Paternalism Test

Regulation is the real test of the "anti-government" mood.


Times-Mirror pollsters have discovered some interesting changes in public opinion since they started asking certain questions in 1987. Paternalism is down; self-reliance is up.

Over the past seven years, for instance, the number of people who say the federal government controls too much of our daily lives has jumped from 57 percent of those surveyed to 69 percent. The percentage who say business regulations usually do more harm than good has jumped from 55 percent to 63 percent. And the number who say it's government's responsibility to take care of people who can't take care of themselves has dropped from 71 percent to 57 percent.

This is good news for those of us who'd like to see government stick to a few limited functions and otherwise stay out of our faces. The public mood seems to be swinging our way.

Maybe. Maybe not. A few indicators that euphoria may not be in order:

• The very same Times-Mirror survey reports that 78 percent of the public thinks the government should do "whatever it takes to protect the environment." Eighty-two percent want more government controls—which means, inevitably, more regulations on American citizens and American businesses—to keep out immigrants. And 59 percent believe the government should guarantee every American food and a place to sleep, an essentially steady figure since 1987.

• When the Republicans gathered House candidates to sign a contract with voters, they emphasized cutting taxes and attacking politicians through term limits, smaller congressional staffs, and applying business regulations to Congress. The GOP contract does contain potentially important mechanisms to reduce regulation, such as a bi-annual federal regulatory budget. But the Republicans didn't exactly make a big deal of their deregulatory agenda, and they certainly didn't go after specific regulations (notably the burdensome Bush legacy) the way they attacked specific Clinton taxes. GOP leaders did not see a voting public motivated by the belief that the federal government controls too much of our daily lives.

• The Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay-rights group, happily notes that, in a recent survey, 62 percent of Washington-area companies said they include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies. The fund's conclusion: Since such policies are catching on voluntarily, the federal government should make them mandatory. That anything popular must be required is a political truism not limited to gay-rights groups.

• In California, it is now illegal for companies to require female employees to wear skirts to work. (It is still OK to make men wear ties.) When he signed the bill, Gov. Pete Wilson declared, "Women make important business decisions everyday. Indeed, working women should be able to make the simple choice of the professional business attire they wish to wear." Neither Wilson nor the bill's sponsors imagine a situation in which a woman might "make the important business decision" to require her employees to wear skirts. Nor did they question whether workplace attire is really any business of the state of California.

• Finally, consider the Fair Housing Laws Advertising Training Manual put out by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a group whose members are presumably protected by the First Amendment's provision that "Congress shall make no law" restricting freedom of the press. (Italics unfortunately not in the original.) Ignoring this constitutional provision, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful to "make, print, or publish … any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based" on the usual protected categories. The courts take the any in "any preference" far more literally than they take the no in "no law."

Hence, the training manual advises, newspapers should assume it is illegal to advertise that a house is "near the Mormon temple" or "within walking distance of synagogues" (religious discrimination); that it is in an integrated neighborhood or in Koreatown (race or ethnicity); that it has facilities "perfect for runners" (disability) or a "yard great for children" (familial/marital status); or that it is an "executive home" or is in a "prestigious neighborhood" (race, which suggests a certain racism on the part of regulators).

It is even illegal to specify in an ad the sex of a roommate: "While private discrimination is allowed in some cases, all discriminatory advertisements are prohibited. State and federal law indicate, for example, that it is unlawful for a female looking to share a room to specify 'female preferred.' Persons wishing to rent to persons with specific characteristics are not able to use newspapers as a screening device." So much for keeping government out of our bedrooms.

How far does regulation have to extend before it produces a real political backlash? We may soon find out.

The current wave of anti-government resentment presents a rare opportunity to attack not just big spending but big government. But that will take courage and political entrepreneurship: Taxation and spending come up for a vote in every Congress. Regulation, once in place, generally lasts forever and increases yearly.

And most regulations come wrapped in a cloak of good, often superbly good, intentions. Imagine, for instance, how hard it would be to wipe out those housing-ad rules when it means attacking a provision in the Civil Rights Act. Americans may be irritated at bureaucratic intrusions into our own lives, but an awful lot of us still want the government to tell other people what they can and cannot do.

This past year's health-care debate suggests that Americans can indeed be convinced that adding new regulations will do more harm than good. The question now is whether the new Congress, and the allegedly anti-government public, can be convinced that subtracting old regulations will do more good than harm.

That, not cutting taxes or reforming welfare, will be the real test of whether we're ready to shed paternalism for self-reliance. Are we willing to let people decide for themselves with whom to share their bedrooms and what their employees can wear to work? Until we are, the "anti-Washington" mood will remain little more than a rhetorical fad.