If you agree with a regulation, it is reasonable, but if you disagree, it is unreasonable. And reasonable versus unreasonable all hinges on perception and acceptance or non-acceptance of a risk or hazard (see previous post). If I told you about a drug on the market that helps prevent heart attacks and strokes but also kills more than 3000 people every year would you be supportive of it? As long as you are not one of the people who die from it, you might be, but you don’t know until you take it. So, is 3000 out of 330 million acceptable in a drug policy? At some point we need to draw a line that separates harm from safety. Where that line is drawn is extremely complex. The rational for what is acceptable can vary wildly from person to person, usually depending on where any person’s beliefs stand on any given issue. And while no harm at all is certainly preferable, it is not realistic. So, how do we decide on where to draw that line when considering risk evaluation for the health and safety of the whole community.
At this time the whole world is gripped with concern (and fear) about the Coronavirus. It seems to be a highly transmissible virus and extreme measures have been enacted to combat its spread. Most populations in all countries seem ready to comply with social distancing regulations and lockdowns because they see them as necessary to safeguard everyone from this virulent disease. This virus is an acute problem because it can be seen immediately. Strict regulations to combat chronic problems, however, are less acceptable because the immediate cause is not seen as readily because the effects are only seen over a long period of time. Air pollution is one such tricky problem because it chronic in its effects. That is, it takes years to recognize when health is being adversely affected and almost as long to conclude it is the air pollution that is causing the health problems. One of the problems from air pollution is that we cannot easily see it or its affects. To many people who focus primarily on money and profits from industries causing pollution, regulations are seen as onerous intrusions into business practices that create profits for stockholders. These profits come at the expense of everyone else exposed to the pollution. We can agree on where to draw the line for acute risk problems since in general, they tend to be relatively short term, but disagree on where that line ought to be for long-term chronic risk problems.
The USA has a regulatory policy of innocent until proven guilty when it comes to risk protection. That is something that might be risky is allowed until it is shown to be an undoubtable hazard. Most of the rest of the developed world believes in the ‘Precautionary Principle’ where a potential risk has to be shown relatively benign (or harmless) before it is released. Ultimately, regulations get enacted to safeguard people for any specific risk problem. “Innocent until proven guilty” – Industry can introduce any products it wants. Government bears the burden of proof to show if products are dangerous. Precautionary principle – Industry cannot introduce a product until it is very thoroughly tested and shown convincingly to be harmless or the least harmful of all other options.
Most of the U.S. environmental policy was enacted during the 1970s following the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the formation of the EPA. Prior to the 1970s, the negative effects of pollution were widespread and visible. The 1964 landmark publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson revealed the casualness with which the industrial powers considered pollution. It was seen a merely a byproduct of creating a higher Standard of Living (SOL). What was not talked about in higher circles was the drastic drop of Quality of Life (QOL) factors from pollutions effects. Even today, the discussion is on SOL and QOL is erroneously equated as being the same but has been decreasing for many decades because of multiple levels of pollution.
One of the biggest problems with laws and regulations is their interpretation and enforcement. For instance, NEPA was a short four-page over-arching law enacted by congress. The Interpretation of that law to create the outline for the rules and regulations was 52 pages long, and the rules and regulations that form the basis for how the EPA functions runs to several volumes. Then put all these regulations into the hands of bureaucrats and you get the inevitable red-tape that makes people want to scream. Enforcing them takes more technocrats who know what to do and the process gets so complicated its little wonder so many people feel frustrated with laws that are meant to protect us. It takes a lot of funding to make the whole process work as smoothly as possible. Two techniques promoted by the industrial lobbyists to convince politicians to de-regulate are to simply ignore the regulations at various levels of enforcement or to defund the enforcement. The first leaves the agencies open to never ending lawsuits and the second just means nothing gets done since there are too few regulators to actually do the regulating.
I started this post by asking whether regulations are reasonable or unreasonable. We get so bogged down in arguing about the problems of a regulation, or how it is enforced that we forget why the regulation was enacted in the first place. These laws are set up to protect us from harm and to minimize risk. Instead of arguing against the law, maybe we should be debating how we can better help them be enforced more effectively to protect people and to help business still function efficiently. After all, isn’t QOL everyone’s thing!