Why does it take a disaster to remove the red tape?

“I instructed my team not to let red tape and bureaucracy get in the way of solving problems” – President Barack Obama, November 3, 2012

After spending the week unexpectedly campaigning with New Jersey governor Chris Christie through the storm-ravaged state, President Obama implied he is a man of action by uttering the above line in his weekly address. Apparently, we are to be impressed and grateful that the president was magnanimous enough to command his government worker minions to back off and be less troublesome while half of New York City and most of the Jersey shore have knee-deep water in what used to be their driveways.

Rest assured that as soon as the water is pumped out of everyone’s living room, and the shattered pieces of boardwalk removed from their front lawns, that all that red tape will be quickly sewn back together.

So why does it take a disaster to get government to remove impediments to solving problems? 

A while back, a certain comedian quipped: “I see these ribbons everywhere. Yellow ribbons for the troops. Pink ribbons for breast cancer. The only person these ribbons are actually benefitting is the ribbon manufacturer.”  The ribbon mindset sums up the liberals’ approach to charity: symbolically caring. I care… enough to put a bumper sticker on the back my car. I care… enough to support taking more tax dollars from the “rich” so I can pretend the government has the capacity to tend to those in poverty.

Just as with the ribbon manufacturers, the only people actually benefitting from all the red tape are the red tape manufacturers.  Statists respond to their self-preservation incentive by pumping out more regulations, turning us into Tocqueville’s “flock of timid and industrious animals”, who accept the premise of benevolent overlords whose approval must be sought in order to engage in productivity.  Think that’s an exaggeration? Just ask Amber Starks, currently in a legal fight with Oregon regulators over the right to… braid hair. Or Casity Dixon and Skylar Roberts, who got shut down by police for… selling lemonade.

This is where we, like Romney in the first debate, reassure “moderates” and “independents’ that we crazy, extremist conservatives of course recognize a certain level of regulation is good and necessary. But if even the most statist president in history recognizes red tape is “getting in the way” now, isn’t it equally obvious that it prevents people from “solving problems” when we’re not in the midst of a disaster?

Progressives argue, “Yeah, it slows things down, but the benefits of improved safety, a cleaner environment, and consumer protection are normally worth the costs. In an emergency, the urgency temporarily outweighs everything else.” Even if we accept the sketchy premise that all of these regulations are well thought out and accomplish their purposes even in the best of times, well, this ain’t the best of times. We’re running trillion-dollar deficits yearly in an ongoing fiscal disaster. Regulation is a big part of that disaster. It slows economic growth, and paying all those bureaucrats to add more regulations only increases government spending, thereby increasing the deficit.

Nor does regulation simply slow things down.

Rachel Maddow, in a patently ridiculous MSNBC commercial, stands in front of the Hoover Dam and ponders whether we are “still a country” that can accomplish great feats like building the structure in her background. But ironically, she’s an unabashed supporter of the guy who killed the Keystone pipeline with a slow death of strangulation by red tape, and who spent nearly a trillion stimulus dollars, ostensibly to build more Hoover Dam-like structures, with nothing to show for it.

Using a more urgent example to answer Maddow’s question of whether modern America can build a large concrete structure to control the flow of water, fear of the EPA’s red tape dissuaded New York City from constructing a flood barrier that would’ve mitigated the effects of Hurricane Sandy and possibly kept us from “getting into this mess in the first place.” If we’re not “still a country” that can accomplish these feats, it’s because government won’t let us. Because of red tape and bureaucracy, thousands of east coast residents are now less safe and in a filthy environment. With no businesses open due to storm damage, who will regulatory enforcers like consumer advocates protect us from?

Whether it’s a pipeline, a flood barrier, or something from Ms. Maddow’s dam imagination, red tape has slowed us down to the point that we’ve just stopped trying. Or as Ronnie Bryant, Alabama coal mine owner and would-be employer of blue-collar workers, said in response to overzealous environmental regulators challenging his new business permit, “I’m just quitting. Thank you.”

Only in a “disaster” do we expect the government to let us act like free citizens again.

When a cornered Iran finally attempts to cut off the Strait of Hormuz, sending gas prices skyrocketing, expect President Obama to promise to “not let red tape and bureaucracy get in the way” of immediately increasing oil production in the United States. He may even finally give the Keystone Pipeline the go ahead. As with NYC’s new seriousness about constructing that flood barrier, it will be too late.

Just like it will be too late when our Greek-style fiscal disaster strikes. We got a small taste of that during the last financial crisis, when our government responded under duress by paying off a bunch of corrupt banks and buying a couple of unprofitable car companies. Expect even more arbitrariness during the next go-round, when it really hits the fan. Hair-braiders and children’s lemonade stands will probably face less scrutiny, but after that it’s anyone’s guess what the statists in Washington will deem worthy of spending our remaining few bucks on.

As President Obama’s quote shows, he recognizes all of this. So why does he still love the red tape? Power. Control. And most importantly, the stature inherent in being the one person who gets to decide when we can cut through it.

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