NOT EVERY ELECTION-SEASON book is a campaign biography. The upcoming Revolt Against Regulation: The Rise and Pause of the Consumer Movement, by ex-Federal Trade Commission chairman Michael Pertschuk (University of California Press), is timely because it examines one issue--to what extent does the public really want government off its back?--with which candidates all along the political spectrum are currently grappling. (The blind men and the elephant analogy is not inappropriate here. Everyone stepping up to the problem of regulation identifies it as something different.)
Pertschuk, a Carter appointee who lost his slot at the top when the Republicans came in, is still an FTC commissioner. "I knew I'd be dumped as chairman but decided to stay and make life as miserable for them as I could," he explains, a crusader with a fine sense of bureaucratic mischief. Formerly the staff director for the Senate Commerce Committee, Pertschuk has long been identified with the consumer movement but says he's actually not, strictly speaking, a Ralph Nader-type activist. "I'm more of a political hack," he insists, the mischief persisting, "more of an insider on the Hill."
Called the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the agencies by some critics and the "Nation's Nanny" by others, the Federal Trade Commission, when it started to get tough, found that Congress, in a new mood, wanted it to be more of a sissy. Pertschuk, caught in the backlash, can't help but be fascinated by the winds of political change that turned the successes of the early '70s into "a succession of inglorious defeats" at the decade's end.
In his opinion, "most political movements are negative ones. It's so much more invigorating for the Audubon Society to have Jim Watt, to have something to react against so they build up some outrage." This is a widely held notion and probably a true one, but it doesn't make the present reign of the "regulatory nihilists" any less painful for the opposition to watch. Speaking of "the public's generalized antipathy towards regulation," he notes that, at the same time, the voters want to be protected against harmful products, fraudulent practices and artificially high prices. This ambivalence, though, is useful, he says, to the lobbyists who are immensely skillful at making it a mask for the special interests they represent.
Revolt Against Regulation is Pertschuk's first book, not counting some ghost-writing for political figures whom he, his Hill loyalties still strong, declines to name. Based on a series of lectures delivered last fall at the Graduate School of Business Administration at Berkeley, it was nonetheless intended as a book all along. "I proposed the lectures in order to have time limitations that would force me to write," something he determined to do the morning after the 1980 elections. Next on his literary agenda is a book promised to Norton in 1984, when his commission term expires, that will be about his seven years there. "I have some working titles," he told "Book Report," the mischief flaring up again. How about Stalking the Wild Deception? Or The Gang that Couldn't Rule Straight?