The most dramatic moment in Wednesday night’s Republican debate on CNBC was certainly when Rick Perry boasted that he would eliminate three cabinet agencies but could not remember all their names. But it was not the most illuminating.
The more revealing moments in the debate were the blanket statements issued by Perry and other Republicans about repealing regulations. And Perry’s was the most extreme.
Republicans universally attacked regulation as an ill in and of itself. Someone who is serious about policy, even with a free market or small government orientation, does not simply declare regulations to be bad the way cancer is bad. Any given regulation may aid or hinder economic activity and if it hinders economic activity it may or may not be worth the tradeoff between the cost and the social benefit. But that is all way too complex for any Republican running for president, especially Rick Perry.
The first candidate to decry regulations on Wednesday was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has a wholly undeserved reputation as a policy wonk. “We have had two cycles in my lifetime,” said Gingrich, “Ronald Reagan, and the Contract with America, both of which had the same policy: lower taxes, less regulation, more American energy, and have faith in the American job creator as distinct from the Saul Alinsky radicalism of higher taxes, bigger bureaucracy with more regulations.”
Former Senator Rick Santorum was more specific: “I’ve said I’m going to repeal every single Obama-era regulation that cost businesses over $100 million. Repeal them all.” Suppose Obama had issued a regulation outlawing the use of arsenic in children’s toys that cost toy manufacturers $101 million per year, but saved millions of American children from arsenic poisoning. Rick Santorum would repeal that regulation. Even from a purely economic perspective this is extremely shortsighted and possibly self-defeating. A regulation that imposes direct business costs could save society far more in unnecessary medical costs, missed days from work from sick employees and so on.
But it was Perry who issued the most absurdly simple-minded denunciation of any federal regulation. “The real issue facing America are regulations,” said Perry, struggling as he often does with verb agreement. “It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s the EPA or whether it’s the federal banking—the Dodd-Frank or Obamacare. That’s what’s killing America. And the next president of the United States has to have the courage to go forward, pull back every regulation, since 2008, audit them for one thing: Is it creating jobs, or is it killing jobs? And if that regulation is killing jobs, do away with it.”
So Perry believes that the only basis on which a regulation should be measured is whether it has a net positive or negative effect on job creation. This is absurd, since the purpose of most regulations is not to create jobs. Regulations serve any number of purposes: to insure that corporations treat customers, workers or each other fairly, to preserve the health and safety of humans, animals, their air, water and habitats. That’s what the EPA does, and what Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act are meant to do. If any such regulation diminishes job growth, reasonable people can argue over the tradeoff. But the fact that Perry either doesn’t understand what regulations are for, or doesn’t believe the government has any role except to promote job growth, reveals far more about why he is unqualified to be president than a momentary memory lapse.
As Jamelle Bouie notes, Perry has established a reputation for having an especially poor grasp of policy, and a distinct lack of intellectual and communicative skills, so the gaffe is particularly damaging for him. Campaign reporters and pundits breathlessly speculated that Perry’s once-promising campaign might be effectively over.
But, ultimately, we all forget things sometimes. Republicans have a long history of making empty promises to eliminate cabinet departments. The real question is not how many agencies the same set of governmental functions is spread over, but what government should do. And on that question Republicans, especially Perry, seem to have no idea, or a dramatically wrong one.