September 7, 2012 9:34AM

Unregulated Is Not Unconstrained

The forces that constrain behavior are manifold—moral, physical, financial, reputational, and so on. Formally, the word “regulate,” with its roots in the Latin regulare (“to control by rule, direct”), refers to only one kind of constraint: the governmental kind (or at least some kind of authority). Yet when one calls something “unregulated,” that often seems to imply that it can act on whim, launching itself in any direction it likes. Not so.

Foreign Affairs has a capsule review of a book on non‐​governmental organizations that relies on the distinction between other constraints and government regulation. The review describes the factors that arguably cause international NGOs to behave well, even though they are “not regulated.”

NGOs are extremely sensitive to criticism and to the fact that their authority flows from a reputation for fairness and integrity. Chapters explore NGOs in areas such as child labor, elections, and human rights, identifying the ways these groups have strengthened their credibility by increasing their own transparency, professionalizing their staffs, and integrating themselves into the wider community of NGOs, which informally commits them to shared standards of conduct. And although NGOs are not regulated, this book makes clear that they are disciplined by the complex donor‐​client environment in which they operate.

My sense is that the word “regulate” is migrating from its origin in referring to formal and governmental rules to a more general sense of any constraint. (I’m dubious of the move in the opposite direction, which would treat any constraint as governmental.) Until it completes that journey, if you find yourself talking about regulation—and especially if you use the word “unregulated”—it would be helpful to bracket that word by describing which kind of constraint you are talking about. Unregulated is not unconstrained.