On Regulations and Independence

In the early decades of this Republic, smallpox was taking hundreds of thousands of lives every year in outbreaks around the globe. In the late Eighteenth Century Edward Jenner, an English physician/scientist, capitalized on the observation that milkmaids were seemingly immune to the ravages of smallpox because of their exposure to cowpox. Long story short, Jenner became the “Father of Immunology” with vaccinations against smallpox. Thomas Jefferson, President in 1801, had read accounts of Jenner’s work and secured vaccinations for 200 family, friends and slaves at Monticello. Jefferson and James Madison, who succeeded Jefferson as President, both were wary of government overreach, but became partners in what became the Vaccine Act of 1813, after Jefferson had left office. The passage of the Act followed an attempt to leave the work of vaccinating the population to the states, but when this approach faltered, Madison, with Jefferson’s encouragement, put health of the nation’s citizens under federal oversight. It was the beginning of the eradication of smallpox in the U.S and around the world, and an acknowledgement that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” included federal action to prevent major health crises. It may be a stretch to consider that this implies national health care, but that’s not a path I’m going down in this venue anyway. (I would, however, direct you to an article that explores rather thoroughly the current thinking on the subject, “Is Health Care a Right?” referenced below.*)

The point is that we cannot exist independently of the input of other humans – and the governments thereof – or the whole of the planet’s support system for that matter. The role of government in that relationship is incessantly debated, but suffice to say that without government action for the common good, imperfect as it may be, things that developed nations take for granted would not exist, like municipal water systems, power and fuel on demand (mostly) and a road over the river and through the woods to get to Grandma’s house. In other areas, like the dreaded regulatory world, the lines are perhaps fuzzier.

It comes up on a regular basis, the idea that independence is the holy grail of human existence. It’s that you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do attitude that crops up, and notably during political campaigns – which seems to be pretty much 24/7/365 these days. It shows up when fences get put up to define “my property from yours,” or when public lands are opened to development by private interests, or when your neighbor decides it’s his right to field dress a deer in the front yard of his suburban home (yes, that actually happened; although, in fairness, it was South Austin in the early Eighties, so he didn’t see anything weird about it). As it relates to building, admittedly a pretty narrow focus, it gets to regulation, “oppressive” building and energy codes, or more broadly, any codes. Industry groups are very often singularly focused on avoiding regulations by the government of any kind. In fairness, they also do other stuff, like education and community service, but what often keeps the memberships coming is the desire to thwart regulation, even when it makes sense.

Let me say at this point that, if we were a fully conscious and enlightened species, there would be no need for regulation, or any laws, for that matter. There’s really no need to expand on that thought.

The vast majority of us live under the constraints of regulations and laws because most of us – not mentioning any names – just can’t help being – oh, what’s the word? – human. We mandate minimum insulation in ceilings and walls because Unnamed Builder would leave it out to increase profits. We mandate speed limits to discourage unnamed drivers from seeking to always be at the front of an infinite line of vehicles. We have environmental laws because Unnamed Corporation management ostensibly protects stockholders – who, coincidentally, seldom live downstream – from “frivolous” spending on safeguards. It would seem the arrogance of that position is rooted in the very flawed notion that it doesn’t matter in the Big Picture. But it does. Specific tragic examples abound, like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; Love Canal; and the Exxon Valdez. These are well known. One that perhaps escaped attention — I don’t remember learning this in school — was China’s Four Pests Campaign in the 1950s, when the Eurasian Sparrow – along with rats, flies and mosquitoes – was nearly eradicated as a “pest” because the species ate grain. Maybe you can see where this is going. With no natural predators, the locust population exploded and tens of millions of Chinese died of starvation. Unlike the previous examples, this was not lack of regulation, but unconscious (ignorant) regulation. We have plenty of examples of that as well.

I wouldn’t be inclined to call regulation a “necessary evil,” but in the context of the human experience I would call it necessary. But whether regulating, over-regulating or under-regulating, people are affected far beyond the “boundaries” of the targeted activity. The extent of the range varies, but it’s always greater than perceived. As citizens, getting involved in the process is fundamental to a democracy, but just showing up isn’t the end of it. Understanding the motivations of all parties is critical to the best outcome, and that happens when folks sit down and listen to the points of view from others. It wouldn’t hurt to inject factual information – read: seek truth – into the conversation. And that seems to be the hard part in this day of unsocial media. It’s not always about money or profit or health or equality. It is, however, always about consequences.


*  Part of the inspiration for this post came from an excellent article, “Is Health Care a Right?” by Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, October 2, 2017.