Freedom vs. Regulation?

Those two words standing in opposition have become common, accepted wisdom in mainstream American culture. We seemingly can only have one or the other. We can be free or we can be regulated.


Now that was freeing.

I’m a child of the decreased regulation era. Born a year before Reagan’s election, my life has been an experiment in whether reducing regulations on everything from trade to the banks to the environment would truly make us freer as a people.

At 32, I’m not sure I feel particularly free.

Comparatively, of course, I’m freer than many — likely most. But I’m not comfortable being able to glance over my shoulder and feel glad I’m not one of those people with less freedom. I dislike the “not as bad as” arguments; they’re cowardly and lazy. I prefer to be grateful for what I do have without complacency. Why shouldn’t we continually reach for more?

Freedom, like so many things, is relative and based on perspective. How free we should be is shaping up to be a central component to the elections in November. It’s unfortunate that there likely will be little discussion of how reducing some freedoms can make us freer as a society.

One glaring example is the housing collapse. Failing to regulate the big banks and their wagers on poorly devised loans has freed millions of Americans from the burdens of home ownership.

The loss of the manufacturing industry stands out as well. Freeing companies from pesky tariffs and tax regulations has freed millions of Americans of the standard of living provided by stable jobs.

Koch Industries would like to thank us for freeing them from a plethora of regulations over the years. Actually, they really only thank the elected officials who’s campaigns they fund, but I’m sure somewhere in their tiny hearts Charles and David Koch have some gratitude set aside for us. After all, we’re breathing their sooty air and the Midwest is soon to be drinking their oily water thanks to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

On a personal level, I have several things I’d like to be free from in order to have more actual freedom. I would be overjoyed to never at any point have to worry about the following affecting me or anyone else:

Gun violence





Student debt



Poisoned air/water/soil

Contaminated food

Low wages

Lack of benefits

General insecurity


Exhaustive work schedule


And those are just the big ticket items.

What about the freedom to move? Many Americans are stuck geographically because travel is expensive, they can’t change jobs without losing benefits and retraining for employment in a new field is financially out of reach.

What about the freedom to choose providers? In Vermont as in Europe, monopolies on phone, internet, cable, wireless, gas and electric services are unheard of or downright illegal. In much of Europe, internet is much faster and much cheaper thanks to regulation. No one there has a $100 cell phone bill – the norm for anyone needing a decent data plan in the U.S.

The list could become exhaustive. Regulation and government intervention play vital roles in determining the rules that make our markets fair and our daily lives livable. And, it turns out, quality of life is not their only benefit.

Regulations also play a hand in creating entire new industries. Safety standards for cars created a need for the manufacture and sale of seat belts and air bags. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act signed by President Nixon in the 1970’s created a need for better water filtration plants and engineers as well as innovations in energy.

Enough with the “industry killing regulations” line. It’s, well, bullshit. We are past the time to end the experiment, dial it back to Nixon’s era and implement some regulation.

I must say, getting that off my chest has been rather freeing.

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Categories: Finding My Voice

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2 replies

  1. Great article yet again. A lesson to take the broad view.

    One of my university professors put it this way: regulations limit the freedom of some people, but increase the freedom of others.

    For instance: a nurse’s freedom is limited in that she has to get certified in order to work, but that frees her patients to seek help because they can feel confident that she’s met the criteria required to give them quality care.

  2. Katie: Another great column! Keep ’em coming…

    Uncle Steve

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