Four decades ago, the United States began a dramatic change in domestic policy, repealing swaths of economic regulation and abolishing whole agencies charged with managing sectors of the U.S. economy.
If you mention this “deregulation” today, most people think it refers to wild Reagan administration efforts to undo environmental, health, and safety protections. In fact, the deregulation movement predated Ronald Reagan’s presidency, had broad bipartisan support, and had little to do with health, safety, or environmental policy. Rather, deregulation targeted regulations that directed business operations in different sectors of the American economy: which airlines could service which routes, what railroads could charge what amounts for their services, how telephone service would be billed and what technologies would be used, how the power industry was organized, and much more.
For decades, policy researchers had compiled evidence that those regulations harmed consumers and stunted economic growth by suppressing competition and innovation. With America mired in the stagflation of the 1970s, policymakers decided to stop sheltering (some) U.S. businesses from the demands of consumers and the competition of upstart and foreign rivals.
That policy change now seems obviously virtuous, but at the time some commentators predicted it would unleash mayhem and disaster: a crippled economy, spiraling prices, “ruinous” competition, frightened consumers, plane crashes, hobbled communications, and other horribles. Fortunately, those frightful predictions did not obstruct reform. Today, the 1970s–1990s deregulations are broadly recognized as having yielded great benefits to consumers and contributed to the two decades of American prosperity that ended the 20th century. (For more on deregulation, see the spring issue of Regulation, celebrating the magazine’s 40th anniversary.)
Which brings us to current criticisms of Trump administration efforts to launch a new wave of deregulation. Like yesteryear, the critics are predicting mayhem and disaster. But their arguments aren’t convincing.
Consider, for instance, Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman’s warning that “Trump’s ‘Libertarianism’ Endangers the Public.” (Credit Koppelman for using scare quotes to indicate that President Trump isn’t a libertarian.) Specifically, he worries about Trump’s recent order on regulation, which instructs agencies to (temporarily) keep the nation’s aggregate cost of regulatory compliance at its current level and to repeal two regulations for every new one adopted.