Jobs and Regulation

We need to have a serious discussion of the argument that regulations designed to protect people from injury should be limited because regulation will cost jobs. Injuries come in many shapes. Global warming will hurt us all – is already doing great damage in drought, flooding and pestilence. Other products are poisoning people as well as the environment. Still others threaten direct physical injury. To which the common retort is jobs.

The website of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce includes this: “the U.S. Chamber will continue to oppose bad policies … such as bills that jeopardize American jobs ….” And indeed the argument that regulation designed to protect society from dangerous products or from poisoning the environment we all depend on is a constant objection. So the battle rages regulation or jobs.

Jobs are important. I’ve used this commentary repeatedly to urge job stimulating policies. But how we protect and stimulate jobs matters. Here are some options:

We could skip the regulation. And pay for the damage done by the unregulated industries in less visible but still significant ways – in illness, hospital and other health costs, in dislocation caused by environmental damage to coastlines, droughts, or drinking water.

We could regulate and lose the jobs and pay for those via unemployment compensation, retraining and other worker directed programs.

We could invest in newer, safer technologies and assist industry movement in that direction with tax advantages or direct public investment, just as we invested in sewage systems, water supplies and fire companies.

We could allow some industries to disappear and replace their productive capacity with other kinds of productive investments, both private investment in more socially desirable products, and public investment to keep the US on the cutting edge of development – or to get the US back to the cutting edge in areas where we have fallen behind.

One simple reaction is that there is no free lunch. The bill will be paid. Consumers, people in the affected areas, workers, government and taxpayers, someone will have to pay the price for dealing with harmful behavior.

There is a moral issue. Jobs can’t always justify harmful behavior. If they could, it would justify Barbary or Somali pirates, Mafioso and drug lords. There are ways to earn a living without hurting others.

That fundamentally is what our tort laws have said for a long time. Those are the laws that apply when you sue someone over an accident. It’s a little more complex in lawsuits, but the basic idea is that if you could have avoided doing damage, you should. That’s a simple moral rule.

Society has both obligations – to provide jobs for people to do, ways for them to make a decent living, and to protect people from needless harm. Those are separate obligations. And neither justifies skipping the other.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 28, 2010.

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