Session IV — The Regulatory State

Since the late 19th century, protection of the U.S environment, workers, consumers, and communities has been in the hands of regulatory agencies and the laws that established them — Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — to name a few.  When our news is filled with stories of defective Firestone tires and genetically modified animal feed in taco shells, more people are starting to wonder: are these institutions effective in carrying out their assignments?  Are we safe in their hands?  Who and what are protected by regulatory law and its implementers?  What are the consequences for public and environmental health when poisoning, endangering, and destroying are violations of regulatory standards rather than violations of human beings, communities, and the earth?

For many decades concerned citizens have focused their efforts on nudging regulatory agencies toward more rigorous enforcement rather than challenging the illegitimate power of corporate entities and the people running them.  This session asks us to talk about these realities and to imagine the kind of changes in our understanding, approach, and institutions that will provide the protections and authority we seek.


1 – “Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing,” by Jane Anne Morris (3 pages)

2 – Excerpt from “The Grand Bazaar” chapter of Who Will Tell the People by William Greider (9 pages)

3 – The Peoples Business by Lee Drutman and Charlie Cray (3 pages)

4 – How to Curb Corporate Power by Ralph Nader (3 pages)

Discussion Questions:

1.     Discuss the driving forces behind the creation of the regulatory agencies.  What are the impacts of privatizing profits while socializing costs?  Do railroad executives’ comments about “ruinous competition” (and their solutions for it) shed any light on current statements about competition from the business world?

2.     Give examples of regulatory agencies acting as “permitting” bodies for corporations, providing more protection for corporations than us.  What do you see as alternatives to put “we the people” in charge?

3.     How does the labyrinthine system described by William Greider impact the ability of people to practice democracy?  What is the impact of random enforcement of the law?  Who gets to participate in this system, and who is excluded?

4.     How do occasional stories of victories by the EPA, FDA, anti-trust, and others affect our beliefs in the regulatory system?  Are court decisions such as the one against “Big Tobacco” really victories? 

Supplementary Materials:

     Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy, by William Greider.  Touchstone, 1992.

     Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916, by Gabriel Kolko.  Princeton University Press, 1965.

     The Triumph of Conservatism, a Re-interpretation of American History, 1900-1916, by Gabriel Kolko.  The Free Press of Glencoe (New York), 1963.

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