When President Donald Trump bragged in his first State of the Union address about cutting red tape, the Democratic response was no surprise. "Deregulation," warned Center for American Progress Senior Advisor Sam Berger in Fortune, "is simply a code word for letting big businesses cut corners at everyone else's expense."
But many leading Democrats had the opposite view in the 1970s. Then, at the dawn of the deregulation era, left-leaning politicians and economists understood that excessive government management of industry let the big-business incumbents get away with lousy performance at the expense of competitors, taxpayers, and consumers. The leading figure in that fight to cut red tape and shut down entire federal agencies was none other than Jimmy Carter.
It was Sen. Ted Kennedy who held extensive Senate hearings in the early '70s, with testimony from the likes of Ralph Nader and liberal economist Alfred Kahn, about the benefits of lifting state controls on the airline industry. The resulting Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, signed by Carter, killed the Civil Aeronautics Board—a federal agency that decided which airlines could fly where, and even what they could charge. The new competition to the old airline cartel reduced fares, expanded destinations, increased safety, and made air travel an option for those of us who aren't rich.
Carter also lifted stifling government oversight of the rail and trucking industries under a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. The result? Competition intensified, prices dropped, and consumers saved more money on everyday products.
In 1978, President Carter signed a bill that lifted Prohibition-era criminal restrictions on home brewing. The legalization of do-it-yourself beer production unleashed a boom of experimentation, paving the way for the craft beer revolution that is ongoing to this day. The year that Carter loosened the rules, the U.S. was home to a mere 50 breweries. Today there are well over 5,000. In two generations of beermaking, America went from global laughingstock to world leader.
The governor of California during Carter's presidency was none other than Jerry Brown, then known as "Governor Moonbeam" for his far-out musings, glittery social life, and lefty politics. Yet Brown, too, could be a fiery skeptic of government. In his terrific second inaugural address in 1979, Brown stated that "many regulations primarily protect the past, prop up privilege or prevent sensible economic choices."
But even while some sectors were unleashed four decades ago by far-seeing Democrats and Republicans alike, too many governments at the local, state, and federal levels have forgotten those lessons, and instead imposed entirely new categories of regulations. Occupational licensing, which applied to about one in 10 jobs 40 years ago, now impacts one in three. Arizona will put its citizens in jail for six months for operating a blow dryer without a license. Texas wants to make it a criminal offense to buy unauthorized pecans. And Washington, D.C., wants to require that all daycare providers have a college degree.
The aggregate cost of these regulations is staggering. Last year, according to the pro-free markets Competitive Enterprise Institute, federal regulations cost Americans $1.9 trillion—or around $15,00 per household. And while President Trump has cut the number of pages in the Federal Register by about one-third since he took office, there are still some 67 federal departments, agencies, and commissions currently working on more than 3,000 new regulations. It seems you can't stop the regulatory state, you can only hope to contain it.
As Alfred Kahn and his liberal contemporaries could have explained, licensing boards and other regulatory bodies tend to be dominated by industry incumbents who are mainly interested in protecting their own turf. Regulation is the friend, not enemy, of big business.
So how did the party of Jimmy Carter and sideburns-era Jerry Brown become the ideological home of Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? One explanation may be that Democratic support for deregulation back then was born out of a sense of nearly hopeless desperation in the face of stagflation. Cutting red tape to foster dynamism was about the last move politicians had left.
Our long economic expansion and stock-market boom will soon come to an end, imposing limits on government precisely at the moment when it's asked to do more. When that day of reckoning comes, the best questions for lawmakers of both parties to ask may just be: What would Jimmy Carter do?
Written by Matt Welch. Produced and edited by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Meredith Bragg and Todd Krainin.
Photo credits: Jimmy Carter Library, Arthur Grace/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Dennis Brack/Newscom, Everett Collection/Newscom, Ron Sachs/CNP/MEGA/Newscom, Brian F. Alpert/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Paul Harris/Pacific Coast Nes/Newscom, Bee Staff Photo/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Dennis Brack/bb51/Newscom, Jonathan Bachman/REUTERS/Newscom, Rick Friedman/Polaris/Newscom