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Regulating Society: We Know What's Best for You
in the news: During the same month that stories about whether the US government could require everyone to buy health insurance dominated the news, articles about regulating other aspects of American life also appeared. Consider "Tax Preparers: Guides Through the Swamp" contained in the March 24th issue of The Economist. Or a piece in the March 4th edition of The Charleston Gazette entitled "Would Alternative Teacher Certification Help West Virginia Schools? Or another from the March 8th edition of The Consulting--Specifying Engineer entitled "Key Changes in the 2011 NEC"? All of these involve changes in the rules by which American society regulates something besides health care. The first eventually focuses on new training and educational requirements that those who prepare income tax returns for others must now meet; the second laments a growing shortage of qualified public school teachers and suggests existing regulations are partly to blame; the third informs engineers of changes in the National Electrical Code.
commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): Behind every set of regulations is a history that provides their rationale. From its beginning a hundred years ago, as the American income tax code has grown in complexity, so has the need for specialists to help taxpayers with filing their returns-- and obviously those specialists must themselves understand the rules. Similarly, from the days of the first American public schools in the mid-19th century, adults soon concluded it didn't want ignorant, unskilled people teaching its children--and attention soon turned to how to make sure that didn't happen And before the first NEC in 1911, electrical fires killed lots of people and destroyed much property.
As society has grown in complexity, so has the need for regulation--whether it be to help the economy or government run more smoothly, protect people's health and safety, promote justice, enhance quality of life, etc. While the seemingly ever increasing number of regulations can be seen as society's continuing beneficial effort to fine tune itself, increasingly there are those who object. While there is no simplistic black and white recipe to distinguish between those who accept the increasing societal complexity ==> need for more rules and regulations ==> increased overall societal well being prescription and those who don't, what follows nonetheless attempts to generally make this distinction--based on trends in American society in recent decades, in terms of worldview themes. Consider the following table:
Opponents often don't like the government interfering in what they would like to be a free market economy. They value individual freedom. They like having the freedom to creatively express themselves and accordingly object to what has been described as a "One size fits all" approach to regulating. They don't like limits on freedom. Proponents may value "the common good," feel that the weak or poor need protecting from the excesses of the strong, wealthy and powerful, appreciate constraints imposed by environmental concerns more than opponents, etc.
Certain worldview themes are difficult to fit into the above table. Consider #46 The Technological Fix Mentality. One suspects that many who oppose regulations are indirectly expressing their frustration with the increasing complexity of society--which most feel can be partially attributed to technological advances--and longing for a simpler existence. Yet engineers can argue that technological fixes can automatically bring about some desirable condition and eliminate the need to impose rules restricting human behavior to accomplish the same thing. Certainly the fix that automotive engineers who developed air bags provided to vehicle safety concerns required vehicle users do much less (nothing) than fixes provided by seatbelts (which require buckling.) (Old news item: Last July 4th a man, who strongly objected to a new New York law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, was riding (on his motorcycle sans helmet) to a rally protesting the law. He died from head injuries sustained when he crashed.)
Consider #2B I Know What's Best For You. One could argue that the supposedly wise elitists who write the rules and regulations are collectively saying "We know what's best for you:" in authoring statements to guide our behavior. But given its association with those narrowly promoting their own agenda--rather than one that broadly has societal well being, human rights, etc. in mind--this theme may be somewhat out of place sitting in the left hand column?
Finally consider one aspect of #6 Scientific Method --namely feedback--and how it connects with regulating society. One can argue that just as science has a built-in error correcting mechanism provided by the feedback loops/peer review inherent in its methods, one likes to think that the consequences of either non-existent or overly strict regulations will produce self-correcting feedback as society tries to fine tune itself. One course one likes to imagine that disgruntled or happy voters provide similar feedback that corrects abuses by elected officials or rewards good government. Suffice it to say, in closing, that the real world is undoubtedly more complicated than such naive views of it!
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