Regulatory Reform: The Next Civil Rights Battlefield

After expending so much time and effort in the pursuit of civil rights, it’s outrageous that the government itself is now infringing our freedoms through overreaching regulation.

The problem lies in the one-size-fits-all approach through which many of our regulatory laws are enforced.

The process of making new laws is almost always grounded in good intentions, but some regulations cause more harm than good. For example, environmental regulations have the admirable goal of cleaning up pollution and protecting plants and animals from extinction. Asset forfeiture laws that confiscate property involved in criminal acts seeks to send a strong message that breaking the law can be expensive. These laws, however, can go too far and innocent people can be forced to endure terrible personal and monetary costs.

Environmental laws can restrict the use of private property, sometimes making an individual’s investment in their land worthless. Asset forfeiture laws that are enforced without perspective leave innocent victims of crime unable to reclaim their stolen or otherwise misused property. Inappropriate application of such regulations can create a world of pain and anguish for these law-abiding Americans.

For minority groups that are becoming more economically empowered, inflexible regulations can be a bitter blow. While the government tries to ensure that institutional discrimination is no longer an impediment to minority progress, regulations are enacted that effectively raise the bar for many of these same people to compete economically. Sometimes, a situation exists where government officials abuse their privilege to protect their own interests and power.

A new book, Shattered Dreams: 100 Stories of Government Abuse, which was recently published by The National Center for Public Policy Research, catalogs just a few of the shocking stories of regulations run amok. Stories from the African-American community are shocking:

* Joe Neal’s ancestors bought former plantation land when they were freed from slavery, but now Neal finds himself virtually shackled to the 92 acres he owns due to “smart growth” regulations imposed by the Richland County, South Carolina government. Neal doesn’t want to sell his land to developers – he simply wants to give it to relatives. But new rules meant to stop perceived “urban sprawl” are keeping Neal and other black farmers in the area from subdividing their properties.

* Hector Ricketts’ Queens Van Plan offers thousands of New York City commuters travel options that are cheaper, faster, more frequent and otherwise more convenient than public transit. Lawyers for Ricketts say regulations that restrict available stops and require commuters to call ahead for service were enacted by the government to reduce the ability of small businessmen like Ricketts to compete.

* In what was considered an effort to prove that the state was accommodating to businesses, the Mississippi Development Authority tried to condemn the land on which Lonzo Archie lived for most of his life. The government wanted to give Archie’s property to the Nissan Motor Company so they could build a parking lot for a nearby factory. This move was later blocked by the Mississippi Supreme Court as a violation of the state’s power of eminent domain.

Citizens who think they are doing the right thing can find themselves on the wrong side of government rules and regulations. These people face jail sentences, bankruptcy and even stresses that shorten their lives.

What can be done? To start, how about making regulators look before they leap?

When someone wants to develop a property, they must get prior government approval. This approval is often contingent on an environmental impact statement that determines if the disruption associated with construction is merited. Shouldn’t this same cost-benefit analysis apply to regulations?

Before governments put new rules into force, it would be a good idea to determine how much they would impact law-abiding citizens. This is especially important for those who stand on the weakest economic footing. If the impact is too costly – if too many businesses would be put at risk of closure or too many people would lose their private property rights – then lawmakers should rethink the need for such protections.

Overreaching regulation is emerging as the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

(David Almasi is the director of Project 21. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.


The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.