The Vicious St. Bernard

The “Odd Couple” reruns of my youth have never left my consciousness. Currently I’m recalling an episode where Oscar complains that Felix’ efforts to help always make the problem much worse. “You’re like a vicious St. Bernard!” It occurs to me that the vicious St. Bernard (originally used as a rescue dog) is a perfect metaphor for government regulations.

Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter recently reported on an in-flight conversation with a business owner. The man was explaining that despite his firm’s success, he had no plans to hire any new employees. Why? Because of the mountain of regulations coming out of DC. “How can I hire new workers today, when I don’t know how much they will cost me tomorrow?” While profitable, his business operates on low margins. So it’s not a stretch to think new employees could wind up costing more than they generate for the firm.

Executives can adapt to hostile operating conditions as long as there’s a degree of certainty regarding the rules they must follow. The government may heap new costs on me, but as long as I can factor those costs into my plans, there’s a good chance I can put together a strategy to remain profitable. But if the government suddenly changes the rules, all bets are off.

The term laissez faire has taken on negative connotations in recent years. But its origin was a simple plea for government to stop changing the rules. As the story goes, in 17th Century France, finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert once met with a group of business leaders. Colbert was notorious for frequently changing the rules businesses had to follow. When the minister asked how the government might help them, one of the group replied “Laissez nous faire,”  or  “Leave us alone.”

21st Century America has a government full of Colberts looking to change the rules to improve our lives. Of course, the more cynical can argue that politicians have no interest in making things better; they just want to reward their friends and punish their enemies. No doubt, that’s true of some, but I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt…even congresscritters.

Let’s revive the spirit of laissez faire and tell government to stop killing us with kindness. I’m sure the job-creating engine that is U.S. industry would shift out of neutral. As Felix Unger said to Oscar Madison, you want to help me? Don’t help me!

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