Regulations vs Protections – more than just words

In a recent stream of comments about a post in GossipsOfRivertown, “More about Dumped Cement” Virginia Martin wrote to me:

Mark Orton said “This is why we have government regulations.” Linguist George Lakoff would say the term “regulations” is ill-considered. He’d say they’re protections. This is why we have government protections.

I thanked Virginia for pointing this out and promised to try out “protections” in place of “regulations”.1 The word “regulation” has been used as an epithet and rhetorical sledge hammer by Republicans and the centrist Bill Clinton Democrats as part of a general campaign to discredit anything that the government might do. This is part of the decades long political strategy of the rich and corporations to puff up the delights of “free markets”. 2 One might wonder what word we might use in place of “de-regulation” ? De-protect? Un-protect? Deregulation is so often projected as inherently a positive action yet that is hardly so. There is a parallel with the current efforts by the Republicans to “reform” health care laws.

The story of government regulation is complicated by the way in which the rich and corporations have come to dominate the writing of regulations.The lobbying industry, chiefly working for the rich and corporations, have their fingers in every aspect of the legislative process, from the Congress and on through the important process of writing the regulations that implement legislation. This means that most regulations have a strong element of protecting the interests of the rich and corporations. These can include anti-competitive regulations that keep people out of some markets. We are all aware of how riddled the tax code is with special deals for the rich and corporations. 3

So, in our efforts to correct the political narrative about the role of government vis-a-vis capitalism we need to acknowledge that their are these dual functions and separate them. accessed 5/7/17.

Protections are government actions to control effects of market capitalism like child labor laws, the 40 hour week, workplace safety, environmental protections, equal opportunity, equal wages, and many others. As illustrated by the situation in the airline industry in which four airlines control 80% of the US market, we need to have stronger protections against the tendency of capitalism towards oligopoly and monopoly. Or, in the case of internet access, we need protections to assure that every American has access at an affordable price because the oligopoly in charge does not find it profitable to do this. We need a rural electrification act of the Depression to provide what we all know to be a required basic service to participate in our society. I could go on… and on, but let me close with one final protection. We need protection from the rich and corporations owning our government. Their is no other description that fits the current facts on the ground.

Regulations that serve the needs of the rich and corporations abound. These are protections for their interests. The tax code is filled with them. The agriculture department is fundamentally captured by big agribusinesses. The Dept of Defense is really the payroll office for a handful of mega-corporations who have sited plants in every state and virtually every Congressional district to influence the political process in Washington.


  1. Virginia pointed to George Lakoff as a good source on the uses and misuse of words in political speech. Here he is on this very issue:
  2. Here we are avoiding another word, “neoliberal” that most academics and political wonks use to describe the ideology of Thatcher, Reagan, and Clinton. The first time I came across this word I was totally confused. Liberal meant Roosevelt, unions, public education, etc. Then I realized that “liberal” in “neoliberal” referred to the use of that term as applied to 19th century liberals like Locke, Mill, Bentham and so on. Small government, maximum individual freedom thinkers.
  3. A side note: Libertarians are particularly aware of how this works. They are quite on target about this. However, in their religious fervor over free-markets and small government their solution would be to eliminate both regulations and protections and let the free market sort it out. The fly in their ointment is that free markets don’t exist, have never existed, except in their idealized conception.