What Does It Mean that the Public Overwhelmingly Supports Specific Types of Regulation, But Questions 'Regulation' in General?

Sidney Shapiro

Feb. 28, 2012

A new Pew public opinion poll published last week shows substantial public support for specific types of regulation, but skepticism about regulation in general. While 70-89% of the public would either expand or keep current levels of five specific types of regulation, 52% say government regulation of business usually does more harm than good as compared to 40% who think regulating business is necessary to protect the public interest. The five types of regulation were car safety and efficiency, environmental protection, food protection and packaging, prescription drugs, and workplace safety and health. These poll results generally echo previous polling, including an earlier poll by Pew.

It may be, as cynics are likely to point out, you can’t underestimate the power of the American people to hold two contradictory ideas at once. Perhaps, but the polling results do offer insight into how the public thinks about regulation.

For one thing, there is little enthusiasm for the radical cutbacks in regulation that many conservative seem to favor. The proportion of people saying that they favored reducing regulation was as follows: car safety and efficiency (9%), environmental protection (17%), food protection and packaging (7%), prescription drugs (20%), and workplace safety and health (10%). Moreover, the public generally leans toward strengthening regulation as opposed to keeping current levels, as the following comparisons indicate: car safety and efficiency (45% strengthen – 42% keep same); environmental protection (50-29%), food protection and packaging (53-36%), prescription drugs (39-33%), and workplace safety and health (41-45%).

It is notable that, despite the constant and unrelenting attacks on EPA by conservatives, the public still overwhelming supports strengthening environmental protection. By comparison, it is disappointing that there is not the same interest in strengthening workplace safety and health. Since OSHA has long struggled to fulfill its statutory mandate to keep workers healthy and safe, as a CPR White Paper documents and our blog posts discuss, it is puzzling (and disappointing) that the public has not recognized the need for additional regulation. Workplaces today are far safer today than they were decades ago, thanks in significant part to government action – but when literally thousands still die on the job every year in preventable deaths, our government has more work to do.

The discrepancy with workplace safety polling may be explained by the fact that most Americans are employed in workplaces that are not particularly risky. By comparison, all of us are threatened by inadequate environmental protection and food safety. Some workers, however, risk their lives and their health going to work, a situation that is intolerable because these risks can be reduced by better regulation in many cases. Another explanation is that there are many national and local environmental organizations that rebut attacks on EPA. Workplace health and safety lacks the same level of support, although labor unions and a number of organizations do the best they can to press for a strong and effective OSHA.  

Given the strong support for specific areas of regulation, why does a majority of the public (by 52% to 40%) believe that ‘regulation’ in the un-specific sense does more harm than good? This may reflect Americans’ skepticism about the efficacy of government, a seemingly intractable element of the nation’s political culture. Politicians know that criticizing the bureaucracy is a sure crowd pleaser. Only when the public is asked about specific areas of regulation do they recognize the government has had considerable success in making cars, food, drugs, and workplaces safer and the environment cleaner, although we still have a ways to go in all of these areas.

Skepticism about government regulation may also reflect Americans’ weak sense of positive liberty.  Many Americans assume that government inhibits freedom, while private, unregulated markets maximize it. The opponents of regulation have spent millions of dollars encouraging this belief. Yet, government can expand liberty as well as contract it. If someone dies prematurely from unsafe food, for example, that person’s freedom has been limited, not enhanced, by the failure to regulate. Unfortunately, progressives have not been as successful in pointing out this reality as has conservatives in creating the myth that government mostly reduces freedom.

Given the frequent popular aversion regulation in the abstract, President Obama and other Democrats will likely continue to be cautious about supporting government regulation more enthusiastically. This unfortunately creates a catch-22. Until progressives educate the public that government regulation works and more needs to be done, it is unlikely that future polling will have much different results than the most recent poll.

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