Deregulation and Your Front Lawn

Deregulation and Your Front Lawn

Benjamin Ross: Deregulation and Your Front Lawn

Within days of taking control of the House of Representatives, Republicans are already mapping out an attack on government regulation. Saturday’s Washington Post reports a plan to require congressional approval of any new federal regulation that costs $100 million or more.

Republicans like to generalize about how much regulation costs. But when they get specific, one finds that they suffer from a severe case of selective indignation. What really bothers them is not the size of the expenditure, but who pays it and who gets the benefits.

There are lots of regulations that Republicans like. A good example is mandatory lawn mowing. With rare exception, zoning requires unbuilt space to be left in front of suburban buildings. Usually local ordinances–enacted in suburbs run by Republicans and Democrats alike–require this space to be mowed or actively cultivated, and where laws are absent, homeowner associations or social pressure fill in.

If someone genuinely wanted to lessen the economic penalty imposed by regulation, it would be hard to find a better place to start than here. Huge sums of money are involved. The Census Bureau reports that the revenue of commercial landscaping services in 2007 was $53 billion. Not all of this outlay was mandatory, but neither does the census capture all of the enforced expenditures–the work of employees of building owners is left out, as is unpaid labor by homeowners–so it is as good an estimate of the regulatory burden as we are likely to get.

What makes lawn mowing rules different from the regulations that Republicans detest? It is their purpose, which is not to curb inequality but to put it on display. The lawn, more than a century ago, was already identified by Thorstein Veblen as an example of conspicuous consumption–intentional waste for the purpose of demonstrating one’s high status. Lawns, Veblen pointed out, are imitations of pastures, but to avoid “the vulgar suggestion of thrift, which is nearly inseparable from the cow” the grass cannot be kept short by grazing animals; it must be mowed by human beings.

Thrift, to be sure, is hardly treated as a vulgar suggestion in conservative rhetoric. Republicans are thrifty indeed when it comes to protecting workers’ health or keeping the environment clean. But thrift ends at the suburban curbline. When social status is at stake, regulations that are wasteful–indeed, whose very purpose is waste–are just fine.