Why Do We Need So Much Regulation

The phenomenal increase in regulation over recent decades has been driven by three factors:

  • Fear
  • Values
  • The Need for Expert and Long-Term Decision Making, with the added advantage of Political Blame Avoidance
  • Saving money


Those of us born in the 1950s and 60s entered a world which was easy to understand. Energy, transport, education, health care and some other goods and services were provided by UK-based monopolies. Bank customers - even large ones - had only current and deposit accounts. Our families were to a great extent self-sufficient. Our houses and water were warmed by coal, gas and electric fires, so there was no need for thermostats and electronic controllers. Washing machines, telephone landlines and TVs became increasingly widespread but it wasn't too difficult to understand how they worked, and to manage without them, whilst motor cars, for instance, could easily be maintained by anyone willing to wield a spanner and screwdriver.

We now live in a transformed world in which competition has brought us bewildering choice, delivered by technology which most of us can only dimly understand and which is controlled by huge multinational companies.

  • Quants employed by financial services companies trade huge quantities of obscure financial instruments whilst their managements do not appreciate the risks that they are taking.
  • Many of these companies, along with other such as railway franchisees, cannot be allowed to fail.
  • Utility and communications companies offer complex contracts with expensive termination provisions.
  • Aircraft and road vehicles are driven by complex algorithms - and will soon be self-driving.
  • Health care, and many medicines, are becoming very expensive.
  • If our electricity - or even just our broadband - fails, we have serious problems.

In short, we are now pretty much totally reliant on the expertise and good faith of others - others who may be subject to commercial and other pressures of which we are only dimly aware. We therefore need help in choosing appropriate energy suppliers, schools, hospitals etc., and we need to be protected from those whose behaviour might cause us harm. These factors drove much of the explosive growth in regulation since the 1980s.

A similar argument has been made by Gillian Tett in respect of the growth of regulation in the USA.


Much regulation since the 1970s has been about society's ethics and values. There has been much equalities legislation, for instance, beginning with the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, enforced by what is now the EHRC. A more recent regulatory regime is overseen by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Delegation of Decision Making to Experts

A second major factor was Ministers' determination to delegate politically contentious decision-making . It was much better, they concluded, to have such decisions taken by apolitical experts who were willing to think long term and well beyond the electoral cycle. Crucially, too, it meant that Ministers could avoid blame when energy prices rose, or patients were refused access to expensive medicines.

My web page on the independence and accountability of regulators discusses this area in greater depth.

Regulation Cuts Government's Costs

The third (though probably less important) factor was that Ministers have in recent years found that regulation saves public money and so reduces tax rates. A large proportion of UK tax administration is carried out by employers via PAYE, and they also collect student loans and administer many sickness benefits. It is also cheaper - and probably more effective, to introduce regulations than to spend money on campaigns to change consumer or business behavior.

Regulation is one of four policy tools available to Ministers. (Check out the Policy Making sections of the sister Civil Servant website for more detailed advice and information.) It is accordingly for Ministers to decide their policy objectives and then - if they choose to achieve their objectives via regulation - to draft appropriate legislation for approval by Parliament. This legislation sometimes itself takes the form of regulations. Alternatively it creates regulatory bodies with specific duties and specific powers..

Digging a Little Deeper:-

Martin Sandbu looks at regulation from another perspective and identifies three key reasons why regulation might be needed:- information, externalities and co-ordination.

Whether in our personal lives - driving for instance - or when spending money, information is vital. On the road, street markings and costly requirements to keep the surface at a certain standard help us predict the driving conditions and the behaviour of other drivers. Other regulations such as labelling requirements and minimum standards help us know what we are paying for. (The Mensa Ponderaria on the left underpinned Pompeii's weights and measures regulations.) And information is increasingly important in many modern economic sectors - one reason why regulation is growing and why efficient economies will continue to regulate much commercial activity.

The need to limit many externalities is also pretty obvious. Reckless driving can harm others. Similarly, there are prohibitions on how businesses can behave, including competition, environmental, health and safety, and employment legislation.

Regulation is also often necessary to avoid the tragedy of the commons - the consequences of systems where resources such as common grazing land are available to all, so everyone is incentivised to increase their use of the resource whose total availability is limited. One solution is to establish property rights - which is what happened when common land was 'enclosed' in medieval England. But it is not so easy to establish property rights over the high seas, which is why international regulation is needed to control fishing and acid rain, for instance.

Finally, co-ordination. Why require cars to drive on a specific side of the street? Because the benefits to all of co-ordinating on the right or the left vastly outweighs any difference in the merit of which particular rule is chosen. This is particularly relevant to Single [European] Market regulations. The FT's Philip Stephens once regaled his readers with the tale of a British complaint about a European noise limit on lawnmowers. The supposed Brussels over-reach had, it turned out, been instigated and steered through the legislative process by the British government at the behest of UK manufacturers, who were finding their lawnmowers locked out of the German market because of Berlin’s national noise rules. The new, Europe-wide, decibel ceiling put the British producers back in the game.

The Six Types of Regulation

Follow this link to be introduced to the various forms of regulator and regulation.

Better Regulation and Deregulation

The explosive growth in regulation has created a strong reaction in the form of various deregulation initiatives. These are discussed in a separate section of this website, best accessed via my homepage.

Remember, however, that wealthy countries are generally subject to lots of regulation. Correlation is not causation, of course, but it is unlikely that extensive deregulation would be good for the economy.

There is also understandable concern that the (unelected) regulators that have been created to protect us (see above) have themselves become too powerful. This subject is discussed in more detail here.


Martin Stanley

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