Commentary: A little government regulation is a good thing

Conservative politicians love to rail against government regulation of business, and voters lap it up.

After all, nobody likes being told what to do. This is a free country, isn't it?

Almost any small business owner can point to examples of what he or she considers to be excessive government regulation, and many of those complaints are valid.

But to say that they show government regulation is bad is like saying the earth is flat because it looks that way from your window.

During the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, the nation went from a strong economy and federal budget surplus to a deep recession and huge deficit. Much of that was the result of big tax cuts and two wars waged on credit.

The financial crisis that severely damaged our economy was largely the result of a lack of government regulation of investment banks and mortgage lenders. That included the repeal of regulations enacted during the Great Depression to prevent it from happening again.

Congress is now trying to re-regulate the financial services industry to prevent future crises. Still, conservative politicians are whipping up anxious voters by railing against government regulation. Go figure.

One especially troubling example comes from Bill Johnson, a Todd County businessman seeking the GOP nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky. I heard Johnson and eight of the other 10 Senate candidates speak last month at the annual meeting of county judge-executives.

Johnson declared that several federal agencies should be abolished, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. And he said it with a straight face.

The Interior Department, created in 1849, does a variety of things from overseeing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to managing federal land, including the national parks. It also regulates surface mining, which may be what has Johnson steamed.

Congress created the EPA in 1970 at the urging of Republican President Richard Nixon because businesses and cities were poisoning the air and turning the nation's lakes and rivers into sewers.

So, if we abolish the Interior Department, do we open more government land, including national parks, to oil drilling and coal mining? More logging and development? Or do we simply sell off federal lands to private interests and let them do as they please?

If we abolish the EPA, do we let mines, refineries, factories and cities pollute at will? Or do we rely on states for environmental regulation, which is often weak?

When the first white settlers came to Kentucky, they found a land that had been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years, yet remained an almost virgin wilderness. Less than 250 years later, Kentucky is covered with sprawling development, scarred by poorly reclaimed surface mines and challenged by air and water pollution. Without government regulation — indeed, better regulation than we've had up to now — what will Kentucky be like in another 250 years? Or 2,500 years?

American free enterprise is a wonderful thing. But business needs good government regulation to save it — and the rest of us — from greed, exploitation and excess. That's especially true now that corporate vision rarely extends beyond the next year's earnings forecasts and executive bonus plans.

Like most Americans, I don't want government to be either too big or too small. I just want government that works in the best interests of the nation as a whole, for my grandchildren and their grandchildren's grandchildren. In the long run, that's also good for business.