Regulate or bust

A while back I was having lunch with a left-wing economist who ominously informed me about a new GAO report showing that the FDA was barely inspecting overseas chemical supply plants. This sounds terrible.

"How many people have gotten sick as a result of this?" I asked.

Well, none, it turns out, at least as far as the GAO report is concerned. But they could, he pointed out. What was protecting consumers from unscrupulous businesses killing them?

Presumably the same pressures operate in the OTC market, I pointed out, and we are not much worried that Pepto Bismol will suddenly start slaughtering its customers.

I am not one of those libertarians who think that there is no place for regulation. But I think there are limits on the sorts of things that regulations make better, rather than worse. Regulations that provide transparency usually work very well; extremely complex regulations that attempt to produce certain outcomes usually work badly, if at all. OSHA is probably a lot less successful than, say, making companies insure their employees against on-the-job injuries.

But on the left there is often a presumption that the simple absence of regulation is itself dangerous--that cutting regulation, or diminishing the power of regulators, is de facto evidence that you are hurting the American public. So if something goes wrong, the fact that some sort of regulation was trimmed, or never enacted, is generally identified as the culprit, even when the connection is murky.

There's also a default assumption that what we need is more regulation, rather than, say, better regulation. Any existing regulation is given a safe harbor from examining whether it does a good job; it's mere existent constitutes a presumptive right to live.