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VIDEO: You've Come a Long Way, Regulatory Reform

Our friends at the American Enterprise Institute are doing a great job leveraging their many decades of experience in Washington, D.C. Recently they’ve been raiding their archives and posting a series of TV programs the organization produced going back to the 1970s, long before the era of viral videos and streaming digital content. If you can avoid getting distracted by the stagflation-era graphics and wardrobe, these mostly-forgotten productions provide an excellent education on the history of many of today’s top political issues. 

From the YouTube description:

This AEI Public Policy Forum deals with the growth of government regulation, which has stimulated increasing debate in recent years in academic, political, and public policy circles. The issues discussed here range from the practical implementation of given policy objectives to the philosophical basis on which these objectives are decided. Some argue that to improve regulatory activities, a total reassessment of government’s role in the private economy is required. Others maintain that past shortcomings result from poorly coordinated government policies. Thus, future policies turn on a consideration of economic incentives and other means of attaining regulatory goals and on a rational assessment of the costs and benefits of each regulatory activity.

The 1970s were a time of major ferment when it came to the role of government regulation in American society. As the anchor in the video above tells us, Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 presidential campaign included a pledge to reform regulatory burdens, both to stimulate economic growth and to seek a new balance between government authority and private action in general.

And the Carter team delivered. Ronald Reagan may get the mainstream credit for cutting taxes and regulation in the 1980s, but even before he was sworn in in January of 1981, we saw major deregulatory moves, especially involving the rail and airline industries. As my colleagues Fred Smith and Marc Scribner wrote in 2015, the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 “largely liberalized the rail industry.” In their study “Reviving Capitalism: Lessons from the Near-Death and Rebirth of American Railroads,” they write:

It gave railroads broad economic freedom, the right to price their products competitively, to meet trucker and barge competition, and to offer higher quality service. “Just-in-time” shipping services were one result, allowing railroads to regain traffic long lost.

[...]

The Staggers Act’s most significant reform elements relieved railroads from the burdens that had weakened their ability to compete with other transport modes for over 40 years. Rigid rate regulation had greatly distorted railroad operations, leading to anemic productivity growth and a generally moribund industry climate.

Scholars connected with AEI, of course, were a big part of that progress—including John W. Snow, President Ford’s appointee to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and later an AEI scholar.

I hope the public policy videos of 2061 are at least as interesting. See more from the AEI archives on welfare, Watergate, and affirmative action here.