The Regulator’s Virtue

Echoing a somewhat broader trend, a city official in Washington, D.C. describes his theory of “mandatory” evacuations:

You should never try to tell people what they ought to do, because all of their circumstances are different. But if you give them very good timely information, they are going to make their own decisions in ways, in general, that are going to be better for them and better for the system as a whole.

This might seem especially persuasive in a world where Mayor Bloomberg now faces criticism for over-preparing his city for a hurricane that, eventually, wound up fairly disappointing. But take it from someone who watched Irene make landfall from the Battery at 4 A.M.: while this was a non-event for the City, it could have been catastrophic, and it was elsewhere (see The Atlantic‘s photo coverage). That the city’s largely back on-schedule, just two days after the event, remains testament to the Mayor’s preparation and the value of swift government action in such catastrophes.

And, the evidence is that people generally don’t react in ways “that are going to e better for them,” even and especially in a crisis. Research conducted after the 2005 disaster confirms, people who stayed behind, and chose to weather Hurricane Katrina rather than evacuate, weren’t oblivious to the danger, Glenn Beck’s “blame-the-victim” psychology notwithstanding. They were either unable to evacuate, or convinced that the storm could somehow be weathered. In either situation, there’s a place for government to do the valuable work of correcting these misunderstanding and, yes, of saving citizens from their own bad choices.

We can generalize this to a broader theory of regulation, to contradict the right’s meme that regulation somehow effects tyranny, or does more harm than good. Although most of civil society thinks for itself, and can be trusted to make good decisions, there are some segments of society that can’t or won’t. From the Georgia restaurant owner (and later governor) who chose bankruptcy over integration, to the absolute chaos of virtual economies (pdf), the human psyche is a varied and often irrational thing. Government recognizes this, and addresses itself to the margins. If the task of caring for those that society leaves behind somehow inconveniences the majority, or fails to resonate with their belief in the value of self-reliance, well, I’m not sure we should care.



  1. If you are going to make this (clumsy) analogy of comparing evacuations then you’re going to have to improve it. Broad regulations, like broad evacuation warnings are fine. The problem is that for government-loving liberals they want regulations that would be more similar to telling the evacuees what to pack, which car to drive and what hotel to stay at.

  2. Samples of our “government-loving liberal” regulations, please?

  3. You can start with the tax code.

  4. You’re going to have to unpack that. It sounds like your complaint is about complexity, though, not intrusiveness. So perhaps you should choose again.

    If not, simplifying the tax code is a bipartisan interest; we just don’t use “simplification” as a Trojan horse for unwinding the progressive system.

  5. …which proves that generally-useful regulations break down in times of crisis. So?

  6. Or proves that the fault of over-regulation often becomes apparent at the worst moment.

    1. Just like under-regulation, which usually have much worse consequences. As in the case of, you know, precisely the Deep Horizon disaster.

  7. That’s a core disagreement between the Left and Right. Conservatives believe over-regulation is always worse that under-regulation.

    1. So in this case:

      Under-regulation: An off-shore platform blows up, killing 11 people and pollutes the entire US southern coastline for years.

      Over-regulation: The relief effort of the disaster that was caused by under-regulation gets delayed.

      So yeah, clearly over-regulation is worse here.

      Seriously, this is practically Daily Show-grade material.

      1. That oil spill was not a case of under-regulation. It was a case of under-enforcement. Liberals always confuse the too. They do the same thing with gun laws.

        1. True.

          “The efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident.

          Also – did you really quote an article from the week after it happened? They say multiple times that they don’t really know what happened in the piece.

          1. Then I would perhaps suggest taking a closer look at the Final Report from the Oil Spill Commission – Chapter 3 is very enlightening on the question of lack of regulation in the Gulf.


          2. Right!

            And, granting that it’s not a sure-thing, because I don’t think we know even now what went wrong. But other countries require the valve; we don’t; and a 2003 law to bring us into line with most countries was shot down. We’ll never know, I guess, but the point is the rig wasn’t as safe as it could’ve been.

            And then Lanfranc’s point.

            1. That’s just it – you don’t know if additional regulations would have stopped anything. But yet, you assume additional regulations are still advisable.

              No different than guns. A crazy person shoots up their workplace and the first thing you all do is to yell for more regulations meanwhile a cursory question on guns themselves reveals how little you actually know about them.

              1. You brush up against a good point. But everybody’s making the same mistake of conflating regulatory quantity and regulatory quality. More good regulations is good, fewer good regulations is bad. More bad regulations is bad, fewer bad regulations is good. Hobbes’s state of nature is best.

                1. I agree Steve – the problem is that the majority of the country doesn’t trust the government to pass good legislation.

  8. Ah of course, that reminds me. Mike, the 19th century called — it wondered if you’d ever met?

  9. Why should the majority care about marginal people? And why is compelling Lester Maddox to not bankrupt himself a good thing?

    1. To clarify: who benefits from forcing someone who doesn’t want to to integrate when the alternative to integration is they go bankrupt? And how does that outweigh the good of a segregationist going bankrupt? If you want to justify saving people from themselves, you’ve got to prove they deserve to be saved and that saving them is a positive good. That example of Lester Maddox doesn’t support either proposition – and I believe that’s because both propositions are mostly false.

  10. […] I attribute this link to Submitted to a Candid World’s post on the value of government regulation. […]

%d bloggers like this: