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It’s official: when it comes to the conservative obsession with so-called “red tape,” we’ve reached the absolute bottom of the barrel. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it came courtesy of an Ontario politician named Ford.

“Did you know Ontario has the lowest number of regulations per capita in Canada?” Michael Ford, minister of citizenship and multiculturalism (and yes, Premier Doug’s nephew), tweeted last week. “When it comes to reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens, we’re getting it done.”

When it comes to metrics measuring government efficiency, though, this is about as useful as laws per cat or dollars per cloudy day. As the biggest province in Canada, Ontario will naturally have the lowest regulation-per-capita ratio, all other things being equal. But underneath that obvious silliness is a more pernicious assumption, one that presumes fewer regulations are automatically or inevitably a good thing, no matter what they cover or how they’re applied.

For conservative governments, it’s apparently all about quantity over quality.

First, some history. Back in 2011, then-prime minister Stephen Harper created a “Red Tape Commission,” one that was headed by none other than future People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier. In 2015, his government passed the “Red Tape Reduction Act,” which quickly became a moot point when the Liberals booted him out of office later that year.

But while Harper’s legislation withered on the political vine, his campaign against “red tape” has yielded plenty of fruit. Conservative provincial governments across the country have taken up his fight, with many adopting similar legislation of their own — and some, like Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government in Alberta, even appointing actual Ministers of “Red Tape Reduction.”

In fairness, the underlying premise here is hard to argue with politically: nobody likes filling out unnecessary paperwork or forms, and regulations that don’t produce some verifiable benefit are just wasted time and energy. But is “red tape” really a problem in Canada — and does reducing it actually yield benefits for anyone other than the business community?

As Ed Dolan, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center with a PhD in economics from Yale, wrote in a 2018 piece for the Harvard Business Review, “Many conservatives and libertarians seem to think the only good regulation is a dead regulation. If that were true, it should be possible to quantify regulation and measure the harm it does. However, attempts to do so have not been particularly successful.”

Instead, he found there was some spurious correlation at work in the familiar argument that deregulation leads to more economic prosperity. “I found that quality of government is a statistically significant predictor of GDP and of broader prosperity indexes,” he wrote. “At the same time, when I controlled for quality of government, regulatory freedom lost its predictive power. I interpret this to mean that quality of government is the real cause of economic and social prosperity.”

If anyone needs an example of the dangers associated with cutting back on rules and regulations, they need only look at Michael and Doug Ford’s Ontario. Columnist @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver #RedTapeReduction

It’s not like Canada is beset by burdensome regulations, either. According to the 2022 Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation (a right-wing think tank dedicated to advancing conservative ideas), we rank 15th in the world — ahead of Germany (16), the United Kingdom (24), the United States (25) and Japan (35).

If anyone needs an example of the dangers associated with cutting back on rules and regulations, they need only look at Michael and Doug Ford’s Ontario. Back in the mid-1990s, when Mike Harris and his “common sense revolution” took over the province, cutting regulations was at the top of the new conservative government’s to-do list. And few branches of government bore a heavier brunt than Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, where nearly half of the budget was cut and 900 of 2,400 front-line staff were laid off.

But as Ontarians quickly found out, letting the private sector regulate itself can have unintended consequences. An outbreak of E. coli from improperly treated water at a nearby farm in Walkerton ended up killing six people and sickening more than 2,000 others, and eventually led to stricter water treatment guidelines — you know, regulations — in the province.

There are plenty of other examples of how regulatory failure, or regulatory absence, can cause and amplify harm to the public. The pandemic exposed deadly flaws in Ontario’s long-term care system that were made far worse by the province’s refusal to enforce its regulations on private and public care homes.

It’s not just provincial governments falling down here, either. As the auditor general noted back in late 2021, the federal government’s failure to enforce COVID-19 regulations around quarantining and other protective health measures put temporary foreign workers in Canada at risk — and cost some of them their lives.

The evidence here should be clear: if your goal is improving government efficiency, focusing on eliminating as much regulation as possible is an invitation to disaster. As Dolan wrote, “Regulations need to be evaluated one by one to determine whether they should be retained, replaced, or repealed. An indiscriminate approach to deregulation risks being hijacked by rent seekers.”

Then again, if you believe that governments exist to remove impediments to free enterprise — or if you’re one of the said rent seekers — this approach works just fine.

Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime Republican activist, once said: “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

In Canada, when conservatives start talking about red tape, we might want to start listening for the sound of running water.

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The irony is the obsession with red tape that conservatives introduce for public services. Not only that, it ends up being endemic to the civil service over time. The desire to means-test every possible program and use the bureaucracy to make programs difficult to use and keep service levels as low as possible. Anyone who has had to deal with immigration paperwork knows what I mean.

Just what I was going to say. Conservative are all about regulations and red tape. Just, not for rich people with, almost by definition, a track record of successful greed and fraud. Only for people who on average probably don't do much of that stuff or they'd, you know, have more money. So when it comes to dealings with people you know for pretty sure are going to take you to the cleaners given the slightest loophole, Conservatives want the Wild West--just let 'em drive away with truckfuls of public money. But when it comes to dealing with single moms struggling to feed their kids, you have to assume they're terrorists and spend millions of dollars policing them lest they end up with $2.53 too much!

Well argued. The Conservative fear of poor people is well known.........and its a paranoia without object, but given the competitive nature of our country, and the increasing fears we all have of falling through the widening provides a symbolic enemy that keeps us distracted from the scary fact we have to fight these billionaires and trillionaires, regulate the greed right out of them. And soon. If a livable planet has any place in our future.

Conservatives like to pretend they've never heard of the term "externalities". Simultaneously, they like to pretend they know the tiniest thing about economics.

Really good article. Makes us realize how much yet another outrageous and absurd conservative narrative has taken hold--another simple-minded one about government being bad, and the bigger the badder.
Refreshing though it is that progressives aren't known for "narratives" and rightly see ourselves as more enamored of principles, we still should have no trouble successfully rebutting nonsense, but somehow we've been useless, just standing by helplessly. Is it complacency and misplaced faith in people or is it just more "going high?" Whatever, it's so not working because with the glaring ineptitude of conservative governments on ALL fronts, we should at least be able to win people over on basic competence. But it's like everyone's memories have been scrubbed....

Our economy now mirrors those of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy: public tax dollars going directly to corporations with little regulation or oversight.
“Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” — Benito Mussolini

Not really. On one hand, in those places unions were actually illegal, not just picked to death with constraints and regulations. Trade unionist leaders got sent away with the Jews and gays and Rom and mentally ill and socialists and anyone else they felt like getting rid of. On the other, NG had social programs.

You are talking about social regulations, not economic regulations. Those social regulations were meant to aid corporations like drug testing today.