Laws Versus Regulations

 Posted by on 15 March 2009 at 11:01 pm  Law
Mar 152009

I’m looking for a good source to help clarify the distinction between ordinary laws and regulations. Any suggestions? A relatively short online essay would be most helpful.

Here’s why I’m asking: On Saturday, I attempted to argue against any and all regulations, on the grounds that ordinary laws would be sufficient to protect individual rights. I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, as I felt like I had muddied the issue somehow. Then yesterday I was asked about the issue in e-mail, so I said the following — tentatively:

Laws might be good (insofar as they protect rights) or bad (insofar as they violate rights). The same could be said of regulations. However, due to their different origins, regulations are dangerous to liberty, I think. How so? In essence, laws are a product of the legislative process, whereas regulations are a product of agencies of the executive branch.

Laws must be passed by our representatives: we can review the legislation, ask that they vote one way rather than another, and hold them accountable for their votes. This process is imperfect, particularly today. Yet we still find some measure of openness and accountability in it.

In contrast, regulations are passed by government bureaucrats in agencies answerable to the president. These bureaucrats may or may not court public opinion; they may have a narrow partisan agenda; they may not give a damn about public opinion. These agencies are likely to be ruled by special interests at the expense of the rest of us — for the kinds of reasons that Milton Friedman observes in Free to Choose. In particular, the special interests stand to gain much by making the regulations in their favor, while each citizen (or resident) will only lose a bit. Consequently, regulations are very likely to violate rights in all kinds of horrible ways — just as we see today.

In other words, regulations come to be when the legislative branch illegitimately cedes its power of making law to the executive branch. It’s a dangerous violation of the separation of powers — and an evasion of legislative responsibility. And the result is reams and reams of unknowable and often contradictory government edicts.

Is that basically right — or am I totally confused? Also, as I mentioned at the outset, I am interested in any good sources on this issue of laws versus regulations.

Oh, and I should mention that I didn’t cite Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose because I’m a fan of the book. I’m not. However, Friedman’s discussion of some of the tendencies of regulatory agencies is reasonably good, and I know that the other person has read it.

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