Hidden in Plain Sight


One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to order federal agencies to repeal two regulations every time they propose one.

This is an action that requires some followthrough. It can easily be twisted or ignored by unwilling bureaucrats — and what Washington bureaucrat wants to obey President Trump? If the boss doesn’t watch out, somebody in Ring 3, Floor 9, Office G, Cube 2B will fulfill the departmental quota by rounding up ten nasty little regs, withdrawing them, and issuing one big, ten-part, much nastier reg.

We’ll see whether the followthrough happens. But the idea itself seems exactly what libertarians and conservatives have been waiting for. As someone who is more or less actively engaged in sorting through old books and files, so I can get some space to live in, I’ve made a personal commitment to throw out two boxes of junk for every new box of junk I acquire. This makes sense to me, and if I ever follow through on the scheme, it may work.

If the boss doesn’t watch out, somebody will fulfill the departmental quota by rounding up ten nasty little regs, withdrawing them, and issuing one big, ten-part, much nastier reg.

Trump’s idea should be crucially interesting to modern liberals, though in a different way. Their power and often their jobs depend on the proliferation of rules, of people who make rules, of people who interpret and enforce rules. That’s them, the modern liberals, so I would think their eyes would be firmly focused on Trump’s attempt at a de-rulement.

Yet neither liberals nor libertarians nor conservatives are paying much attention to Trump’s apparently fundamental change in the way the government works. Even when they notice it, they don’t seem to care very much. On February 2, the famous (for what, I’m not exactly sure) Fareed Zakaria wrote a column in the Washington Post in which he approved of Trump’s action — but only as a public foil for his dislike of Trump. Zakaria’s point was that although he liked the reduction of regs idea, he objected to the president otherwise, especially detesting his administration’s attempt to “delegitimize” “any institution or group that might stand in its way.”

To me, this approach seems a little one-sided. We have lately been exposed to seemingly endless videos of people — often Senators, attorneys, professors, and other elderly rioters — noisily insisting that Trump is not the president and that all his acts are unlawful, vicious, racist, misogynist, and fascist. It seems clear to me that there’s a whole lot of delegitimizing going on, besides Trump’s desacralizing of, for instance, the media in which Zakaria swims.

So much for Zakaria, and so much for Trump. What is not clear to me is why no one is making a big deal, one way or the other, out of this thing — reducing regulations — that Trump actually did. To me, the lack of reaction is a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in something I can’t figure out. Do you understand it?

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Stephen Cox

Thanks to everyone who responded! I see some old friends and some new ones too. But everything considered, I’m wondering what people would say if Donald Trump issued an executive order mandating every government agency to issue twice as many regulations as it did last year. I suspect that no one would say it would make no difference, because you can do just as much damage with one regulation as you can with two, etc. I would expect people to observe that the sheer number of regulations (coupled inseparably with the number of interpreters required for those regulations) is an enormous tax on the public; that they would prefer a tax code with half as many provisions as the current one, even if it made them pay the same tax; that an encouragement to issue more regulations is an encouragement to make regulation more chronic and more extensive; and so forth—standard libertarian arguments that don’t seem to be operating in reverse, in the current case.

Scott Robinson

Interesting about an executive order to make more regulations. I speculate that more regulations would give rise to more loopholes that you could use to dodge the laws consequences. This is why the income tax has so many loopholes, but only the rich manage to effectively navigate this complex maze of regulation to get less taxes. Think about the report about the CEO of General Electric paying lower taxes than his secretary. Then again, I don't think that regulation rich dictatorships had loopholes in their laws. The amount of resources you can deploy in lobbying yields you these loopholes. In a dictatorship, the laws only apply to the subjects, the powerful are above the law.


Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

I'll admit that I heard this proposal but thought of it as just a hollow proposition, not as far as being an actual executive order. Another subject for deregulation action that I remember is about stripping down the Dodd-Frank act. During the convention, I remember that his son, Jr., said that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should be properly called the billionaire protection bureau since the law requires you to have a battalion of accountants and lawyers to make sure that your business is in the clear. I thought that this comment made a lot of since, because some small upstart business owner will probably not have enough money to employ the necessary accountants and lawyers, while the established businesses will have enough money to comply with the law and preserve their monopoly.

The problem is like you mentioned about the executive order, the devil is in the details. Just like the hindrance due to regulations requires an army of enforcers to carry out the law, removing the law has a ton of variables that have to be addressed. It's like repealing Obamacare, not only do the politicians need to remove the bad aspects of the law, but they have to preserve the so-called good parts of the law. When you consider that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a 2,000 plus page law, there's a whole lot of work to do. The other problem is that I take things politicians say with a grain of salt. What they say about the law doesn't matter, it's what they actually do that counts. Good job of staying on the lookout to see what is done.

Best Wishes,

Jon Harrison

First of all, nobody is going to start a riot over the size of the federal register. Secondly, some of Trump's early words (and actions) have been disquieting to say the least, particularly given the wrongheaded, deliberately incorrect, and sometimes libelous pronouncements he has issued over the years. His possible future actions on fronts other than government regulation are of concern to many, many people, including lovers of freedom. As to the silence on this matter from people on the left, they (and others to their right) have concerns about Trump that go beyond his supposed desire to make government smaller.

Perspective is everything, or almost so. If Obama's voice had been heard on the p***y-grabbing tape, evangelicals and many others would have been howling for the man's head. But Trump's voice left them mute on the subject, at least once they saw how the political winds were blowing. Same thing with many of Trump's initial words and actions as president. Had a Democrat been the author of these, some people would've been quick to criticize the new president as disqualified for office, authoritarian, etc. They would have sought to delegitimize him. Indeed, the author of this piece seems to forget the rallies at which Obama was characterized as a Muslim (for some Americans a designation even worse than fascist), caricatured as a monkey or ape, and accused of destroying the America "we" (i.e., white people) had known before his election to office.

The ivory tower is a terrible place to issue pronouncements from. Tenured professors at major universities have no real day-to-day worries except those of their own making, or those sent to them by God. People in the real world have legitimate concerns about President Trump -- concerns that override anything he may do about what is for many of them the rather abstract issue of federal regulation.

Let me quickly add that I operate two businesses that are affected by government regulation; both the Feds and my state make it somewhat harder for me to make a living. I'd love to get the government off my back, but I'm not overly impressed by a pronouncement delivered by a notorious fibber and truth-bender. There's a lot more to worry about than be thankful for when it comes to Trump.

Luther Jett

Once again, Mr. Harrison has shined a beacon through the smoke-screen erected by Trump & Company. The reason few have remarked upon this particular action is succinct. Trump and his thug squad have committed multiple egregious assaults on the Constitution which demand our attention.

The relative silence about this particular executive order does not surprise me. The relative silence on the part of libertarians, including the Libertarian Party, regarding this Administration's assault on our Constitution, as embodied by, among other things, the attempted ban on entry by Muslims from seven middle eastern nations -- that is what surprises and troubles me.

Freddie Cougar

If Obama's voice had been heard on the the p-grabbing tape, it would've cost him much more from his own support base than from evangelicals. That is because the entirety of his appeal was his persona as a cool dude who makes you feel good about supporting him. The right hated him anyway.

Donald Trump's voice on that tape did not even slightly contradict the qualities that propelled him to the nomination, and if anything, made him more sympathetic to those on the fence -- given the transparent timing of its release and the tape's unseemly violation of privacy. Since nearly all of us already assumed Trump to be a casual sleaze, the substantial innocence of the tape's content further seemed to indicate that his sleaziness is probably not of the head-losing or harmful type. I think the release of that tape helped him.

Speaking of presidents whose sleaziness was of a head-losing and truly harmful variety, and whose relationship to p-grabbing was of the "test every bowling ball in the alley" style, Bill Clinton's administration wasn't too troubled by his vices until they spilled all over the Oval Office floor.

People in the real world certainly do have legitimate concerns about Trump, and I, like you, am not surprised that the EO on regulations has slipped through the cracks of all his deliberate bluster. But that doesn't mean all of the hysterical demonstrations against him are legitimate expressions. I don't just mean the calls for assassination and military coup. Do any of the women who claim to feel personally threatened by Trump's presence in office actually believe there is any chance that he uses the office of the presidency to screw interns? Somehow I think not.

Thomas Knapp

"One of Donald Trump's first acts as president was to order federal agencies to repeal two regulations every time they propose one."

No, one of Donald Trump's first acts as president was to order federal agencies to identify two regulations for repeal every time they propose one.

Not to actually repeal two regulations.

Just to identify two regulations.

There's a difference.

Dave Slate

Some plausible reasons why people aren't paying much attention to Trump's order:

1. People have grown accustomed to not taking what Trump says, or even does, very seriously, since he is prone to changing his mind, sometimes without even admitting that he did.

2. As you mentioned, agencies could just replace 10 regulations with one that is nastier than those 10 combined.

3. The real issue is the substance of the regulations, and how burdensome (or sometimes even beneficial) they might be. The sheer number of regulations is only part of the story.

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