Self-regulation

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Aug. 21, 2009, p. A11, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “We humans aren’t very good at regulating ourselves.”) 

We have heard all too many reports of Ontario drownings over the past summer.  Sadly, most of these deaths could have been avoided if the people involved would have been wearing life-jackets.  Now there is a call for a federal law mandating the wearing of life-jackets while on any watercraft.  It seems that we are not very good at regulating ourselves. We need help.  We need a government to make us do what we should have been doing on our own.

Repeated studies have shown that the use of cell-phones while driving increases the likelihood of accidents. And yet, drivers continue to use cell-phones while on the road.  One even sees cyclists using cell-phones!  You would think that the instinct of self-preservation, or the generally accepted expectation that we should not harm other persons would be enough to keep people from indulging in this dangerous practice.  But, no, we seem to be incapable of self- regulation.  Thankfully the Ontario government is stepping in and will soon prohibit cell-phone use while driving. 

There is an epidemic of obesity among children in Canada.  Much of it has to do with their eating habits.  But children keep eating fast foods.  Parents seem unable to change their children’s eating habits.  Indeed, parents themselves indulge in foods that make them fat.   So again, we seem to need government programs to encourage us to adopt healthier lifestyles and better eating habits. 

Not only individuals, but also organizations and institutions don’t seem to be very good at regulating themselves.  The food industry only eliminates trans-fats and other unhealthy products if the government introduces regulations.  Maple Leaf Foods and Walkerton are painful reminders of what happens when government inspectors don’t do their job or when there are too few of them.  General Motors was unable to regulate itself as it responded to unregulated consumer demand for big cars.  GM needed government interference to push it in the direction of producing smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.   The RCMP watchdog has just released a report that recommends that it is unwise to have the RCMP police themselves.  Then, of course, there is Wall Street and the financial industry that have brought on our current financial crisis, all because they were free to “regulate” themselves.

And yet we hear strident objections to any form of government interference.  We want small governments.  Industries prefer to be self-regulating.  Any controls on the financial industry are viewed with suspicion.  And at the personal level too we want to be free to make our own choices.  We don’t want any big Daddy telling us what to do.

There are of course ideologies and political parties that advocate self-regulation and hold on to this principle as an article of faith.  Fortunately, harsh reality has a way of keeping the excesses of such thinking in check.  Radical self-regulation just doesn’t work. Indeed, it self-destructs.

When will we ever learn?  We as human beings are not very good at regulating ourselves.  We don’t know how to handle freedom.  We are not quite as rational as we like to think we are.  Our institutions and organizations also don’t know how to regulate themselves.  We need help. 

But where will help come from?  We seem to need government to impose and enforce regulations both at individual and corporate levels.  But, here a very basic problem arises: The government itself is made of human beings who are not good at self-regulation.  Our politicians are not perfect.  Who will regulate the regulator?  

The checks and balances inherent in a democracy are certainly of some help.  Of more help is the widespread acceptance of moral principles such as honesty, justice, and care for other persons.  Even more important is living according to these moral principles.  Perhaps we also need the notion of a super-cosmic Regulator who not only knows what is right, but who will in the end hold all human self-regulators accountable.

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