Afterword: Regulating Actions
Ryan Meade, J.D., C.H.R.C., C.H.C.-F.*
“When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy.
You get the small laws.” G.K. Chesterton1
While Chesterton did not live in the age of the modern administrative state,
I still take his reference to “small laws” as applicable to the sea of regulations
people live with in the United States today. There are no empirical studies I
am aware of to back up this supposition, but it has often struck me that while
the United States may regulate fewer activities than other industrialized
countries, when the U.S. does regulate something, the regulations are thick
and deep. Meanwhile, in other polities, the regulations are broad but thin.
Small laws dominate commercial activities in the U.S. more so than the big
How did the U.S. come to be a country of small laws? What necessitates
97,110 pages of the Federal Register in 2016? 2 One answer is already found
in Chesterton’s quip, noting the breaking of the big laws. If a federal
contractor invoices a fraudulent claim to a government agency, it is
considered insufficient to merely fine and penalize that company out of
existence. There is an impetus in the United States to enact “small laws” to
further manage the activity that was the subject-matter of the fraud, such as
proscribing tighter strictures around the form of the invoice—diving into
minutia of the activity whether or not it has relation to the initial problem of
fraud. The current administrative state can sometimes seem like a fantastical
creature that when smashed, turns into an overwhelming number of miniature
versions far more threatening than the original monster.
As maddening as the proliferation of regulations can be, at least the
Chesterton view has a distinct origin story: the breaking of an initial law.
Why regulations are promulgated is not always as neatly pinpointed.
Regulating in the United States has become a haphazard activity. When the
regulatory engines rev up and the printing presses of the Federal Register
Director, Regulatory Compliance Studies, Loyola University Chicago School of
Law; Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Regulatory Compliance.
1. G.K. CHESTERTON AND A.L. MAYCOCK, THE MAN WHO WAS ORTHODOX 119 (D.
Dobson, ed. 1963).