18th June 2017
This post is a short essay-of-sorts about regulation.
The prompt for this post has been the tragedy at the Grenfell tower block, but this post deals with the issue of regulation in general rather than any incident in particular. This post is an elaboration of a widely retweeted Twitter thread.
As of today, we do not know the cause of the tragedy. We do not know (and it would be prejudicial to say) whether anyone is criminally culpable. We do not even know if any laws were broken. There is the worrying (but plausible) prospect that no laws were broken: that the disaster was allowed to happen, and that everyone was involved were in compliance with whatever (inadequate) laws there were.
This post is therefore about dergulation in general, whether or not deregulation caused the the tragedy at the Grenfell tower block.
Regulation, like law, is inherently neither good nor bad.
Some regulations and laws can be used for bad purposes or can have unwanted effects.
But the key test for regulations and laws is a practical one: whether they work or do not work.
Each regulation should be looked at its own merits, on a case-by-case approach.
The purpose of a regulation is to affect outcomes and shape behaviour.
Some outcome should be (or would be likely to be) different *but for* the regulation.
A regulation which, for example, makes no difference to what would have happened anyway fails this test.
A “regulate everything” approach is thereby misconceived. Not everything can be regulated. Or the regulations may make no difference. Or the unwanted consequences of the regulation may outweigh the benefits.
At the other extreme there is the “regulate nothing” approach.
This approach sees regulation as a inherently bad thing; regulation as a thing which needs to be got rid of, as an end in itself.
So we get “crackdowns” on red tape. Things are to be “liberated” from “shackles”. A person is to be “set free” from the “dictates” of “Whitehall”. And so on.
Cliché follows cliché. Easy headlines and applause.
It is not hard for a politician to get a clap when calling for such deregulation in this way, just as he or she would also get a clap by saying something should be done.
(The very same nodding voter would no doubt be clapping both times.)
The bureaucrat and the official, with their invariable “lack of common sense” is the bogey here, the villain.
Health and safety has gone mad, we will say. A return to common sense, we will demand.
But often absent from these demands are specifics.
Does it work?
What does it make different?
What does it not make different?
What would happen if the regulation was not there?
What would be the wider consequences of a regulation not being there?
What are the costs as well as the benefits? And the benefits as well as the costs?
These are questions for the proponents of both “something must be done” and “eliminate red tape”. Their utterances are not enough; more is needed than virtue signalling.
Regulations (and the removal of regulations) are not ends in themselves.
A regulation is there to provide that outcomes will be (are are likely to be) different from what they would be, *but for* the regulation.
Certain bad outcomes can be avoided; certain public goods and public benefits can be achieved. In both cases, individuals would not be able to do this for themselves without the regulation.
And so: the next time someone says “reducing red tape” ask for specifics (just as you should with the person calling for “something to be done”).
In particular: what outcomes would be affected?
And if you do not get an equally specific answer, the demand is shallow and meritless.
And sometimes this means the demand is dangerous, and sometimes even lethal.
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