Rabbi Marc Gellman writes the the popular God Squad column featured in many papers. He recently addressed a reader’s question about fear of punishment as a motivation to do good. Doing good, or doing right, should be done because it is good or right, not out of fear of punishment, said the reader, so why do religions rely on fear of punishment to motivate good behavior? Gellman said is was something like the police using radar to enforce speed limits. Let’s face it, some people drive safely mainly to avoid getting tickets. Doing good, doing right, should be done because they are good and right, but some people need a little added inducement.
It reminded me of a conversation I overheard at the airport last week, which, in turn, reminded me of dozens of other coffee conversations over the years. Waiting at the gate to board, two men were sitting near me talking about what they do for a living. One was a lab tech for a food processing company, and he described the many tests he conducted to assure that his company’s products met standards of quality. Between the two of them, it suddenly got twisted to a complaint fest about government regulations that required all these tests, which led to the usual round of moaning and groaning government bashing.
I wondered to myself, if the government did not require those tests with their associated paper work, what would you do that is different from what you do now? What role would food safety and quality play for you and your company if the government did not regulate it? Maybe you would do nothing different because you and your company are the kind who do what is good and right because it is good and right. What about others? Could they be relied on to do the same? Or might they be like those who have little regard for red lights and speed limits? Might there be some who would treat food safety and quality with the same seriousness as driving drunk, or drinking while driving? What’s Wong with a little roadie in the cup holder to make the trip more enjoyable?
The two airport guys reminded me of my friend Keith, a young wheat farmer. His wheat, like most of the wheat grown around here, is destined for export, mostly to Asia. He’s a libertarian twice over who detests the federal government meddling in the affairs of its citizens. Regulations are the bane of his existence. What would he do differently if there were no regulations about pesticides and fertilizers? Maybe nothing. He’s an honest man whose integrity is unimpeachable. Could he rely on others to do the same? Could he rely on Monsanto to be honest about it’s seeds and farm chemicals? You decide. What would his business be like if there was no federally underwritten crop insurance? No federally underwritten marketing program? No federal involvement in trade agreements? Wheat farms around here lost money last year. They may lose more this year. It all depends on international market conditions. It’s not a business for the faint hearted. Would they be better off going it alone without government help? That would mean no co-ops, no water or electricity from Columbia and Snake River dams, no county extension services.
Dreaded regulations have several reasons for existing. One is to protect us from unnecessary danger and health risks. Another is to protect us from predatory commercial practices. Yet others protect the environment from us. There are more. They all intersect. Are some unnecessary? Are some too complicated, redundant? Are some inappropriate for our area, even if they are needed in others? Have federal bureaucrats forgotten that they are in the business of customer service? Maybe they never knew. It’s all true, at least in part, but regulations are not bad per se, and they certainly are not indifferent commodities. The president’s plan to cut two for every one added treats them that way. Does that make any sense?