A Revolt Against Being Bossed Around

November 16, 1994|By VIRGINIA I. POSTREL

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- It looks like an ordinary wall. But it could be a clue to this year's big political mystery: Why are Americans so angry?

The wall is a six-foot-high divider, splitting a single office into two more-or-less private work spaces. Building it and another in the office next door cost $1,100. A few years ago, that would have been the end of it.

But nowadays, you can't do any office construction, at least not legally, without paying tribute to the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this case, the ADA exacted a payment of $5,000 -- the cost of adding a new fire-alarm system so that if there is ever a fire and it occurs when a deaf employee or visitor is present but no hearing person is there to alert the deaf person, blinking lights will flash a warning.

No wonder the contractor offered to bootleg the job.

Dear employees: We spent your raise money on a symbol. That's what it means to be law-abiding in 1994.

If you want to know why voters are angry, look at that wall. Listen to the entrepreneurs whose businesses made this year's Inc. 500 list of the fastest growing private companies. They are the people on whom continued prosperity depends. And in its 1994 survey, Inc. magazine reports, ''Regulation was most often identified as the No. 1 enemy. . . . Jittery about health-care reform, feeling bound and nearly gagged by red tape, these entrepreneurs bemoaned the burdens of complying with local, state and federal mandates that often conflict with one another and that always cost money.''

Listen to the report of the New Economy Project in Los Angeles County. In this survey of local businesses, mainly privately held companies, respondents listed regulation as their biggest problem. And they weren't calm about it: ''Many firms simply wrote in capital letters, 'GOVERNMENT HARASSMENT!' . . . or 'REGULATIONS!!!! . . . In interviews, company executives were frequently so angry about their relations with the government that they would vent their frustration on the project staff for several minutes before apologizing and more calmly responding to questions.''

Washington analysts, absorbed in the culture of government, miss the personal side of politics. Americans are sick and tired of being bossed around. Since 1987, according to Times Mirror survey data, the number of people who say the federal government controls too much of our daily lives has jumped from 58 to 69 percent. And 63 percent say that business regulations usually do more harm than good, up from 55 percent.

No wonder. Over the same time period, regulation has increased enormously -- with bipartisan support. George Bush, whom National Journal writer Jonathan Rauch rightly dubbed ''the regulatory president,'' left a burden that includes the 1990 Clean Air Act, the 1991 Civil Rights Act (which for the first time lets plaintiffs seek punitive damages in employment-discrimination suits), and the ADA -- all of which have far-reaching implications.

The Federal Register, which is where new regulations are published, has been growing steadily fatter, from 49,654 pages in 1987 to 69,688 in 1993. Meanwhile, cities and states have added their own contributions to the mounting pile -- new rules governing everything from hot-water faucets in apartment buildings, to smoking in restaurants, to company dress codes.

Government regulations have stretched far beyond General Motors and Exxon to invade just about every family home and every family business. Consider a single area of the law: real-estate ads. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal ''to make, print or publish . . . any notice, statement or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination'' based on the usual protected categories. And regulators take ''any'' very literally.

It is illegal, therefore, to advertise that a house or apartment is ''near the Mormon temple'' or ''within walking distance of synagogues'' (implied religious discrimination); that it has facilities ''perfect for runners'' (disability); or a ''yard great for children'' (familial/marital status); or that it is an ''executive home'' or is in a ''prestigious neighborhood'' (race, which suggests a certain racism on the part of regulators). It is even illegal for a woman to say in an ad that she's looking for a female roommate. So much for keeping government out of our bedrooms.

Humorist Dave Barry, who knows more about non-Washingtonian sentiments than 20 Beltway commentators, explains it best. In an interview in the December issue of Reason, he talks about getting ''a ticket for painting our own living room white'' without city permission. After he wrote about the experience, he discovered that some local residents were actually having carpenters and plumbers do their work in the middle of the night, lest their trucks be spotted by the permit police.

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