Recently Diana Hsieh (of NoodleFood) raised the question “What is the difference between laws and regulations?” Since I consider myself opposed to all regulations but firmly believe that laws are necessary, this is an important question.
Before I get to law or politics, the first thing to note is that the word regulate derives from the word regular as in regular behavior, regular schedules etc. Anything that is regular is easier to understand, easier to predict, easier to work with. Regularity therefore is a desirable state. But it is not desirable in itself. It is not an end. It is desirable because it usually makes the achievement of actual ends easier. Consider an example. Fixed (or regular) office timings make it easier for people to collaborate, to plan their work, to plan their personal lives etc. But there can be any number of good reasons to break the regular schedule. And the decision to adhere to or ignore a regulation is based on a lot of narrow context. Laws on the other hand are inescapable. Consider the laws of logic or the laws of physics for example. They are general principles inherent in the nature of reality. In a legal or political context, laws are the principles that are necessary for men to live together in a society – necessary because of the very nature of man and society. Without laws, society would break down.
Since the role of a government is to preserve men’s rights and since rights only have meaning in a social context, it is the role of a government to establish laws. Since laws are general principles, there can’t be too many laws. Moreover they rarely need to change over time. Unless a fundamental change occurs in the nature of man or of society (it is conceivable that advances in technology might lead to such changes) laws do not need to change. This is the reason for measures such as checks and balances, separation of powers etc.. in good political theory.
Since regulations (a set of rules intended to make things regular) are highly dependent on context (both in their formulation and in their use), a government is completely unsuited to either formulate or enforce them. Regulations are best created and enforced by the particular set of individuals who need them. More importantly, when a government enforces regulations, it necessarily violates the rights of men to judge what is in their best interests.
Finally, there were some comments on Diana’s post to the effect that “Once Congress passes a law, agencies must write regulations to put the law into effect”. This is a badly wrong idea. It is like saying that the laws of physics are implemented by using rules of thumb. What is needed to put a law into effect is an interpretation of the law to specific cases. That role belongs to the judiciary, not to the executive.