New Year's Revolutions

New Year's Revolutions

December 31, 1995

Organizations, like individuals, periodically need to step back from the press of business, the rush of events, and look at the big picture. For many people, the holiday season, culminating in New Year's resolutions, is a time for such reflection.

Examining CEI in this spirit, I see an organization with clear principles (limited government, competition, individual liberty), a specific modus operandi (integrated "issue management" combining analysis, education, coalition building, advocacy, and litigation), and a distinctive mission (developing and marketing the case for freedom in precisely those policy spheres where statist thinking still prevails).

But what about CEI's policy reform objectives? Which are most central to CEI's principles and mission? Herewith a quick sketch of three New Year's Revolutions we are plotting in 1996.

1. Property Rights Protection. The Fifth Amendment states unambiguously, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Yet during the past two decades, federal regulators, acting in the name of endangered species, wetlands, and other environmental concerns, have routinely denied landowners the reasonable use of their property and offered (in most cases) no compensation for the financial losses incurred.

At a minimum, regulators should be compelled to compensate the victims of bureaucratic land grabs. Better still, federal land-use controls should be scrapped in favor of voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs.

2. Regulatory Accountability. Congress has delegated to Executive agencies the power to enact regulations. This constitutionally dubious practice undergirds the regulatory state. Delegation allows lawmakers to pass vague regulatory statutes and leave the implementation dirty work to anonymous civil servants. Individual legislators can claim credit for the ostensive benefits of regulatory programs while blaming unelected bureaucrats for the associated costs and abuses. Indeed, the more punitive the regulatory system, the more opportunities for legislators to intercede on behalf of aggrieved "constituents"--a proven fund-raising technique.

Congress should have to approve agency rules before they go into effect. Similarly, all existing regulations should be sunsetted and periodically expire unless reauthorized by a recorded vote. Citizens could then punish elected officials at the ballot box for increasing (or failing to decrease) regulatory burdens, just as they can now punish them for increasing (or failing to decrease) tax and spending burdens.

3. Consumer Choice. Federal "consumer protection" agencies impose mandatory standards on products ranging from children's toys to construction ladders to medical drugs. These rules restrict the range of goods available to consumers. However, many people believe such standards are essential to assuring consumer safety.

It is possible to retain the benefits, real or imagined, of government standards while still expanding consumer choice. Simply change the veto power of federal agencies (their power to ban nonconforming products) into a "certification" power. Instead of being banned outright, products that do not meet federal standards would be available with clear warning of that fact. Persons who trust the standards could continue to use only government-approved products, while others would be free to choose unapproved products. (In the case of unapproved medical drugs, a doctor's supervision might also be required.) In this way, government standards could no longer be imposed by fiat; instead, they would have to earn their credibility in the marketplace.

The first and third reforms would reduce dramatically the coercive power of the bureaucratic establishment. The second reform would return political power from Washington to the states and the people. Policy makers in search of a reform agenda in the "post-Contract with America" period are cheerfully invited to make CEI's New Year's Revolutions their own.