One of the recurring themes of political campaigns is the fight over regulations. The argument about how much regulation governs our lives is too crude to really understand what regulations are, and what purpose they serve in our society. Saying that all regulations are bad because they kill jobs and needlessly limit profits is too simple. Most regulations come into law as the result of an accident or malfeasance. Safety equipment in mines and refineries only exists because regulations were written to address specific accidents. The only time that regulations aren’t a bad thing in our discourse is when the public is demanding a new one.
In the case of the BP Deep Horizon Oil spill, those new regulations are still years away. Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico still operate much as they did before the accident.
There are regulations that cover most aspects of our lives. From the height of a sink to the fuel mix on an airplane, there are regulations to cover it. It feels restricting and unnecessary sometimes, but it’s how we pass experience on to strangers and protect our citizens. When a retail store designs its parking lot, it’s big enough to handle holiday needs, but seems empty the rest of the year. The lot’s capacity seems excessive except for the short time when the store needs 10 times the parking spaces. That’s how regulations work, too. A mining company could save money on each worker by reducing the amount of safety equipment he carries. That would seem reasonable and profitable until people are injured or killed in an accident. There are examples of that particular sequence happening again and again in China. Mining safety in China is notoriously poor, because their regulations are lacking or easily subverted.
In the 80’s car manufacturers lobbied the government for a change to automotive bumper standards. The old standard was no damage at 5mph. The new standard lowered the threshold to 2.5 mph and allowed for damage to the structure of the bumper, as long as safety related equipment was not damaged. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so expensive to repair fender benders, that’s why. The principle benefit to the car manufacturers was an increase in their parts business and a lowered manufacturing cost. I believe, though it’s just anecdotal, that safety suffered because of this regulation change.
Corporations aren’t obliged to their customers except as the demand part of supply/demand. The only obligation they have is to their stockholders, who measure success in terms of profits. In that context, corporations can sometimes push the boundaries of safety in order to increase profits. We’ve seen that spiral into a disaster several times. Regulations set the boundaries on corporate actions because we don’t want to see repeated, preventable, disasters. Bhopal, India, is a classic example of how regulations serve to protect the public. In the US, chemical plants need to be placed in remote areas, and the size of the storage tanks is strictly limited. That wasn’t the case in India in 1984, and thousands of people were killed because of an accidental release of Methyl Isocyanate.
When politicians talk about reducing regulations, these are the regulations they’re talking about. Regulations that serve no purpose, even when we take the larger view, get replaced or modified on an individual basis. Reducing regulation in a systematic way allows profit seeking organizations to ignore or reduce their commitment to safety in the name of profits. The next time a politician wants to reduce regulations, ask him/her if they mean the ones that govern safety on the railroad line that runs near your house.