Contemporary Conservatism and
American conservatives have opposed the growth of government regulation in principle but accommodated that growth in practice. The disjunction was particularly striking during the recent decade of Republican ascendency (1999–2009). This chapter explains conservative hostility to regulation, describes and evaluates the growth of regulation through Republican as well as Democratic governments, reviews the record and legacy of the George W. Bush administration, and concludes with suggestions for conservative thought and action.
“Regulation” is a protean and potentially all-encompassing term: essentially every act of government aims to alter some course of events. A functional definition is that regulation is government prescription of terms and conditions of private transactions, usually in the form of rules written and enforced by specialized administrative agencies, aimed at achieving some public result.1 That differentiates regulation from taxing and spending—but taxing and spending programs are replete with detailed specifications of how taxes are calculated and funds awarded, and many of them are, like naked regulations, intended to alter private conduct. In the United States, the federal government regulates state and local governments through grant conditions and “unfunded mandates.” Beyond the functional definition, regulation has at least two political meanings in the American context: government efforts to manage private markets and hence “free enterprise” and “capitalism,” and federal government efforts to centralize power and policy making within the federalist system. Ambiguities at the margin are unimportant in this chapter: conservatism’s dilemma with the growth of regulation has some unique features but is not fundamentally different from its dilemma with the growth of government tout court.