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Letter: In Wake of Aurora Shooting ‘Discussion,’ a Reasoned Approach to Government Regulation

A letter to the editor from Woodbury resident Tom St. Martin.

During a recent search for Patch political news, I came across your .

At last count more than 600 comments had been posted in response to this article. I didn’t read most of them: I have better, more worthwhile things to read.

My attention was, nevertheless, drawn to the polarized, strident, often rancorous “discussion” of the pros and cons of regulation. Polarized, strident because the remarks in question were posted by folks who seemed to think that governmentally imposed regulations were THE answer to, well, just about everything. Or, on the contrary, by folks who think that most, if not all, government regulation is harmful, oppressive or worse.

That having been said, I recognize that this rather rowdy exchange was provoked by folks with strong opinions for and against the regulation or prohibition of citizen ownership of firearms.

With the exception of my military experience, I have had virtually no experience involving guns, whether rifles or handguns. Consequently I have little interest in gun regulation as such.

I do, however, wish to address a broader issue, namely governmental regulation as it relates to the oversight and/or control of various sectors of the American economy. The ensuing comments, then, will have to do with governmental regulations which are intended to stimulate, direct, mandate or even suppress certain economic activities. (N.b. this discussion addresses economic regulation only: I have purposely avoided touching on the heated debates surrounding contemporary moral or “social” issues.)

First a warning: I think that the right-left either/or approach to regulation of economic activity (ref: the recent Patch gun control thread) is misguided, self-defeating. That is to say that the issues raised by regulation of private or even public economic enterprises are typically nuanced, problematic and complex, not easily cut to size on some ideological bed of Procrustes.

Second, we must, among other things, recognize the general validity of regulations that seek to deal with what economists call externalities (or “spillover” effects). Most economic activity—e.g. manufacturing, mining, construction, farming, banking, food service, health care, etc.—has a public dimension. That is to say that it has effects extending beyond the producer/provider consumer/client relationship (e.g. air and water pollution). From which it follows that prudent governmental regulations are often required to protect the public’s interest (e.g. to rein in banking practices which, if unregulated, might damage the economy as a whole).

Third, however, we must remember that the operative word is PRUDENT (i.e. discerning, judicious, cautious and, above all, reflective). So a few questions. In any given situation, are there alternatives to governmental regulation, alternatives that would serve the public interest without relying on the characteristically heavy hand of the state?

  • Does governmental regulation of any particular economic activity really serve its intended purposes/objectives?
  • Or does it make matters worse than they otherwise might have been?

In other words is any given regulation, whether extant or proposed, likely to be counter-productive? Or has some occurrence (e.g. a recession) triggered an imprudent, rash, even demagogic regulatory response (e.g. “we can’t allow a good crisis go to waste”)?

Or have we allowed regulations—whether imposed democratically via legislation or by bureaucratic fiat—to become so complex that few can understand them, much less comply with them? Or, so complex that they invite exploitation by special interests that know that the world belongs to those who can wiggle through the loopholes? Or does the current deluge of bureaucratically imposed regulations threaten to shift the loci of power from our elected representatives to un-elected and arguably unaccountable bureaus, boards, councils and the like? Or are regulations likely to discourage innovation and entrepreneurship, serving as a “brake” on economic activity? Or, most importantly, does any particular regulation interfere or even suppress legitimate, substantive freedoms?

Those of you have read this far (a very few of you, I fear) may wonder why I have bothered to belabor the obvious. Because if today’s political rhetoric tells us anything, it tells us that the obvious is no longer obvious. At least not obvious to folks who, as I have said, seemingly think that any economic regulation is a good regulation or, alternatively, that any economic regulation is a bad regulation.

Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I admit that I am inclined to side with those who are skeptical of the statist approach to the “solution” of economic problems, problems which may be real but which are often misdiagnosed by those who claim to have the “cure.”

This skepticism does not, however, reflect some kind of Ayn Randian mentality, i.e. an extremist laissez faire economic philosophy. (In this regard, I am baffled by leftists who drag this obscure writer/philosopher into discussions of economic regulation).

I am skeptical, rather, because I sense that a quasi-Utopian mind-set is the driving force behind many of the regulatory schemes (e.g. as in ObamaCare) now being foisted on contemporary American society. Those who advocate and rationalize such schemes seemingly think that a highly regulated economy puts us on the road to the kind of society envisioned by a radicalized, “social justice” ideology with its perfectionist notions of economic equality, stability, security and mandated altruism. In contrast, a capitalist, minimally regulated society is seen as haphazard, unjust, competitive, inefficient.

In closing, I would emphasize that ours is a risky, uncertain, even scary world, our economic world especially.

Utopian dreams notwithstanding, perfection always eludes us. Our economic system is often risky, unpredictable, harsh. A minimally regulated market economy will never function perfectly. But neither will a planned, highly regulated economy. Hopefully, we will not be forced to choose between a “purist” version of one or the other. Yet, for me, the second alternative, at least as it is promoted by our leftist friends is the more threatening, the more dangerous of the two.

—Tom St. Martin, Woodbury

Alice August 08, 2012 at 06:25 PM
You wonder why people keep bringing up Ayn Rand - could it be because Paul Ryan, the current GOP favorite when it comes to budgetary policies, bases those policies on Ayn Rand's philosophy?
Susan August 08, 2012 at 08:11 PM
Mr. St. Martin, I find it curious that you condemn our comments regarding Aurora and guns, even going so far as to imply that some think "governmentally imposed regulations were THE answer to, well, just about everything", even though you admit to not having read them all. I have read your full post here and am curious why our discussion prompted such a strong reaction, and why the connection to your views on the economy. We can politely agree to disagree, and you can imply we are wasting time, but I hope you recognize that our country has many people with many different views. Coming together to discuss, debate, and share information is not a waste of time for everyone.
Susan August 08, 2012 at 09:48 PM
sed contra (Mr. St. Martin?), I understand the connection between your letter and the thread about Aurora, I only pointed out that your summarization of our conversation and opinions was unfair, as you insinuated it to be a waste of your time to actually read the comments. Shutting down a discussion because you may disagree with what someone says, is, in part, what is wrong with politics (and society) today. My suggestion would be that you disable the comments section if you don't want feedback on what you write. My apologies if I offended you with my feedback. Be assured that I will uncheck the "following" box, and respectfully ignore this thread.
Alice August 09, 2012 at 05:41 AM
Requiring (not asking) his staff may not make Ryan a Randian, but his own statements certainly do. About 6 years ago Ryan spoke at a Washington, DC gathering honoring Rand, and he said: "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand." Then, of course, there is this statement from 2005: "Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill ... is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict--individualism versus collectivism." More excerpts from Ryan's 2005 speech: "I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff." --"I always go back to... Francisco d’Anconia’s speech [in Atlas Shrugged] on money when I think about monetary policy." --"We have to go back to Ayn Rand. Because there is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works." http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012/4/prweb9457144.htm
Alice August 09, 2012 at 05:45 AM
Then "sed contra" you say that Ryan bases his philosophy on Catholic social teaching. Maybe he now says he does, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops harshly criticized his budget: " In a letter sent to the House Agriculture Committee on Monday, the bishops say the budget fails to meet certain “moral criteria” by disproportionately cutting programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.” A second letter sent Tuesday to the Ways and Means Committee criticizes a provision that makes it more difficult for illegal immigrants to claim child tax credits. The bishops called the credit “one of the most effective antipoverty programs in our nation.” " http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/222003-catholic-bishops-criticize-ryan-budget-cuts-to-food-stamps I guess the Catholic Bishops disagree with Paul Ryan.

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