Something must be done. All too often, these four words precede a politician advocating new bureaucratic measures or regulation in order to combat some social or economic affliction, whether real or perceived. New rules and laws are rarely properly audited, of course, and by the time it becomes apparent that they are costly and unproductive – or even counter-productive – another policy area is in vogue and another mountain of red tape follows.
In terms of quantity of legislation, at the start of the twentieth century, something in the region of 1,000 pages of acts and regulations were passed into law annually. At the start of the twenty first century, the figure is more like 70,000. It is a principle of the English legal system that ignorance of the law is no defence, but it is now quite obviously impossible for any individual person to know more than a tiny fraction of the rules and regulations with which they need to comply. This goes some way to accounting for the spiralling numbers employed by companies to ensure that the growing mountain of diktats is coped with. In 1979, around 12,000 people were personnel managers in British businesses. By 2006, this had increased tenfold.
The regulatory zeal of the European Union compounds the problem enormously – with the number of legal acts in force in the EU rising from about 10,000 a decade ago to not far short of 30,000 today. The cost – just of new regulations introduced in the UK in the last decade – is estimated by the British Chambers of Commerce to be around £77bn.
Many of the initiatives are clearly absurd. Trying to prevent young children scorching themselves, or others, with cigarette lighters might sound like a noble goal, but the manifestation of this objective in the form of EU regulation K (2007) 1567 is absurd. The child safety compliance of lighters must be tested in a laboratory in which it can be shown that no more than 15% of children under the age of 51 months are able to ignite a flame.
It is this culture that organisations such as the Institute of Economic Affairs seek to change. And we need to do it not merely by setting out facts and figures, but by making a moral case for free market solutions to society’s afflictions. It’s not just that burgeoning bureaucratic government programmes are ineffective, they also undermine personal responsibility and have an infantilising impact on the adult population. People understandably feel less responsibility to properly manage their own lives in a world in which the state has become not our protector, but our mother. We also steadily feel less and less responsibility to others.
The more the state pretends it can regulate away risks and dangers – or that it can institute a society of fairness and tranquillity through diktat, the less inclined individuals are to take an interest in the world around them and the less empowered they are to make a positive impact.
The "anti-politics" feeling of many people in modern Britain has so far been nebulous and ill-defined – reflected in decreasing turnouts at elections, declining membership of political parties and increased support for a wide variety of fringe parties. But perhaps it is possible to channel this sentiment into a more positive force. Perhaps the growing ranks of disillusioned voters can begin to imagine – and agitate for – a society in which free markets and individual responsibility are trusted to produce desirable outcomes.
And if politicians want to rebuild trust, they would be well advised to display much greater humility. They need to stop pretending that the state has many or all the answers – and that an army of bureaucrats is necessary to get these answers across. They need to start resisting the temptation to always say "something must be done" and instead seek to hand power back from the state and to ordinary men and women. That might go against all their professional instincts, but they might just find that they capture the national mood.
Mark Littlewood is Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs