Our Efficiency-Killing Tangle of Laws

Governments produce tens of thousands of new laws every year, confusing citizens and driving business away. Instead of more laws, what we need is a focus on outcomes.
by | June 19, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

No one questions that we live in complex and challenging times. But few understand the degree to which government itself drives that complexity. State governments alone produce nearly 22,000 new laws per year on average, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, resulting in a tangle of regulations that is a nightmare for agencies to administer and for businesses and citizens to navigate. And of course our local and federal governments stay busy churning out their own massive amounts of legislation year after year.

Trying to comprehend what could possibly be driving the need for such a huge pile of new laws every year is a challenge, to say the least. What's easy to comprehend, however, is that this tangle of laws and regulations does anything but encourage the creation of new businesses and the expansion of existing ones that would bring the jobs our economy so desperately needs. In Oregon, for example, someone who wants to open a small convenience store with a gas pump must deal with laws across 12 state agencies. That's a burden a small business cannot reasonably carry.

"Prosperity at Risk," a Harvard Business School study published in March, provides a larger-scale view. The study surveyed some 10,000 Harvard graduates as a sampling of business leaders. Among the drivers they identified as contributing to America's competiveness challenges were our tax code, regulations, legal framework and political system.

In a keynote speech to the National Association of Attorneys General in Anchorage, Alaska, I shared my belief that the root cause of our failing political system at the state level is its failure to focus on a clear set of outcomes that matter to citizens. Instead, our system focuses on the creation of new laws, resulting in a hodgepodge of convoluted and tangled regulations that defies even basic logic. (Enjoy the video.)

When I first heard back in 2010 that Oregon lawmakers had passed 844 new laws in that year's session — laws that resulted in some 25,000 pages of new regulations — I had my first ah-ha moment with regard to a root cause of government inefficiency. The second trigger came from a constitutional lawyer who came up after hearing me speak at a juvenile-justice symposium in Oregon to explain to me that government "was never intended to be efficient." He pointed out that that nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or in the debates leading up to its signing is there evidence that efficiency was even discussed.

Instead, government has long tried to solve problems by creating news laws, accumulating over the years an enormous pile of unreconciled legislation. For lawmakers, there are few provisions or incentives to clean up that tangle of laws; for agencies that deliver government services, working within the framework of that irrational, illogical tangle of legislation is at best complex and at worst impossible.

I do not underestimate the complexity or difficulty of untangling this mess. But until we get government focused on citizen outcomes and begin to clean things up, we will continue to push business elsewhere, driving away the opportunity to revive our economy and create jobs.