The case for principles-based regulations
Acton Institute Powerblog

The case for principles-based regulations

government-regulation-in-business-red-tapeIn an attempt to cut down on the number of government regulations, president-elect Trump has proposed a “one-in, two-out” rule—for every new regulation implemented, two old regulation must be eliminated. This is similar to the “one-in, three out” rule that was adopted by the government of United Kingdom.

While this is a significant step toward reducing the ever-expanding number of total regulations, would it be enough to actually reduce the regulatory burden on Americans?

Philip K. Howard argues that it would not be enough, and proposes an alternative approach: principle-based regulation.

What reformers have missed is that regulatory failure is not merely a matter of too much regulation but is caused by a flawed philosophy on how to regulate. Both sides assume that human responsibility should be replaced by what is called “clear law.” By striving to prescribe every possible good choice, and proscribe every possible evil, U.S. regulation became an obsessive exercise in micromanagement. That’s why rulebooks are often 1,000 pages, while the Constitution is 15. The evil to be exorcised by all these legal dictates is human authority. Only by lashing each other tightly with detailed law can liberal and conservative politicians be sure that the other side won’t do something bad.

But ordinary citizens in our free society are also lashed to these mindless dictates — complying with rules that often make no difference, filling out forms no one reads and stymied by bureaucrats whose response to every idiocy is always “The rule made me do it.” In the name of better freedom, detailed regulations have made everyone powerless.

Howard says this would result in an even fewer regulations:

The solution — the only solution — is to retool regulation to focus on results, not inputs. Find any good school, any good agency, and you will find people who take responsibility for getting the job done. Experts at the Federal Aviation Administration certify planes as “airworthy” based on their expert judgment, not compliance with detailed specs on, say, how many rivets per square foot. Teachers at good schools typically say that the principal encourages them to do what they think is best and not worry about complying with many forms and metrics.

Economist Arnold Kling recognizes that there would be problems with this method, but agrees that it has many advantages over the current regulatory regime:

One advantage is that Congress could spell out the principles, because principles-based regulation would not require technocratic expertise. That would restore better Constitutional balance. Another advantage is that it would force whoever writes the regulations to think in broad terms about the aims of regulation. You would not be mindlessly piling on regulations with high costs and low benefits.

However, the main advantage is as Howard describes it. Most people want to do the right thing, especially if you respect their autonomy. If you spell out in broad terms what the “right thing” means, people will use their creativity to achieve that. Instead if you spell out do’s and don’ts in detail, they will use their creativity to achieve compliance with the letter but not with the spirit of the regulation.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).