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Deregulating Your Cake, and Eating It, Too

When the Supreme Court announced yesterday that it had eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley had an interesting reaction. “What it tells me is after 45 years, the Voting Rights Act worked,” Grassley said, “and that’s the best I can say. It just proves that it worked.”

Grassley's logic on this seems to go as follows: We don't need regulations or laws, especially ones that have achieved their goals, even though we deny that regulations or legislation can achieve such goals to begin with, so once they achieve their goals—which, by their very, evil nature we don't believe they can achieve—let's get rid of them posthaste, while saying that they were beneficial while they were in effect, though most laws and regulations never are.

It is a peculiar, circuitous logic common in conservative quarters. 

Take, for example, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Yesterday, while the president was rolling out his proposals to combat climate change, Paul's office sent out a press release decrying "the Obama Administration War on Coal." In the statement, Paul slammed "unreasonable enviornmental regulation" and pledged that, "as a defender of the free market and of coal, I will continue to fight back against the EPA and any other federal agency whose goal is to stifle coal production."

Back in April when I was following Paul for this issue's cover story, he and I talked briefly after an anti-government-regulation rally in western Kentucky. As I expected, he launched into a lengthy explication of all the ways regulation is hurtful and useless and, often, beside the point. Sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions from coal smoke stacks, Paul told me, have "been going down for forty years, they’re a little lower every decade." And yet, Paul said, feigning bemusement, "the regulators who come in and the liberals, they just want to say, we gotta go lower, we gotta go lower."

I asked him why he thought these environmental advocates and regulators did this, what motivated them. "I think some of them are genuinely trying to make the environment cleaner," he said.

But they don’t realize the environment has been getting cleaner, and when you have a lot of this going on, the question I like to ask is: "When do you think we had the most pollution in our country?" And you know when it was? Probably 1890. So we’ve been getting cleaner since 1890. Now some of that is government rules, but we’ve been getting cleaner for a long time. The dirtiest it probably ever was, was when we learned to burn coal but we burned it in individual fireplaces. When a million or ten million people in London were all burning coal, the air was thick with the soot of coal. In the 1920s and teens, Pittsburgh was thick with the emissions from making steel, but it’s gotten better. But instead the left says the sky is falling and the polar bears are drowning and the statue of liberty is drowning! It’s hysterics.

In case you didn't follow that: Government regulation of coal is bad and useless, and environmentalists talking about smoke stacks polluting the air are hysterical. The reason the former is bad and useless is that the air has been getting cleaner. The air has been getting cleaner because of government rules, which, so bad and useless otherwise, have here produced a result—cleaner air that gets increasingly more clean with time—which, again, is what makes the liberals and environmentalists look crazy. Which all, somehow, proves to Paul that regulation now, to deal with a different but similar problem—global warming or drowning polar bears—is not the answer, because regulation doesn't work. Which is why the environmentalists are crazy for wanting it. Get it?

Paul did not understand my confusion. The fact that similar histrionics on the part of environmentalists a century ago was what brought about those "government rules"—the ones that have been making the air cleaner and those smoke stacks less toxic—was a step in the proof that Paul easily leapfrogged over. The missing logical leap did not seem to trouble, or even puzzle him. 

Or consider the logical contortions required to get to the conclusion of Dr. John C. Willke, the guy who infamously instilled in Todd Akin the notion that a woman has innate defenses that keep her from getting pregnant in cases of rape (mostly because "She's frightened, tight, and so on."). When confronted by the demonstrable fact that banning—you know, like regulating, but worse?—abortion does not annihilate the practice, but simply pushes it into illegal channels that are far less safe for women, Willke had a similar line of logic: "[T]his time around, illegal abortions will be considerably safer than they were," Willke said. “People who do them have had a great deal of experience.” 

So, in case you didn't catch that: Because the U.S., at one point in time, decided to legalize abortion and bring it out of the shadows, we now have a cadre of doctors who are able to perform abortions safely. If we criminalize it—that is, get rid of the law that allowed this benefit to accrue—we will still have highly trained professionals working in those alleys, professionals who gained their expertise because of this (bad) law. But, don't worry, this time around, our women won't die because of the benefits of this terrible, terrible Supreme Court decision that we must now get rid of.

Once upon a time, the people we came to know as neo-conservatives rebelled against the New Deal state by questioning the efficacy of government-led reform and regulation, and pointing out, correctly, that sometimes, government intervention didn't work, or fixed one problem only to create another. It is the thing we came to know as "unintended consequences." But that quickly morphed into a wholesale rejection of the government's ability to hit the target, let alone the bull's eye, on anything.

What we're seeing now, is something else altogether. Logic like Grassley's, Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, "is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” But it's also a strange, grudging acknowledgment, one buried under piles of mind-melting anti-logic, that sometimes, government is not an evil, bumbling fool. Sometimes, it can protect minorities and make your air a little cleaner and keep you from dying on a kitchen table simply by acknowledging and allowing for certain gynecologic realities. The umbrellas it makes are imperfect, but they still work, which is not a reason to throw them away.