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Government regulations in a fallen world

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The number of federal regulations in the United States broke an all-time record last year. A total of 97,110 pages were added to the Federal Register in 2016. The Competitive Enterprise Institute calculates the compliance costs and economic impacts of federal regulations at $1.89 trillion.

This massive corpus of rules, guidances, and bureaucratic diktats spring from the pens (and keyboards) of unelected officials with little oversight from elected representatives and less from voters themselves. People of faith must scrutinize the outsourcing of vast federal rulemaking powers to unaccountable government employees.

“Catholic social teaching should have something to say about this,” argues Philip Booth in a new essay for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic. “The difference between regulation being passed by parliament after scrutiny by a democratic body and parliament setting up a bureau which develops regulation without the scrutiny of parliament (or of anybody) is not a trivial one.”

The insights of Christian anthropology, that human beings were made for freedom yet forge their own chains with their passions, could shed needed light on federal bureaucratic rulemaking, Booth writes:

Given what we know about human nature, it is imprudent to establish regulatory bodies that can act without proper accountability to those on whose behalf they are supposed to be acting. Such bodies can be captured by those who run them, by the businesses they are trying to regulate (which often seek to create regulatory barriers to entry), or by interest groups. Self-interest does not just operate within markets.

This is of particular importance to this blog, as the core principles of the Acton Institute hold that “those who have the power to interfere with the market are duty-bound to remove any artificial barrier to entry in the market.”

Booth – a professor of finance, public policy, and ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, as well as a senior academic fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – connects traditional Christian views of human corruption with uniquely Western legal concepts:

The means by which [administrative rulemaking] bodies are accountable for promoting the common good rather than private interests are indirect and tenuous in the extreme. Centuries of wisdom have taught us the importance of the just application of law with checks and balances to limit power and privilege. Such principles do not apply to these regulatory bodies.

Booth calls for a new compendium of Catholic social teaching on the theory and practice of bureaucracy in the modern transatlantic welfare state. At a minimum, such a volume could explore:

  • the effects of the Fall on the ability to govern;
  • the importance of transparency, accountability, and checks-and-balances for the bureaucratic rulemaking process;
  • the inherent temptation for such a process to be captured by cartels and cronyism;
  • the relationship between the growth of the regulatory state and corruption;
  • the unintended consequences of regulatory burdens on small businesses, families, and the unemployed; and
  • the proper limits of regulatory power.

Until then, one must be grateful to Booth for initiating the conversation.

You can read Philip Booth’s full essay, “Catholic social teaching must confront the regulatory state,” here.

(Photo credit: Janet Lindenmuth. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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