There Are No Natural Limits to Regulation

No knowing when to stop.

We at Scragged have written over and over about the inability of government regulation to get things right.

Recently, we discussed the current conundrum of the city of Des Moines, Iowa: its sewers, strongly built in days of old by long-departed honest, competent contractors are now "historic structures" that can't be readily repaired.

We've explained how the regulations which surround cancer trials, or any project which involves testing medicine on people, have become so complex that medical people are afraid that testing new medical procedures will become impossible.

Finding examples as silly as the historical Des Moines sewers is like shooting fish in a barrel - no challenge at all.  Even the Times article we cited to show that medical trials are becoming impossible gave an example of how ridiculous it gets.

There have been many reports of patients dying from infections they get while they're in the hospital for something else.  Hospitals get paid for treating patients, so it's in the hospital's financial interest to make patients sicker - the more treatment they give, the more they get paid.

The University of Michigan developed a 5-step checklist of simple procedures to prevent infections.  There was nothing remarkable about the checklist because it covered items like hand washing and cleaning patients' skin before giving an injection that hospitals should be doing anyway.

When the university tried to test the checklist to see if it reduced secondary infections, however, the study fell under the category of "research."  That meant they had to get patients' consent whether to let nurses use a checklist when caring for them.  Since the study wasn't getting patients to sign consent forms, the feds shut the project down.

The study was reinstated after protest from the scientific community and from the public, but the bureaucracy doesn't often reverse itself, no matter how stupidly it's behaved.

Medical Bureaucrats Aren't Alone

The Wall Street Journal of Oct. 24 had a page 1 story about a storage shed complex in Columbia, SC, where a number of rock bands had been storing equipment and practicing for more than 20 years.

About two years ago, a man who lived a half-mile away decided he didn't like hearing rock music when he wanted to listen to the crickets and managed to shut down the practice sessions after costing the shed's owners more than $20,000 in legal fees.

He wasn't able to get the practice sessions stopped because of noise - the sheds are in an industrial area between two railroad lines which generate plenty of noise.  Instead, he bagged them via building codes.

The courts ruled that practicing rock music in sheds designed for simple storage constituted a "serious violation" which must cease.  The fire marshal ruled that the roll-up doors would have to be replaced with normal doors, the electrical system would have to be upgraded, and bathrooms would have to be provided.

The owners argued that it would be extremely difficult to start a fire in one-story concrete-and-sheet-metal sheds and that bands usually had the doors rolled up and open when practicing - to no avail.

The fact that nothing bad whatsoever had happened during the 20 years the sheds were being used for band practice, other than to the musical arts, meant nothing - rules were rules and band practice had to stop.

We've written about the follies of the "precautionary principle" which says that nothing new should be permitted until it can be proven safe. Unfortunately, the only way to prove something is safe is to try it.

Even proving something safe might not be enough for a true believer in rules.  Bands had practiced in the sheds for two decades with no incidents.  That ought to be long enough to prove that the electrical system was safe and that the roll-up doors were no hazard, but the courts agreed with the fire marshal and shut the bands down anyway.

Where Does It End?

Why are we taking this tour through the ghosts of Scragged articles past, of bureaucratic stupidities present, and of head-smacking idiocy surely yet to come?  There's a point, and a pattern: unlike private businesses, governmental incompetence has no natural limits.

There's a limit to how incompetent a private business can be - bankruptcy is supposed to wipe out businesses which get too far out of touch with their customers, unless of course the government props them up.

There are no such limits to bureaucracies.  Private businesses, naturally seeing new avenues for profit, have realized this and figured out how to avail themselves of natural bureaucratic empire-building tendencies to their own advantage.

For example, as in the case of our rock bands and storage sheds, electrical and plumbing contractors like to lobby fire marshals to tighten the regulations to require more and more electrical and plumbing equipment in buildings.  The more equipment is required, the more money the contractors make.

When customers gripe, contractors shrug and say, "Regulations!" omitting the minor detail that contractors influence the regulatory process over time.  Building cost isn't a problem as far as the contractors are concerned; increased building costs benefit them.  Had the owner of the storage sheds sucked it up and decided to become compliant, some lucky electrical and plumbing contractor would have received a juicy and entirely unnecessary contract to do the required upgrades.

Our courts, which should protect us from government excess, have taken the view that regulatory cost is no concern at all; they upheld even regulations which, given the long history of band practice in the sheds, were manifestly far stricter than necessary.  Short of overthrowing the entire government, there's no simple way to cut back the regulatory thicket which costs us all so much money and strikes at the heart of our personal liberties.

Given what we see government do with the authority they've already taken from us, why would anyone want to give them more authority, particularly over medical care?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
Been there.. in a rock band, that is, and now my landlord is being harassed by the city to install separate gas lines/metres and electric panels for no other than reason than "regulation"... makes a man wonder WTF?
October 28, 2009 10:08 AM
I have to disagree about the bands. Why should the effects (sound waves) of anyone's activities be allowed to cross the boundary lines of their property, or in this case, the owner of the shed's property and cause someone else not to enjoy THEIR property? Same argument for dogs that bark endlessly. Should not be happening. I gather from the rest of this site that the solution is for me to move away but what if I can't? Can I set up giant speakers around my property line and blast my music in all directions just because I want to? Sorry this is my pet peeve.
October 29, 2009 7:20 AM
Yeah, but what's the limit? The whiny neighbor was a half-mile away from the sheds! And zoning laws are surely not the appropriate venue for resolving this dispute.
October 30, 2009 7:24 PM
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