Educating Duncan

Ben Thomas writes:

Seymour told the committee he used a working definition of regulation as “rules which restrict the use of private property”, causing Labour MP Duncan Webb to demand how rules like, say, clean air quality which did not relate to private property or money fit in.

Seymour, with an admirable restraint, explained the economic principle of externalities. That is costs (for example pollution) that are produced by individuals’ exercising property rights (like running a factory) and imposed on the majority, a market failure which invites the government to step in. Good regulation, in other words.

Economics may not be the be-all and end-all of government action. But it is a powerful tool for looking at policy problems. Webb, a former Minister of Commerce who was responsible for some of the Crown’s key regulators in the previous government, appeared to be encountering the concept for the first time.

This is very telling.

The rolling reviews of existing regulatory areas (so far early childhood education and agricultural veterinary products have been announced) by themselves represent a sea-change for the way “red tape” in the wild is reviewed. In the past departments have marked their own work, and politicians have rarely risen above gimmickry, like searches for archaic funny-sounding statutes or once-over lightly inquiries into (in a particularly cringeworthy 2017 exercise) “loopy rules”.

In contrast, the ministry will co-ordinate agencies across government to look at the impacts of regulation on all sides, as well as interviewing sector stakeholders. They will then, with the Parliamentary Counsel Office, produce concrete recommendations for amendments, rather than generalised 400-page reports useful as little except doorstops while the government “considers” their findings forever.

If the Ministry’s work produces actual legislative and regulatory changes, rather than just lengthy reports, then that will be a great thing.

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