Why Do We Need So Much Regulation ?

The phenomenal increase in regulation over recent decades has been driven by five factors:


Those of us born in the 1950s and 60s entered a world which was easy to understand. Energy, transport, education, health care and some other goods and services were provided by UK-based monopolies. Bank customers - even large ones - had only current and deposit accounts. Our families were to a great extent self-sufficient. Our houses and water were warmed by coal, gas and electric fires, so there was no need for thermostats and electronic controllers. Washing machines, telephone landlines and TVs became increasingly widespread but it wasn't too difficult to understand how they worked, and to manage without them, whilst motor cars, for instance, could easily be maintained by anyone willing to wield a spanner and screwdriver.  We now live in a transformed world in which competition has brought us bewildering choice, delivered by technology which most of us can only dimly understand and which is controlled by huge multinational companies. 

In short, we are now pretty much totally reliant on the expertise and good faith of others - others who may be subject to commercial and other pressures of which we are only dimly aware. We therefore need help in choosing appropriate energy suppliers, schools, hospitals etc., and we need to be protected from those whose behaviour might cause us harm. These factors drove much of the explosive growth in regulation since the 1980s.

A similar argument has been made by Gillian Tett in respect of the growth of regulation in the USA.

Barack Obama summarised the argument rather nicely in A Promised Land.

... if you wanted good government, then expertise mattered..  You needed public institutions tasked with people whose job it was to pay attention to important stuff so the rest of us citizens didn't have to.  And it was thanks to those experts that Americans could worry less about the quality of the air we breathed or the water we drank, that we had recourse when employers failed to pay us the overtime we were due, that we could count on the over-the-counter drugs not killing us, and that driving a car or flying on a commercial aeroplane was exponentially safer today than it had been just twenty or thirty years ago.  The "regulatory state" conservatives complained so bitterly about had made American life a hell of a lot better.


Much regulation since the 1970s has been about society's ethics and values. There has been much equalities legislation, for instance, beginning with the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, enforced by what is now the EHRC. A more recent regulatory regime is overseen by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Delegation of Decision Making to Experts

A third major factor was Ministers' determination to delegate politically contentious decision-making . It was much better, they concluded, to have such decisions taken by apolitical experts who were willing to think long term and well beyond the electoral cycle. Crucially, too, it meant that Ministers could avoid blame when energy prices rose, or patients were refused access to expensive medicines.

My web page on the independence and accountability of regulators discusses this area in greater depth.

Regulation is Politically Attractive

Politicians are often able to choose a number of ways of achieving their objectives, especially when it comes to changing public or corporate behaviour.  They could for instance mount media, PR and advertising campaigns - but a truly effective campaign to change the behaviour of many adults would be expensive - and the money would in effect need to be found by increasing taxes (or cutting elsewhere).  Or they could tax the behaviour in order to deter its adoption.  Or they could regulate.  Most politicians are very reluctant to increase taxes, so regulation becomes the default option.

And then there is the point that it is often easier to regulate than to argue with voters than regulation would be an over-the-top or excessive response to a problem or a risk.  Regulators themselves seem often to choose the path of least resistance than face unfair criticism.  Even the proliferation of petty Navy rules and regulations was once blamed in part on the need "to quiet someone who is asking questions in the House of Commons".

Regulation Cuts Government's Costs

The fourth (though probably less important) factor was that Ministers have in recent years found that regulation saves public money and so reduces tax rates. A large proportion of UK tax administration is carried out by employers via PAYE, and they also collect student loans and administer many sickness benefits. It is also cheaper - and probably more effective, to introduce regulations than to spend money on campaigns to change consumer or business behavior.

Regulation is one of four policy tools available to Ministers. (Check out the Policy Making sections of the sister Civil Servant website for more detailed advice and information.) It is accordingly for Ministers to decide their policy objectives and then - if they choose to achieve their objectives via regulation - to draft appropriate legislation for approval by Parliament. This legislation sometimes itself takes the form of regulations. Alternatively it creates regulatory bodies with specific duties and specific powers..

Digging a Little Deeper - Martin Sandbu :

The FT's Martin Sandbu has looked at regulation from another perspective and identified three key reasons why regulation might be needed:- information, externalities and co-ordination.

Whether in our personal lives - driving for instance - or when spending money, information is vital. On the road, street markings and costly requirements to keep the surface at a certain standard help us predict the driving conditions and the behaviour of other drivers. Other regulations such as labelling requirements and minimum standards help us know what we are paying for. (The Mensa Ponderaria on the left underpinned Pompeii's weights and measures regulations.) And information is increasingly important in many modern economic sectors - one reason why regulation is growing and why efficient economies will continue to regulate much commercial activity.

The need to limit many externalities is also pretty obvious. Reckless driving can harm others. Similarly, there are prohibitions on how businesses can behave, including competition, environmental, health and safety, and employment legislation.

Regulation is also often necessary to avoid the tragedy of the commons - the consequences of systems where resources such as common grazing land are available to all, so everyone is incentivised to increase their use of the resource whose total availability is limited. One solution is to establish property rights - which is what happened when common land was 'enclosed' in medieval England. But it is not so easy to establish property rights over the high seas, which is why international regulation is needed to control fishing and acid rain, for instance.

Finally, co-ordination. Why require cars to drive on a specific side of the street? Because the benefits to all of co-ordinating on the right or the left vastly outweighs any difference in the merit of which particular rule is chosen. This is particularly relevant to Single [European] Market regulations. The FT's Philip Stephens once regaled his readers with the tale of a British complaint about a European noise limit on lawnmowers. The supposed Brussels over-reach had, it turned out, been instigated and steered through the legislative process by the British government at the behest of UK manufacturers, who were finding their lawnmowers locked out of the German market because of Berlin’s national noise rules. The new, Europe-wide, decibel ceiling put the British producers back in the game.

Digging a Little Deeper - Andrei Shleifer :

I strongly recommend Andrei Shleifer's article Understanding Regulation .   He notes "the extraordinary pervasiveness of government regulation in our lives" and then neatly summarises the arguments of:

He also notes that regulation can never be perfect,  It is difficult to design effective regulations, regulators can be less than fully competent, and both regulators and legislators can be 'captured' by those whose activities they are supposed to be controlling.  In the round, the effectiveness of regulation depends to a great extent on the nature and governance of the society in which it takes place. 

The Six Types of Regulation

Follow this link to be introduced to the various forms of regulator and regulation.

Better Regulation and Deregulation

The explosive growth in regulation has created a strong reaction in the form of various deregulation initiatives. These are discussed in a separate section of this website, best accessed via my homepage.

Remember, however, that wealthy countries are generally subject to lots of regulation. Correlation is not causation, of course, but it is unlikely that extensive deregulation would be good for the economy.

Political Implications

There is understandable concern that the (unelected) regulators that have been created to protect us (see above) have themselves become too powerful. This subject is discussed in more detail here.

Some academic commentators argue that the Regulatory State colonized, dominated and centralized previously independent areas of civil society.  It imposed rule by command, rather than through cooperation, and so encourages avoidance and circumvention, particularly by large firms.  I would encourage those interested in these arguments to read Michael Moran's the British Regulatory State.


Martin Stanley

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