Montana Viewpoint
August 20, 2007

Most laws are not born out of thin air, but are written to address a particular problem. The irony is that once the problem is successfully dealt with it, is soon forgotten, and the law is viewed as either antiquated or burdensome.

A good example is the body of law written to address environmental concerns. When rivers ran red from industrial pollution it seemed like it would be a good idea to clean them up, and not just because red is not a nice color for rivers. Vegetation died, animal life was decimated and there were terrific health problems among the people who lived near them.

Those laws were successful—so successful that few people remember the problems they addressed—and the need to keep them on the books gets questioned. It is questioned especially by the industry that has to comply with them and which tries to weaken them. They might argue that complying with the laws puts an added cost to their operation and inhibits economic development. I’m sure they’re right, but does that make the law unreasonable?

Any cost saved by a company means a more profitable company, but what does it mean for the public? For the most part industry did not foot the bill for cleaning up the toxic waste that was common in the 1950s, the American taxpayer did. This has not changed a lot. In Libby, W. R. Grace is not paying for the health costs of those men and women who were poisoned by the tremolite asbestos in the product W. R. Grace produced; and they are not paying to clean up the land and buildings in Libby that are contaminated. The American taxpayer is.

Yes, ARCO is paying for the Upper Clark’s Fork Superfund project, but they’re not doing it out of a sense of responsibility; the Court ordered them to do it.

We do not remember the many elderly who lived out their Golden Years in the poverty and sickness that was common before Medicare, so the laws that provide health care for the elderly and poor are being questioned as well, and the opinion of some is that the private sector could do better. I suppose it could, even though the government had to address the issue because the private sector wouldn’t, so I’m skeptical at best of their desire or ability to do the job.

Any law that regulates industry has a cost to it. The cost is borne by the industry for the benefit of the general public—the same public that would pay to fix the problem the regulation addresses. In a sense, the cost of regulation is borne by the general public when they consume the product, but it’s still cheaper than paying for the cleanup.

It goes without question that it is cheaper to prevent a problem than it is to fix it later; the old saw, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is a greybeard if ever there was one. Why, then, is there such reluctance to cover the up front cost of prevention? Well, I guess it depends on who’s footing the bill. If you can get someone else to clean up after you, why worry? When we are not held accountable for our actions we tend to take advantage of the situation.

I am a firm believer in giving self regulation a shot, and if it works, fine. The American Bar Association and the American Medical Association seem to do a reasonable job of it, I’m not so sure about the airlines and railroads. I am also a firm believer in significant governmental regulation if the industry won’t regulate itself adequately.

So before we go about weakening or eliminating a law which seems outdated or too onerous we have to remember that there was a reason it was written in the first place, and until we understand that reason, we can’t make an informed decision. I know that hasn’t stopped us before, but we should give it a try. After all, if we don’t regulate ourselves….


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620