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There’s nothing biblical about 180,000 pages of federal regulations

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The Ten Commandments are among the best-known rules in history. The Old Testament book of Exodus describes how Moses brought down tablets from Mount Sinai with commands like “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Like other parts of the Bible, the Ten Commandments use “shalt” and “shalt not” to convey prohibitions from engaging in certain actions or obligations to take other actions.

As for other biblical rules or guidelines, few people — regardless of how hard they try — are familiar with every detail from every chapter. But if you think reading and remembering the Bible is a big endeavor, consider what our government expects of us.

Like the Bible, governments also sometimes attempt to either prohibit or obligate certain behaviors. Within the federal government, for example, scores of different regulatory agencies use words like “shall,” “must,” “may not,” “prohibited,” and “required” to create regulatory restrictions — that is, the “commandments” contained in regulations that, by design, try to illicit more or less of some specific activity.

{mosads}How many words like “shall” and “must” are there in the federal regulatory code? As of 2016, almost 1.1 million of them. The word “shall” alone appears over 512,000 times — making it one of the most commonly used words.


By comparison, there are only 11,455 words like shall and shalt in the King James Version of the Bible. Moreover, many of the uses of “shall” in the prophetic writings in the Bible are descriptions of God’s divine will and not necessarily prohibitions or obligations of specific behavior. In fact, the federal regulatory code contains more regulatory restrictions than the KJV Bible has total words (792,074).

Clearly, the Bible and the regulatory code of the United States are two very different documents, so perhaps the comparisons end here. But this illustration does beg a question: Do we need more than a million regulatory restrictions in the CFR?

More specifically, how many regulations does a modern economy need to function properly without being overly burdensome?

Regulations are usually created with the best of intentions in mind, such as increasing worker safety or protecting the environment. Over time, as the number and size of regulatory agencies grew, more and more regulations were created, as we might expect. The problem occurs when we add the new to the old, rather than simply replacing outdated or obsolete regulations.

This dynamic — called regulatory accumulation — has been shown to distort business investment, limit innovation and productivity growth, and slow economic growth.

This might be perfectly acceptable if every rule in the 180,000-plus pages of federal regulations were effective and efficient — delivering the outcomes intended by Congress’ authorizing statutes at a reasonable cost. But it would be naïve to believe that. Regulating, like any process involving real people with limited information, is subject to error. Not even the most optimistic among us should actually believe that our federal agencies have managed to regulate the world’s largest economy without committing at least a few significant errors.

On the other hand, the cost of regulatory accumulation is significant. A study from the Mercatus Center found that regulatory accumulation over the past several decades has considerably slowed economic growth, amounting to an estimated $4 trillion loss in U.S. GDP in 2012.

While ten commandments may not be enough for today’s economy, do we need over a million regulatory restrictions? When at least some of the regulations on the books are obsolete, duplicative, or ineffective, the answer must be no.

Patrick McLaughlin is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and Jonathan Nelson is a program associate.

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