This month, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made a serious and necessary concession. In delivering the welcoming address for the Bipartisan Policy Center, he conceded that, generally speaking, there is too much government regulation.
Landrieu specifically cited New Orleans historic preservation law, which often inhibits the renovation of historic properties. As I noted in a previous column, it is a sad fact of owning a home in New Orleans that ignoring the Historic District Landmarks Commission is typically easier than working with them.
Incidentally, this past week a story began making the news circuit about a ruling earlier this year by the European Union. Two German professors, Dr. Moritz Hagenmeyer and Dr. Andreas Hahn, had applied for approval of the entirely uncontroversial claim that “regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration.”
Shockingly, the EU panel rejected the claim as misleading. European Commission President Jose Manuel Berroso signed the resulting order, implying that water cannot be sold with the claim that it prevents dehydration.
The EU’s order illustrates the problem with overreaching, knee-jerk, irrational regulation perfectly. Apparently, the panel had justified its decision by citing the truism that man does not live by water alone. Even the process of hydration, they reasoned, required the consumption of certain minerals not necessarily present in water.
One imagines the members of the EU panel as snotty 5-year-olds, keeping their fingers a bare traction of an inch from their sisters’ cheeks. “Stop touching me,” says the sister. “I’m not touching you,” says the snotty younger brother.
Exploiting minor technicalities is a favorite tactic of over-regulators. I’m sure there are those who would argue with Landrieu over his dislike of certain excesses in historic preservation law, but their arguments would necessarily have to ignore practical reality in favor of some perfect world scenario where every project is financed and all municipal agencies are reasonable and competent.
However, if even a Democrat like Landrieu can admit that we are the collective victims of excessive laws and regulations, one wonders exactly why we continue to be so afflicted.
The answer, alas, is an institutional one. The sad reality is that legislators don’t make names for themselves by opposing new laws; they do so by spearheading legislation, often in response to some transient matter of public concern — a legislative fad, if you will. Overturning outdated laws doesn’t engender the same notoriety. That said, some laws are so oppressive and/or outdated that the public doesn’t want them enforced. Thus, just because the Spinster’s Sewing League successfully fought and won a battle against the sale of ice cream on Sundays (an undeniable threat to public health end morals) back in the 1890’s, doesn’t mean we want police raids of Creole Creamery today.
The New Orleans City Code is no stranger to old, unenforced laws. The biggest offender is the Bicycle Code, which apparently mistook a Schwinn Cruiser for a Ford Econoline. Technically, bikes in the Big Easy are required to be registered with the city and have a registration plate affixed (they look like miniature license plates – I’ve seen one, once). Bikes are also required to have headlamps and bells or horns, and are subject to inspection for necessary equipment at the time of registration.
Of course, nobody follows these requirements, and no bikes lacking a registration plate wind up ticketed. The safety valve in the machinery of government is the wink-and-a-nod of sloth and inaction.
Though effective, this is a crude way of dealing with over-regulation. The laws are still on the books and available to police and prosecutors alike. We’re rapidly reaching a point where all you need is a prosecutor with a certain state of mind to put you in a world of trouble, regardless of what you’ve done.
Landrieu’s admission that government regulation is beyond the tipping point is a good start, but much more effort is needed to slay the leviathan of regulation we’ve created. Otherwise, we’ll eventually go the way of Europe, banning companies from saying that water is wet.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.