Too Many Rules

When Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, his first official act—on Inauguration Day itself—was to abolish the Council on Competitiveness. The Council was a watchdog group that reviewed the cost-effectiveness of federal regulations. But with the Council gone, who will have the task of regulating the regulators? Unless we institute some form of accountability, the number of federal regulations will continue to mushroom. The large number of regulations already imposes heavy economic costs on business and industry. But over-regulation can impose an even more serious cost: It can undermine the classic principle of the rule of law. Strange though it may sound, too many laws can destroy the rule of law. Economist Paul Craig Roberts explains how it happens. The number of federal regulations is already so large, Roberts says, businesses can't keep up with them. It's become virtually "impossible to operate many businesses without being in conflict" with some regulation or another. Sometimes the rules are even contradictory—so that compliance with regulation A puts a business out of compliance with regulation B. The effect, says Roberts, is that businesses are being criminalized. They find it increasingly difficult to avoid committing white-collar crime, even without criminal intent. Many businesses would be vulnerable if ever targeted for close scrutiny by government prosecutors. I'm reminded of a story told by a young Polish man about life under communism. The Communist authorities were obsessed with legality, the young man said. They didn't cart people off to the gulag for no reason. Not they. In order to guarantee that they would always be able to pin some legal violation on any citizen, government officials passed huge numbers of laws and regulations—so many that the average citizen couldn't possibly keep track of them all, let alone obey them. As a result, the Polish people knew they could always be charged with some violation, depending on the whim of the local authorities. By the sheer number of laws, the Communists destroyed the rule of law—replacing it with arbitrary rule by local officials. You see, the rule of law can be destroyed in many ways. One way is anarchy—the destruction of all laws. Another way is despotism—rule by the arbitrary decisions of a power elite. But another way is excessive regulation—the creation of so many laws that no one can possibly obey them all. The result is to criminalize every citizen, so that his fate rests on the whim of some government official. If Paul Craig Roberts is right, that is precisely what's happening to many of America's businesses. As Christians, you and I ought to press President Clinton for a new watchdog agency to replace the Council on Competitiveness. The rule of law has biblical roots, after all: Its source is the recognition that the ultimate standard of right and wrong is God's law, not the arbitrary decisions of government. So the costs of over-regulation are not only economic. If the rule of law in America is weakened, we will further erode America's biblical heritage. And put all our freedoms in jeopardy.


Chuck Colson


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