Monday, October 13, 2014

Monday Forum – the creeping cancer of social regulation

In an exchange on Carmen, cant and the State Opera of Western Australia, John Stitch wrote:

“So now its art according to what Ms Chard sees as appropriate? Let's hope she doesn't get to wield the censor's scissors on a national scale. The "I know what's best for you" mentality seems to be thriving in the arts as we lurch further to the right in this country. Just ask Paul Yore or Bill Henson.

In response, DG observed:

"...lurch further to the right". Hardly. The public health hierarchy is a creature of the left. The government knows what's best for you.

On the same day DG was writing, Kirsty Needham had this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Child protection checks evict grandfathers, foster fathers pointing to the difficulties being created in NSW by the tough new child protection laws introduced by the Liberal-National Coalition Government. The article begins:

Foster fathers and grandfathers are being barred from living with children for whom they are the primary carers after undergoing tough new child protection checks.

The Administrative Tribunal has been flooded with appeals against bans issued by the Office of the Children's Guardian under strict laws introduced last year.

Six out of 10 cases decided by the tribunal in the past six weeks were found in favour of men who had been forced out of the family home or prevented from working after failing a check.

On the surface, this would seem to be another example of the mess created in NSW under Governments of both political persuasions through over-zealous child protection laws. Consider the earlier example where the introduction of mandatory reporting brought an over-stretched NSW child protection system to its knees.

It seems to me that in every aspect of life we have created a social cancer that in the name of protection, standards, risk minimisation or harm reduction controls and limits what people can do to the point that no-one can actually properly understand all the applicable rules and regulations. Just as bad, there seems to be little evidence that the approach delivers real benefits relative to the direct and indirect costs involved.

There is a broad consensus that economic regulation should be reduced, although here too we introduce new controls as fast as we reduce existing controls. However, there is no consensus so far as social regulation is concerned. 

So, for this Monday Forum, a few questions. Am I right in my interpretation of all this as a social cancer? If so, how did it arise and what do we do about it? 


This ACT example, Canberra cat containment could be extended city-wide, is another example of the process that I have been taking about. We have a problem, the damage done by feral cats, and a response, more costs and controls on cat owners.


Evan said...

The roots go deep in Western (esp. post-Enlightenment) culture.

Notions of the conscious mind controlling self and world, valuing the controlling of the world through reducing complexity to rules and regularity.

One need is a new social-ecological view of the person. That we are not only individuals but also related (more a case of we are our relationships than relationships being something we have).

There are other ways to organise than the bureaucratic. Not entirely un-regulated but with ranges of action specified.

I find this a hugely stimulating topic - very much looking forward to seeing what others have to say.

Evan said...

I like kvd's biological approach.

What is our social immune system and how does the cancer trick it? I guess the cancer gets past the legal system because it mimics its way of life (?)

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, you caught my meaning rather nicely.

To your analysis, I would add this. At a time of tight budgets, enforcement of controls where the costs are borne by others actually becomes the only game in town.

What to do about it, recognising that the proliferation of cells is now so widespread that it is hard to specifically identify many of them or to attract attention to them. Further, they are wrapped up in language designed to garner support and make any form of sensible analysis very difficult.

You won't get reform out of the bureaucracy for it is now so deeply enmeshed in its strategies, indicators, risk strategies and centralised systems that it can barely move as it is.

Reform probably has to start at political level and especially with ministers. A minister can pull his Department up. But ministers, too, are deeply enmeshed in the current system.

Those, the Libertarians come to mind, who do argue against ever extending social regulation do so on ideological grounds. Those who argue against particular measures also tend to do so on ideological or value grounds. They are quite happy to argue opposite positions on particular measures on the same grounds.

If you look at the analysis that is around on the cost of regulation, it seems to be all about economic measures. We need to free our economy up. There is very little analysis of the overhead costs associated with social regulation.

I will continue this comment a little later tonight looking at suggested actions.

Winton Bates said...

Jim, I think your heart tells you that you should be a libertarian even while your head tells you that you are a populist.

Jim Belshaw said...

Not really, Winton. Two of the principles articulated by Drummond in his 1926 writing were that the majority would always oppress the minority,and that every law had a cost to someone. Those principles help form my views.

Winton Bates said...

Those views are shared by libertarians.

Jim Belshaw said...

Accept that, Winton, and that gives some of my writing an increasingly libertarian flavour.

I think that I would define the difference in this way. A libertarian starts with a pre-supposition against Government action, whereas the New England populist school would regard the oppression of the majority, the costs of law as constraints.

All political views contain tensions and inconsistencies. For example, I think that you are a libertarian in a general sense, but some of your arguments such as those on accountability do (to my mind) contain a majoritarian flavour. I am sure that you can point to the same type of inconsistencies in my views!

Anonymous said...

If I could make one further tentative observation:

A lot (the majority?) of rules (and regulations and even whole departments) are put in place to manage problems, not to permanently solve them. I think that is one source of frustration.

Whereas Jim's initial commentary is about the cost/benefit analysis of even trying (to manage or solve) in the first place. This is a quite different source of frustration to the above.


Jim Belshaw said...

I said that I would return with comments on suggested actions. My thinking here is quite muddy.

kvd suggested sunset clauses in legislation and regulation, although he pointed to the difficulties involved.

Governments have tried to insert requirements for regulatory impact statements in Cabinet Submissions or Minutes. The Productivity Commission has had a red tape review role. Most Government policies now have some form of of evaluation built into them.

Despite all this, the problem grows. A key difficulty is that we are trying to use regulation and rules to control regulations and rules. That doesn't work very well. We actually have to stop doing things.

The NSW Treasury is trying to enforce a benefit cost approach. While I can see advantages in this, the Treasury's focus on controlling spend distorts, while Treasury officials are as much caught up in the current mind-trap as anyone else. They dictate their own orthodoxies.

As I write, a comment from kvd has just come up. I will pause here to respond.

Anonymous said...

I was actually thinking of the pool fence issue which has been raised here before.

1. Some children drown in backyard pools.

2. To lower (i.e. manage) the incidence of this we bring in regulations regarding fencing.

3. Some children will still drown, but at a reduced rate. (i.e. the problem is not actually solved)

4. Jim seems to say that the resulting edifice of community responsibility, regulation, and inspection regime is not actually worth the cost - and I tend to agree.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the comments, kvd. Both present important issues. Before responding or amplifying my own arguments,I think that I will leave it to see if we get more comments.

Winton Bates said...

Perhaps they need more control of the fat cats.
Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

Jim Belshaw said...

But they are all in doors or in runs, Winton, courtesy of the ACT Government.

Fat cats. That does take me back. Is the term still used?

Winton Bates said...

I wonder whether the term is still used. It dates from a time when public service executives were paid much less than at present.

Winton Bates said...

I see that the Canberra Times applies the term "fat cats" to CEOs of private firms:

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting. Winton, re public service pay. I wonder if its true.

I only ever heard the time applied to the top public servants. The SES weren't badly paid.

Anonymous said...

Jim, in the absence of any further comment, I thought the following:

What drives civil servants? Which goals do they pursue? What distinguishes Government
agencies and private firms?

- was interesting. I stumbled on it while reading about our latest economics Nobel winner.

Quote above taken from this PDF


Anonymous said...

Perhaps I should add the reference for the interesting post which got me there:

He seems to have been a very bust fellow for a very long time.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good afternoon, kvd. My thanks for the links.

Jean Tirole has indeed been a very busy man. That post on Marginal Revolution is very good.

I found your first link, the one that started your comment, complicated. While I agreed with points, I felt that it presented approaches in a way that was (in fact) part of the problem I have been trying to attack.

I need to think further before responding more sensibly.