The United States' Burdensome Regulatory Environment

June 21, 2013

In "Democracy in America," published in 1833, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the way Americans preferred voluntary association to government regulation. However, Tocqueville would not recognize America today. Indeed, so completely has associational life collapsed, and so enormously has the state grown, that he would be forced to conclude that, at some point between 1833 and 2013, France must have conquered the United States, says Niall Ferguson.

The decline of American associational life was documented in Robert Puttnam's seminal 1995 essay "Bowling Alone," which documented the exodus of Americans from bowling leagues, Rotary clubs and the like. Since then, the downward trend in "social capital" has only continued. According to the 2006 World Values Survey:

  • Active membership even of religious associations has declined from just over half the population in 1995 to little more than a third (37 percent).
  • The proportion of Americans who are active members of cultural associations is down to 14 percent from 24 percent in 1995.
  • For professional associations, the figure is now just 12 percent, compared with more than a fifth in 1995.

Instead of joining together to get things done, Americans have increasingly become dependent on Washington.

As the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Clyde Wayne Crews shows in his annual survey of the federal regulatory state:

  • Excluding blank pages, the 2012 Federal Register (the official directory of regulation) today runs to 78,961 pages.
  • Back in 1986 it was 44,812 pages; in 1936 it was just 2,620.

True, our economy today is much larger than it was in 1936. It is around 12 times larger, allowing for inflation. But the Federal Register has grown by a factor of 30 in the same period.

The cost of all this, Crews estimates, is $1.8 trillion annually -- that's on top of the federal government's $3.5 trillion in outlays, so it is equivalent to an invisible 65 percent surcharge on your federal taxes, or nearly 12 percent of gross domestic product.

Source: Niall Ferguson, "The Regulated States of America," Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2013.

 

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