How Stupid Regulations Come To Be

If you search online for “stupid regulations”, you will find a treasure trove of hilarious or scary (depending upon your point of view) federal, state, and local regulations. In doing this, I often had to ask myself “what were they thinking”? But, on reflection, it’s easy to see how this happens. The world is a very complex place and it changes very rapidly. When establishing a regulation, the regulator can’t possibly know all of the circumstances in which it will be applied, nor can she know how changes in other regulations, technology, public opinion, or a host of other things will impact the regulation in the future. Thus, you find building inspectors insisting that lower quality materials be used because better materials didn’t exist when the regulations were crafted. You see medical advances stymied because genetic technologies enabling customized treatments were never envisioned. You see great innovative ideas unable to move forward because the cost of regulatory compliance makes new projects unattractive.

I’m not opposed to regulation – there are clear benefits – but there are clear problems as well. It’s intuitively appealing to say that there ought be more comprehensive analysis of values and trade-offs, but I suspect we usually try to do that now – with limited success. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to have constant periodic review of regulations to ask whether they still make sense based on greater experience and knowledge – but this risks turning into bureaucratic sludge.

Perhaps the best we can really expect is that the most stupid regulations are identified, publicized, and ridiculed – forcing lawmakers to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.


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