EDITORIAL: Democrats didn’t always worship at the altar of the regulatory state

As members of the party of and for the government, today’s Democrats are aghast that President Donald Trump has gleefully embarked upon an aggressive assault of the regulatory state. At the end of last year, administration officials estimated that “rules already rolled back had saved $8.1 billion in regulatory costs over their lifetime, or a total of an estimated $570 million a year,” The New York Times reported.

This has unsettled many progressives, who paint a horrific picture of Americans drinking lead-laden slush out of the tap to choke down poisonous packaged foods that lack nutritional labeling — all while enduring the oil rigs that have torn up their backyards.

“Americans expect safe products, safe food and a financial marketplace that is fair to them,” one consumer activist told the Times. “Deregulation is undermining that.”

Of course, some level of regulation is important and necessary to protect the public health. But the debate over the bloated administrative state offers another example of how Democrats have steadily drifted leftward over the years. As Matt Welch of Reason magazine recently pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, it wasn’t so long ago that many Democrats appreciated that unnecessary red tape drove up costs, harmed innovation and hindered the economy.

Take Jimmy Carter. Ask a typical American to name the 39th president’s most notable accomplishment during his lone term in office, and the response is likely to be a furrowed brow and a head scratch. But before Mr. Carter assumed the presidency, the nation’s airlines were governed by a complex federal structure that mandated fares, limited routes and restricted competition. Mr. Carter in 1978 signed a bill deregulating the industry, making air travel cheaper and more accessible than ever before.

As Mr. Welch notes, portions of Mr. Carter’s first State of the Union address contained language that could have been uttered by Ronald Reagan — or Donald Trump. “We really need to realize that there is a limit to the role and the function of government,” Mr. Carter said. “Bit by bit, we are chopping down the thicket of unnecessary federal regulations by which government too often interferes in our personal lives and our personal business.”

At the same time, Mr. Welch reports, Jerry Brown was serving his first stint as California governor. In 1979, the liberal Democrat told residents of the Golden State that the government must “strip away the roadblocks and the regulatory underbrush that it often mindlessly puts in the path of private citizens.”

These comments would have modern-day progressives clutching their pearls in despair.

We hear much about how Republicans have marched steadily to the right and that many of Mr. Reagan’s policies wouldn’t pass muster with today’s GOP. Perhaps. But as Mr. Welch highlights, just 40 years ago, some of the most liberal politicians in the country recognized the perils of an overweening bureaucracy. Where are those Democrats today?

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