The current political and economic systems hold profits ahead of other considerations so that large corporations, like Koch industries, can abuse both their workers and the environment in ways which should be controlled by state intervention in the form of regulations. However an army of lobbyists and vested interests in both Washington and London have been pushing to deregulate wherever possible.
We have been witnessing a sinister political and ideological transformation on government controls. There appears to be a desire in various segments of society for less state steering and regulation to be replaced with ever further freedom for both the market and privatization. Reducing the size of the government is one of the structural changes which are focused on the reduction, cutting or even closing down of numerous existing policies for ideological, political or economic reasons.
Following the economic crisis of 2008, the intense economic austerity programs imposed by different governments affected different aspects of society, including the dismantling of various social benefits, pensions, and controls over air and water pollution. The scaling back was camouflaged as “efficiency savings”, “cutting red tape”, “reform”, “retrenchment”, or “deregulation.” Such linguistic variations were motivated by obfuscating politicians searching for blame avoidance.1
Last February, President Trump signed an executive order to place “regulatory reform” task forces and officers within federal agencies in an effort to pare down the massive red tape of recent decades. Then in another executive order, ‘Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs,’ called for all government agencies to eliminate two existing regulations every time a new one is issued. Furthermore, the cost of any new regulation had to be offset by the two being removed. This order was swiftly renamed “one step forward, two steps back,” by many of those working in public health as well as other public services.
The ideologist and initially Trump’s top strategy advisor, Stephen Bannon, announced early on that his goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” Fortunately he was fired, but conservatives still hoped that funding for regulations such as the Clean Air Act would be reduced as would those of drug and food safety groups. Indeed, the White House withdrew or removed from consideration some 800 proposed regulations that had never been activated by the Obama administration. Trump then identified some 300 regulations related to energy production and environmental protection that were spread across the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Interior and Energy Departments. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said these measures were to “slow the cancer that had come from regulatory burdens that we put on our people.” (But there were representatives of the gas and oil industries who cheered.)
Yogin Kothari of the Union of Concerned Scientists countered that “Six months into the administration the only accomplishments the President has had is to rollback, delay and rescind science based safeguards.” The administration’s regulatory agenda revealed its objective. Kothari insisted that ”It continues to perpetuate a false narrative that regulations only have costs and no benefits.”
More broadly, “dismantling” incorporates a way of thinking. Neo-conservatives like
Richard Perle and David Frum a couple of decades ago declared that “A free society
is a self-policing society.” This was part of a larger drive to discredit the state as a source of redress for hardships. In the United Kingdom there were similar attacks from leaders of the Tory party who desired a new focus which emphasized greater community and local government powers. This has resulted, for example, in having established food safety structures quietly dismantled.
A special correspondent for The Guardian recently wrote that “Local authorities — a crucial pillar in the edifice since they have legal responsibility for testing foods sold in their area — are so starved of money that they have cut checking to the bone.”2 The result is that the Foods Standards Agency is in the process of rewriting much of the basis of food regulation in the United Kingdom and, as a consequence, commercial interests will be protected more than consumers. Big businesses, like supermarkets, will be pleased by privatized inspection and certification schemes which will lead to more “commercially astute” understanding. (Such as covering the sale of outdated foods such as chicken products.)
Lobbyists in England, as in the US, bait lawmakers as well as the national audience with plausible concerns. They suggest that “overreaching regulations” harass start-ups and small businesses. Educational and training requirements on a number of professions impose costs on low and middle-income workers striving for better positions. The lobbyists then proposed that stripping away regulations and consumer protections are the easiest ways to lower such costs. They ignore other solutions to lower the burdensome entry costs for those educationally enrolled.
I believe that there are genuine and rational reasons to question the construction of mountains of bureaucratic regulations. Now many of these regulations reflect serious concern about the environment, worker safety, pensions, health — well, about almost everything affecting human beings. I have long felt that common sense exercised on most issues regarding human welfare would be preferable to regulatory excesses.
Federal Laws like NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) as well as state-level regulations and rules have ensured that citizens are protected from the harms of less responsible businesses and corporations. Environmental regulations prohibit these from disposing industrial wastes irresponsibly and serve to protect the health of both workers and communities. OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has some 3,500 specific provisions to cover the health and safety of construction workers. Detailed regulations on electronic job injuries and illness from air pollution in the work place impose fines and other sanctions to make it costly for irresponsible parties to act recklessly. However, much of such protective regulation is currently in jeopardy. Lobbyists and opponents in Congress suggest that publicly displaying information according to the injury requirements would unfairly damage the reputation of the employers. Pushing aside concerns of dangers to workers exposed to Silica and Beryllium, President Trump has been eager to roll back the executive order by President Obama in 2014 titled “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.”
The neoliberal program which has been envisioned aims to switch our values of “the public good and the public interest” to a value system based on “the market” and individual responsibility. Prof Sendhill Mullainathan, an economics professor at
Harvard, suggests that “New technologies are rattling the economy on all fronts. While the predictions are specific and dire, bigger changes are surely coming. Clearly we need to adjust for the turbulence ahead.” He believes that the neoliberal agenda could give way to a new focus which will incorporate an authoritarian mode of economics aimed at accountability and the “audit culture.” Mullainathan cautions: “A lifetime of work will be a lifetime of changing, moving between firms, jobs, careers and cities.” By-passing such purportedly creative destruction, he believes “we ought to enable innovation to take its course.”3 Such excuses for the unfettered pursuit of profit would end the system of protective regulations which have taken decades to develop. It seems obvious to me that regulation is essential for the democratic state. In our daily lives we drive our cars, take our pills, drink our water, and comfortably eat most foods because we take the safety regulations covering all these acts for granted.
France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, has said “we need to rethink regulation, so as to deal with the excesses of globalized Capitalism.”4 The devious excesses of the current economic system manifestly threaten our future. By now, it should be clear to every voter and each citizen that deregulation is generally not in the public interest and should be fiercely resisted if we truly want advancement of the common good.
1Michael W. Bauer et al. Dismantling Public Policy, (2014) pp.30-56
2Felicity Lawrence, “Vital protections in are being dismantled,” The Guardian, August 25, 2017, p.31
3Sendhill Mullainathan, “Planning to cope with what you can’t forsee,” The New York Times, September 5, 2017
4“Regeneration,” The Economist, September 30, 2017, p.12