The Backlash

Americans don't like regulations in general, being mostly descended from people who fled the overregulated autocratic Europe, and regulation seems to be the opposite of freedom. Many times industry supporters have taken advantage of this natural aversion in their campaigns to limit or roll back regulatory policy. But once people begin to see that regulations actually have a positive effect on their lives, attitudes change quickly.

At the end of the 1970s, even though we now know that most of the laws worked well and had major beneficial effects, a backlash against the flood of new regulations helped sweep Ronald Reagan into power. The Reagan administration tried to turn the regulatory tide and reverse the trend toward legislation mandating cleaner air and water. Reagan's EPA and Department of Interior administrators were philosophically opposed to regulations and to the whole idea of legal restrictions to growth and free enterprise. The interesting fact is that this attempt failed despite Reagan's success and popularity in most other areas of his conservative agenda. As it turned out, even conservatives prefer breathing clean air and being able to fish in clear streams. The clumsy attempts by people such as Anne Gorsuch at the EPA and James Watt at the Interior Department to reverse the trend toward environmental quality were disastrous failures, and both were forced to resign within a few years of their appointments. The EPA, though bruised, was saved. And the regulatory lawmaking and enforcement went right on.

From its inception, the EPA has been beleaguered by political opponents from the right and the left. Industry trade groups and supporters of free-market capitalism have long claimed that burdensome EPA regulations have cost American industries their profits and American workers their jobs. In some particular cases this could be true. But as the Reagan administration learned, no matter how conservative the mood of the American people, no one wants to give up his or her right to clean air. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, even many within the proindustry lobby who had grown sophisticated enough to understand the importance of environmental responsibility for the benefit of industry, revolted at the looming demise of the only agency able to enforce the regulations that had made such a difference in the kind of air American children were breathing.

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