A case for government regulation

July 18, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- Those of us who grumble about the heavy hand of government regulation are always quick to pass along our nightmarish experiences with regulators. There are plenty of these, but in fairness we ought to pass along the better ones too. Thus this tale.

The United States Coast Guard, which years ago I came within a coin-toss of joining, has long been one of my favorite agencies. This is both because it does many difficult and dangerous jobs very well, and because, in these lean budgetary times, it does them remarkably efficiently. Today's Coast Guard has fewer people than the New York City police department.

But the Coast Guard doesn't just rescue storm-tossed sailors and search suspicious vessels for drugs. It is also a regulator, which means it can if it chooses make life fairly miserable for the regulated. So when I got involved some months ago in a project that would eventually require the Coast Guard's attention, I was more than a little apprehensive.

The project involved the conversion of an old wooden Chesapeake Bay workboat into a vessel authorized to carry up to 24 passengers for hire, primarily on short fishing and sightseeing trips in the upper bay. Such certification always requires Coast Guard inspection, and in the wake of the El Toro disaster a couple of years ago, in which a charter boat with a winter fishing party sank in the lower bay and lives were lost, wooden commercial boats get extremely close scrutiny.

Demanding, yet cordial

But in our case the certification process, while undeniably demanding and conducted with great professionalism, turned out to be highly instructive and even cordial. The inspector from the Coast Guard's marine-safety office in Baltimore visited the boat regularly over the winter and spring, first to explain patiently what had to be done and then to make sure that it had been.

When it was eventually received, the boat's certification meant two things. First, the vessel had been made very safe for any members of the public who might choose to go aboard it -- far safer, structurally and mechanically, than most yachts of the same size. And second, its value had probably been doubled.

The whole experience, it seemed to me, offered a useful look at regulation in microcosm. For example, economists often note that government regulation has two main constituencies, the regulated and the regulated's customers.

And in this case we see that while regulation presumably benefits the latter by protecting them from future El Toro calamities, it also benefits those who own or operate regulated boats by protecting them from competition from the unregulated.

As to whether regulation is good or bad, and whether it should be increased or reduced, that's really an ideological judgment.

Liberals usually say that most safety regulations should be stiffer. It would be a logical liberal position, for example, to say that no wooden boats of any kind should be allowed to carry paying passengers. Or if not stiffer, the regulations should be broader, and applied, say, to all boats, instead of just to those carrying more than six passengers, as is currently the case.

Liberals also love licensing, and would be inclined to say that anyone operating a boat of any kind should first be licensed by the government.

The market will provide

Libertarians, on the other hand, would say there should be no regulation of boats at all, because market pressures would provide what the public wants in terms of speed, comfort and safety. And they would see no public interest served by licensing.

The rest of us would probably fall somewhere in between, which it seems to me is where the Coast Guard is. It licenses all captains of boats, no matter how small, that carry paying passengers. But it only inspects and certifies those boats intended to carry more than six people for hire, and it doesn't license recreational boaters.

Neither do most states, although the legislative itch is there to do so. A number of states, including Maryland, have compromised by requiring that most people who operate power boats have some minimal boating education.

I've always considered the idea of licensing boaters as offensive and unwarranted, and don't like to envision the day when I'm out in my kayak and get stopped by an officious functionary demanding to see my documents.

But I have to admit that in recent years, as I watch the increase in maniac jet-ski behavior in quiet Chesapeake creeks, and see huge yachts run by ignoramuses in sunglasses ignore all rules of common sense and right of way, I'm having second thoughts. The day one of those creeps runs into me I may well conclude that a little more regulation would indeed be in the public interest.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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