The word “deregulation” often conjures up an image of corporate fat cats counting stacks of money, having made a windfall through the abolition of basic health-and-safety standards. No wonder the idea of it causes such a visceral reaction from many people.
What reformers have in mind when talking about overregulation and deregulation, however, is very different. Genuine health-and-safety regulation is not their target, though bad regulations are sometimes justified with spurious health-and-safety terminology. Rather, critics aim to remove policies that effectively criminalize benign behavior (as many regulations carry civil and criminal penalties) and often prevent people from climbing the economic ladder at all.
The real face of overregulation has been in the news in recent weeks, after bystanders called the police on three young people in different states for peaceful behavior. The incidents serve as a reminder that an overly broad “rule,” even if rarely enforced, can be weaponized at any time. Such rules can serve to empower pettiness and bigotry that otherwise might have been limited to rude speech.
The three incidents all went viral, from the pathetic marijuana-corporation executive who called the police on an eight-year-old girl for the “crime” of “illegally selling water without a permit” on a hot summer day, to the neighbor who called the police on a 12-year-old for his summer lawn-mowing business, to the 16-year-old boy who was cuffed and arrested in Charleston, S.C., for selling palmetto roses (a longstanding Charleston tradition). Luckily, the police did not act on the complaints in the first two cases — but the very fact that people feel empowered to call the police over harmless behavior shows the pernicious reach of the regulatory regime. In each of these cases, the regulations in question were the sort justified on health-and-safety grounds.
And in all three cases, the children were black. These regulations may not have been written with race in mind, like those of the hallowed Progressive Era were, but the fact remains that this all-encompassing regulatory regime allows racists to act on their prejudice with force. Those who oppose bigotry, and yet support high levels of regulation with good intentions, ought to bear in mind that enforcement often falls upon those who are already marginalized, as we have also seen with drug and gun laws. A powerful regulatory system translates directly to a broader law-enforcement mandate. And the sheer number of regulations on the books means it is an easy step to rule by men, rather than rule of law.
Idealists ought to consider that they are empowering a coalition of monopoly-seekers, racists, and other bad actors.
Occupational permits operate in much the same manner. Over 100 entry-level jobs require licenses that can take nearly a year of training, hundreds of dollars in fees, and examinations. They can place the poor in the difficult place of either spending time and money that they don’t have in the hopes of getting a job that they are already qualified to do, or working off the books and risking hefty penalties. A stark example of this is the regulatory regime surrounding African hair braiding. The practice, which is safe and does not involve dyes, dangerous chemicals, or even hair-cutting, is a skill that can be learned and monetized by someone seeking work without a costly education and irrespective of background. This is, to borrow from 1066 and All That, “A Good Thing.” Eleven states, however, chop the rungs off of this economic ladder, then sell them to the job-seekers. Those states require thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in cosmetology training (the curriculum for an altogether different job) before someone can legally braid hair. In effect, this means that someone seeking to take on an entry-level job must stop working for a considerable amount of time in the hopes of applying.
It’s a calculus that few are willing to make. In 2012, there were over 1,200 braiders in Mississippi, yet only 32 in Louisiana, which has a larger black population. The reason? Louisiana requires 500 hours (over three months of classes) of cosmetology training for braiders, whereas Mississippi requires none. Such regulations serve as a valve to restrict black employment. Onerous regulations incentivize rule-breaking by even the law-abiding and responsible, by crowding people out of better options.
Perhaps these regulations really are enacted by well-intentioned idealists who think they are preventing abuses. But these very idealists ought to consider that they are empowering a coalition of monopoly-seekers, racists, and other bad actors, and wearing down the rule of law. A real commitment to racial and economic justice will have to take these effects into consideration, rather defending the status quo on the basis of its intentions alone.
There has been progress in this direction, including an excellent report from the Obama White House about the need for labor-market deregulation. There ought to be even more.