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It Doesn't Have to Be Useless to Be Economically Harmful

Obscure language is every bureaucrat's best friend. For this reason it is not surprising that liberals in Congress and the White House, when referring to the regulations that they wish to eliminate, tend to describe them in the least specific terms possible.  For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recentlly committed to work with industry to fulfill the President's call to remove "outdated and unnecessary regulations" and ensure that rules don't "needlessly stifle job creation and economic growth" (emphasis added).

The point is not that we should work to remove "timely and necessary" regulations, but rather that the administration's language, for as general as it is, frames the issue in the wrong way. As conservative economist Thomas Sowell pointed out  in a recent column, the question the administration should be asking is not whether their regulations are useless, "outdated" or "unnecessary," but rather whether their benefits are worth their economic cost. Sowell writes:

Under a headline that said, "Obama May Find Useless Regulations Are Scarcer Than Thought" the "[ New York] Times" writers declared that there were few, if any, "useless" regulations. But is that the relevant criterion?

Is there any individual or business willing to spend money on everything that is not absolutely useless? There are thousands of useful things out there that any given individual or business would not spend money on.

                                        .                 .                  .

Weighing benefits against costs is the way most people make decisions--and the way most businesses make decisions, if they want to stay in business. Only in government is any benefit, however small, considered to be worth any cost, however large.

So far, the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have tended to frame regulatory review in terms of job creation.  At the moment, this is the appropriate emphasis for review. As they ponder how to use deregulation to spur economic growth, they must be vigilant about misleading rhetoric, because regulations don't have to be "useless" to be harmful.