Recently, two events occurred at Stanford University, where work, that made me uncomfortably aware of the inadequacy of the good guys vs. bad guys approach to federal government regulation.
First, those who have been to Stanford will remember that the main approach to the university is up a long drive, around an oval road, up a number of stairs and into a beautiful courtyard that leads the visitor into the historic inner quad and up to the baroque, bizarre and charming Memorial Church. Last September, a ramp appeared alongside the flights of steps and, for the first time in history, it became possible for a person in a wheelchair to enter Stanford University through its beautiful front door under his own power.
At about the same the ramp was being built University President Richard Lyman received a letter from the Department of Labor informing him that the prospective offer to Stanford of a government research contract in excess of $1 million had triggered an automatic audit of the affirmative action program at his "firm." The word "firm" was used to describe the university five times in the course of a five-paragraph letter.
Both events derive from the government's attempts to achieve a worthwhile result by mandating universities to engage in certain kinds of behavior and enforcing the mandate by administrative regulaton. I submit, however, that evaluating them from a single ideological perspective, either pro- or anti-government regulation, can only misrepresent the true complexity of the real world. Let me explain.
I would not want to argue that the ramp for access by the handicapped is anything other than good. Nor would I want to argue that Stanford would have spent the $40,000 needed to build the ramp were it not for the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Indeed, I know that Stanford would not have done any such thing, because since the founding of the university it had not. It is hard to complain seriously about a regulation that forces you to do a good thing you have avoided doing for almost 100 years.
The affirmative action example is more difficult to assess. Academic people, more than most, are eager to profess publicly their good intentions and sound values with respect to racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination. On the whole, they may be freer than most from such bias. However, since that conclusion was not borne out of employment statistics, the government added the stick of affirmative action to the carrot of equal opportunity. Has it worked? Nobody really knows. It is an interesting question whether affirmative action programs in universities have increased employment of the target groups beyond what would have occurred given all the other social changes taking place at the same time.
But it is indisputable that neither universities nor minorities are well served by an enforcement process that cannot tell the difference between a university and a "firm."
That may sound snobbish, but it is not. It is simply a commonplace observation that universities are different from businesses, which are different from churches, which are different from football teams. Regulatory activists must consider whether government is capable of making such distinction or whether it is inherently so heavy-handed that it can use only a cleaver, even where a scalpel is needed. If government is incapable of dealing with the critical differences that characterize the institutions of American society, then it is as likely to harm as to help, its good intentions and righteous goals notwithstanding.
Perhaps our national unease with the way things are going means that the time has come for polemics to give way to thought, reasoned analysis and a serious effort to understand which social mechanisms are most likely to yield which socially desirable results. Personally, I have had it up to here with zealots of th Ralph Nader persuasion whose answer to every one of the world's injustices or aberrations is to pass a law or make a rule. Only lawyers who are paid to litigate the results can see it as a blessing.
But I have also had it up to here with the New Conservatives, whose useful critique of the excesses of the rule of regulation and whose equally useful defense of the value of free-market processes sometimes leads them to an ethical dead end in which any result that the market achieves is by definition ethically good and any result achieved by collective social action is by definition ethically bad.
The world I live in is too complicated and too important to be governed by either of those sides. My world includes ramps for the handicapped that are 100 years overdue and letters to my "firm" that make me very uneasy indeed.