The Unbearable Lightness of Regulatory Costs

Will unbearable regulatory costs ruin the US economy? This specter haunts official Washington, just as fears of communism once did. Once again, the prevailing rhetoric suggests, an implacable enemy of free enterprise puts our prosperity at risk. Like anti-communism in its heyday, anti-command-and-control-ism serves to narrow debate, promoting the unregulated laissez-faire economy as the sole acceptable goal and standard for public policy. Fears of the purported costs of regulation have been used to justify a sweeping reorganization of regulatory practice, in which the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is empowered to, and often enough does, reject regulations from other agencies on the basis of intricate, conjectural, economic calculations. This article argues for a different perspective: what is remarkable about regulatory costs is not their heavy economic burden, but rather their lightness. Section 1 identifies two general reasons to doubt that there is a significant trade-off between prosperity and regulation: first, regulatory costs are frequently too small to matter; and second, even when the costs are larger, reducing them would not always improve economic outcomes. The next three sections examine evidence on the size and impact of regulatory costs. Section 2 presents cost estimates for a particularly ambitious and demanding environmental regulation, REACH -- the European Union's new chemicals policy. Section 3 discusses academic research on the "pollution haven" hypothesis, i.e. the assertion that firms move to developing countries in search of looser environmental regulations. Section 4 reviews the literature on ex ante overestimation of regulatory costs, including the recent claims by OMB that costs are more often underestimated (and/or benefits overestimated) in advance. Turning to the economic context, Section 5 explains why macroeconomic constraints may eliminate any anticipated economic gains from deregulation. Section 6 introduces a further economic argument against welfare gains from deregulation, based on the surprising evidence that unemployment decreases mortality. Section 7 briefly concludes.

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 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2017-04-04

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