Unconvinced that regulation has run amok?

Perhaps some charts compiled by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University will help change your mind.

The American regulatory system has no working, systematic process for reviewing regulations for obsolescence or poor performance, facilitating the accumulation of a vast stock of regulations. A recent study found that the accumulation of federal regulations slowed economic growth by an average of two percent per year between 1949 and 2005. Several earlier studies using broad indexes, such as those produced by the World Bank and OECD, have permitted cross-country comparisons of the effects of certain types of regulations. These studies have also found that regulations can slow growth when they impede innovation and entrepreneurship.

In its most basic definition, a regulation is a law that “seeks to change behavior in order to produce desired outcomes,” and it does this by requiring or forbidding certain actions. Figure 1 shows the growth of federal regulations from 1997 to 2012, as measured by counting the number of restricting words, such as “shall,” “must,” or “required,” that are printed in the Code of Federal Regulations each year. (For information on the methodology behind this chart, see our paper.) The total number of restrictions in federal regulations has grown from about 835,000 in 1997 to over 1 million by 2010. Over time, these accumulated restrictions can either directly foreclose paths to innovation or entrepreneurship or add up to the point where their cumulative cost makes certain actions prohibitively expensive.


Mercatus Center researchers also prepared a chart documenting growth in the size of the federal government’s rulebook.


These charts help make the argument for regulatory reform at the federal level, an argument Jon Sanders makes consistently at the state level as well.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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