Readers with a taste for bad movies might notice the allusion to the 1964 melodrama Where Love Has Gone, a famous stinker loosely based on the sordid Lana Turner/Cheryl Crane/Johnny Stompanato murder case of 1958. Even Oscar winners Susan Hayward and Bette Davis could not overcome the script, although the film did achieve some popularity at the time.
While that movie was based on a Harold Robbins novel, the regulatory movement always starts with a cause…
Any sentient human beyond perhaps the age of five will notice that there are manifold injustices in the world. Although you won’t read this too often in most American history textbooks, the notion of governments addressing such problems is relatively new. Certainly, even from ancient times, some perceived injustice affecting a person with the means to react—for example King Menelaus of Sparta launching the Trojan War to recover his kidnapped wife Helen—has been a large component of world history, but these same nobles cared not a whit about the plight of the common man.
As suffrage became more or less universal in what is now called the first world, some injustices that could realize immediate political advantage would be addressed, but it was never thought that government should provide the remedy to cure all social ills. That is, until Teddy Roosevelt took over for the assassinated William McKinley in 1901. TR’s Square Deal was to be the forerunner of all other overly ambitious and crypto-socialist federal programs that would follow. In fact, TR was the first U.S. president to call for universal health care and national health insurance.
While Teddy Roosevelt’s policies were popular, without a federal income tax there was a limit to what could really be done. As it is, William Howard Taft, TR’s chosen successor, was given a big boost in the 1908 election by his opponent William Jennings Bryan’s proposal to socialize the railroads, which went over like a lead balloon with the voters.
However, by 1912, TR and Taft had a falling out, in that Taft was accused of moving to the right. The party was split, and Woodrow Wilson—quite sadly—would be elected. There was no turning back. Taxes soared, along with government activism, and of course the imperial presidency and World War I. Had the US actually remained neutral in the conflict, Wilson, who was reelected in 1916 on the promise of keeping us out of war, would not have felt compelled to drag us in.
To be fair, one could make a reasonable case for at least some of the regulation that went on in that era such as pure food laws, prohibition of child labor, and the eight-hour work day. However, the line between reasonable regulation and power-mad federal fascism was crossed by FDR in 1933 with his National Recovery Administration, mercifully declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935.
Unconstitutional or not, the paradigm was forever set: Find a cause, and then create an agency to regulate it.
Certainly, this was the origin of the EPA, and by the mid-1980s, most of the pressing legitimate environmental issues had been resolved. At that point, the agency descended into very questionable matters of chemical regulation that bring us to today’s efforts to regulate formaldehyde, for example, to levels less than it occurs naturally in human breath. Useful chemicals such as phthalates are all but banned, even as “safer substitutes” are being found to have greater problems than the phthalates.
Noted Catholic apologist Vincent Lewis explains regulatory zeal and its supporters on the basis of some form of collective guilt that must be assuaged. This guilt could be based in personal misdeeds, or even on the fact that few regulatory programs ever actually solve the problems they are intended to address, without creating equally arduous new ones in their place. Many simply fail completely with no noticeable benefits at all, beyond creating employment for bureaucrats and consultants.
This guilt must be remitted, and, like Oedipus who blinded himself once he learned of his terrible sins, the regulatory activists punish themselves with higher taxes, and ever-increasing complexity of daily life based on the untenable regulatory environment.
The Rubicon was surely crossed more than twenty years ago. Regulatory action was supposed to improve our lives, but with such abominations as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act closing businesses and wreaking untold havoc to achieve NO goal that was not already in place since the 1970s on lead, and scapegoating phthalates for no good reason (even NPR agrees that there is no science to justify this), CPSIA—like it or not—is the face of regulation today, or, as we said, where regulation has gone.