination

The perceived ill of discrimination has produced the new egalitarianism. Its purpose is to redress old wrongs with new wrongs. Thus, Boston writhes in the unhappiness of racial-balance busing. At Washington University in St. Louis, the chancellor is given four days to sign a 30-page statement of conciliation or be denied a $1.8 million contract. Athletic directors are commanded to rewrite their budgets. The Supreme Court holds that "great deference" must be accorded the "guidelines" of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Whole states embark upon the neuterization of their codes, solemnly amending chairman to read chairperson.

Increasingly, the process pervades the field of health care. At Kettering Medical Center, near Dayton, the regulators descend. The hospital is new, sparkling, modern, safe, efficient; it has met or surpassed every state and local building requirement; it has been professionally accredited. But the regulators are not pleased: The windows are wrong, the airflow system is wrong, the kitchen doors are wrong. And these deficiencies must be corrected at once, never mind the cost, or else—! Or else Kettering will not be reimbursed for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

Kettering is not alone. Scores of hospitals face the same threat.

One of the busiest agencies in Washington is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Its mimeographs run night and day. Here the regulators, in an altogether typical week, are concerned with book matches, lawn mowers, television receivers, playground equipment, bicycle brakes, and baseball bat grips. The regulators are concerned with carpets, cigarette lighters, and a prototype child-resistant closure for use by the elderly. They will regulate these things.

Committees of the House of Representatives are at war over FIFRA. This is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. In their zeal to regulate, the FIFRA regulators set up a toll-free telephone network to generate complaints of pesticide misuse. To some members of the House, this is an "indefensible informant system." To others, it is a justified step in pesticide regulation.

Our regulators, state or federal, have this in common: They mean to be obeyed. The smallest offender cannot be ignored, lest larger offenders be encouraged. Thus, in Ohio, the regulators of education have cracked down upon the Tabernacle Christian School in Greenville and brought criminal prosecution against 15 disobedient parents. It is of no consequence that the children in this fundamentalist school are achieving at levels higher than comparable students in public schools. The school does not comply with regulations. Whip it into line!

Tocqueville’s Warning of Democratic Despotism

More than a hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the young American republic. He returned to France and between 1835 and 1839 delivered himself of that great work, "Democracy in America." Toward the end of volume II, he reflected upon "what sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear." It would be a different kind of despotism, he thought, from the despotism of old. "It would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them." Looking far ahead, he foresaw a nation populated by an innumerable multitude, all absorbed in their own affairs, preoccupied with "the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives."

This was De Tocqueville’s terrible vision:

"Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild…. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent- of property, and subdivides their inheritances. What remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

"Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

"After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

A magazine recently counted 63,444 federal regulators. It put the cost to consumers of federal regulation alone at $130 billion a year. The regulatory network spreads and grows; the tip point approaches; and De Tocqueville’s nightmare consumes the American dream.

Reprinted by permission from NATION’S BUSINESS, August ¹975. Copyright ¹975 by NATION’S BUSINESS, Chamber of Commerce of the United States.  

Further Reading

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