A series of catastrophic regulatory failures in recent years has focused attention on the weakened condition of regulatory agencies assigned to protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. The failures are the product of a destructive convergence of funding shortfalls, political attacks, and outmoded legal authority, setting the stage for ineffective enforcement and unsupervised industry self-regulation. From the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed eleven and caused grave environmental and economic damage, to the worst mining disaster in 40 years at the Big Branch mine in West Virginia with a death toll of 29, the signs of regulatory dysfunction abound. Peanut paste tainted by salmonella, lead-paint-coated toys, sulfur-infused Chinese dry wall, oil refinery explosions, degraded pipes at U.S. nuclear power plants: At the bottom of each well-publicized event is an agency unable to do its job and a company that could not be relied upon to put the public interest first.
Although everyone should be able to agree that these events are intolerable to the extent they are preventable, thoughtful analysis is too often sidetracked by the nation’s polarized debate over the role of government in our daily lives. Conservative commentators argue that accidents like the Gulf spill are the inevitable byproducts of industrialization, daunting in the best of times but having little to do with government failure. They say that over-regulation is a far more serious problem than under-regulation because bureaucrats run-amok are hobbling the country’s long-delayed recovery from a devastating world-wide recession. Progressive commentators respond that one of the government’s most important jobs is to prevent industry from trading safety for profit, by compelling manufacturers to install redundant, fail-safe mechanisms to protect public health and the environment. Spills, explosions, unchecked carbon emissions, tainted drugs, and unhealthy air pollution represent chronic failures by government to forbid conduct that lies in the mainstream of business as usual.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama seemed to subscribe to the progressive view, declaring that the role of government is to help people when they cannot help themselves and raising the strong expectation that he would sponsor affirmative reform to prevent the damage produced by the sharper edges of a capitalist economy.