In my house, there is a book titled “The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible” by Otto L. Bettman. Its cheeky title operates as a critique of American nostalgia, a message which permeates its historical anecdotes and analysis. It portrays America at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the tail-end of our most laissez faire era. This was a time when a summer trip to the seaside meant being careful to avoid the tops of rusty tin cans and every meal involved “mystery meat” regardless of what it said on the packaging. Sewage flowed freely in the streets, spreading disease through entire cities.
Now when I buy food at the Co-Op, I know that my odds of getting food poisoning as a fault of the butcher are minimal. Likewise, when I prepare a cup of coffee using water from the drinking fountain, my risk of cholera is minimal. The set of risks in my life as an American is profoundly different from what it would have been a century ago, and I don’t think this shift came from an instantaneous collective realization resulting in the entire country becoming more courteous. Instead, deliberate regulation set up organizations like the Food and Drug Administration or implemented water sanitation systems, providing America with the hidden courtesies which make life today livable. These reforms have lasted so long that it seems we have forgotten they are even there, as becomes apparent whenever a column from the Wall Street Journal describes how Reaganomic deregulation saved America, or when numerous conservative economists argue that the Food and Drug Administration is predominantly responsible for our medications being so expensive relative to the rest of the world.
However, these historical changes are not up for debate. Regardless of varying opinions on modern regulation, the record shows that when these changes occurred, they did not change because of the charity of business interests, and that people overall were happier once their drinking water ran clean. So given that life now is significantly improved, and given that this shift occurred because of the collective choice of the governed to have the government regulate the actions of individuals, where did our modern fear of regulation come from?
It seems to me that we have even more reason to attempt to limit behavior now. We have seen the results of an uncontrolled financial sector in our collapsed economy, but even though Dodd-Frank pales in strength compared to the Glass-Steagall legislation, which allowed us to avoid a complete collapse for nearly 70 years, Forbes still describes it as a “direct assault on the notion that government must have defined limits.”
Even worse, we have the Supreme Court claiming that regulations on what non-citizen, non-human corporate entities can spend on influencing the political sphere are violations of the freedom of speech, delegitimizing American elections. Finally, despite the fact that climate change threatens the very structure of our society, potentially wiping out whole swaths of the coast, we refuse to take even the basic confidence-building measures set out in the Kyoto accords. So long as we neglect to regulate the actions of businesses and individuals, there is no way that we can collectively accomplish even the confidence-building, bare-minimum goal of cutting our carbon emissions in half.
The fear, it seems, arises from our anxiety that if we start regulating things, we will never stop. Big Government is a slur now, a that which represents the loss of individual agency and the loss of what it fundamentally means to be an American. Of course, this is a fairly modern view, arising from the Reagan era fear of government oversight. In the past, we saw regulation on vehicle mileage, and it seems we still are able to drive cars. We saw controls on food and drink, mentioned earlier, and we now can catch an outbreak of salmonella before it does too much damage. These fears about regulation are not unfounded, but now that we as a country have both lived with and without them, we can draw a clear historical picture of what life looks like in both cases.
America is now making essential decisions about the role of government. We know how much of a burden of climate change we will force future generations to carry, whether or not corporations will have more power in the political arena than citizens and whether or not financial conglomerates will get to gamble with American jobs. These choices are not abstract ideals; they are choices about whether we are willing to regulate our worst impulses in order to bring out our best behaviors.