One of the main activities of the new administration has been deregulation. In recent weeks, President Trump, with congressional help, has overturned rules requiring energy companies to disclose payments they make to foreign governments, forbidding coal debris from being dumped in streams, and preventing internet providers from selling personal information without the consumer’s consent, to name a few. The administration promises more are coming.
There should be periodic reviews of regulations to determine if they remain useful. Some regulations may apply to certain time periods or crises that are no longer relevant. Government should examine regulations to determine their continued value, and past administrations have done just that.
However, the Trump administration’s intent is different. Instead, President Trump seems determined to undo whatever the Obama administration did. The motive is not to find outdated regulations, but to satisfy large corporations who don’t like government regulations.
The argument is that these regulations stifle industry and should be eliminated. This is not a new argument. It has been used by critics (primarily Republicans) of government’s regulatory role for over a hundred years. When President Theodore Roosevelt attacked trusts that monopolized industries, corporations like U.S. Steel and Standard Oil complained that regulations crippled their business. Besides, they argued, it wasn’t the government’s role anyway to intervene in their relations with their competitors, their workers or their customers.
Economic regulations grew in number and strength primarily to check the growth of big business. Large corporations controlled their industries by special deals with government and other industries. Many undercut competitors and drove them out of business. Then, free of competition, they raised prices. They favored protectionist tariffs to prevent competition, also raising prices on consumers. Many of these corporations forced workers to live in company homes, shop at company stores, and accept wage cuts whenever the company chose to impose them. They employed children and worked them long hours. Their workspaces often were unsafe. Products often harmed people rather than helped them.
Big government developed in response to the political and economic power of big business. Without some counterweight, these businesses would be able to do what they wanted without accountability to others. Worker and consumer protection regulations today rein in the tendency of many businesses to satisfy the bottom line at the expense of others.
Those were the bad old days we no longer live in, right? Not necessarily. In many ways, big business is just as powerful today as it was 100 years ago. Corporations like Microsoft, Amazon and Wal-Mart, for example, are behemoths in their industrial sectors. Try buying a computer today without a Microsoft program or finding a financially solvent independent bookstore. Watch what happens to local businesses when a Wal-Mart store moves into a small city.
At the same time administrations review regulations, they also should determine what needs to be regulated and isn’t. For example, should a company be able to monitor where you go on the internet? Should a prospective employer be able to do a criminal and credit background check before hiring you? Should an airline be able to bump you involuntarily from a seat you bought and paid for?
There are many areas where more government regulation is necessary to protect workers and consumers. Will the Trump administration undertake that review as well? I am not holding my breath.
Of course regulation critics point to the Constitution and the Founders as evidence that government should not be that big. The Constitution says little about economics. And wasn’t Thomas Jefferson, for example, a strong advocate of small government?
Yet the Framers lived in a different era when big corporations did not exist. Business was not as powerful as it became a century later. If he were alive today, Jefferson, as a populist, might advocate big government to balance the power of big business. Admittedly, Americans have not altered the Constitution to create a government that keeps business in check. Instead, we have re-interpreted the Constitution to meet the threat of economic and political power being concentrated in too few hands, to the detriment of the rest of us. Conveniently, the Trump administration has forgotten this history.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.