Examiner Editorial: The ‘soft despotism’ of regulation imposes high costs on Americans

Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the classic Democracy in America, were born in different times and places. But the French aristocrat and American think tanker have the measure of the federal behemoth in the age of Obama. Writing in 1835, Tocqueville eloquently predicted how it would function, while Crews today supplies in his annual compilation of federal rules and regulations, “10,000 Commandments,” the hard numbers that describe the behemoth's contemporary reach and costs.

It is always worthwhile to revisit de Tocqueville’s description of what he called the “soft despotism” of an America ruled by a bureaucratic master:

"Such a power does not destroy…it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people."

    After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

    The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Crews’ new edition will appear later this month, but some of the new data is available now. Federal departments and agencies, for example, issued 3,659 “final” rules in 2013 and an additional 2,594 “proposed” rules. As a result, there were 26,417 pages of new regulations published in the Federal Register in 2013, a new record. The total of all pages published by the Federal Register in 2013 came to 79,311, the fourth highest ever recorded.

Four of the top five years have come during President Obama's tenure in the Oval Office, with the fifth being the final one under President George W. Bush. Five departments — Treasury, Commerce, Interior, Health and Human Services, Transportation — plus the Environmental Protection Agency accounted for 49.3 percent of all the new regulations issued in 2013.

Compliance with all of those rules and regulations comes at an immense cost, estimated by Crews at $1.9 trillion annually. That comes to more than $14,000 for every American household in higher prices for everything from eggs and entertainment to medicine and mousetraps. Compliance costs also fall disproportionately on job-creating small businesses, according to Crews. Businesses with fewer than 20 employees pay an average of $10,585 per employee, compared to $7,755 for companies with 500 or more employees.

With the U.S. economy now in the fifth year of its most sluggish recovery ever, de Tocqueville’s prophecy of a bureaucracy that “compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies” is being fulfilled as never before.