Nearly all development economists agree that good institutions—legislatures, courts, administrative agencies—are crucial. When poor countries improve their institutions, economic growth soon accelerates. But what about rich countries? If poor countries can get rich by improving their institutions, is it not possible that rich countries can get poor by allowing their institutions to degenerate? I want to suggest that it is.In any industry, virtually all regulation shifts economic advantage from small companies to large. If you prefer small businesses to large multinationals, then you need -- in general -- to prefer less regulation to more. It is just that simple. It is genuinely beyond me why so few command-and-control "progressives" understand that unavoidable conflict.
Consider the evidence from the annual "Doing Business" reports from the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. Since 2006 the report has published data for most of the world's countries on the total number of days it takes to start a business, get a construction permit, register a property, pay taxes, get an export or import license and enforce a contract. If one simply adds together the total number of days it would take to carry out all seven of these procedures sequentially, it is possible to construct a simple measure of how slowly—or fast—a country's bureaucracy moves.
Seven years of data suggest that most of the world's countries are successfully making it easier to do business: The total number of days it takes to carry out the seven procedures has come down, in some cases very substantially. In only around 20 countries has the total duration of dealing with "red tape" gone up. The sixth-worst case is none other than the U.S., where the total number of days has increased by 18% to 433. Other members of the bottom 10, using this metric, are Zimbabwe, Burundi and Yemen (though their absolute numbers are of course much higher).
Why is it getting harder to do business in America? Part of the answer is excessively complex legislation. A prime example is the 848-page Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of July 2010 (otherwise known as the Dodd-Frank Act), which, among other things, required that regulators create 243 rules, conduct 67 studies and issue 22 periodic reports. Comparable in its complexity is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (906 pages), which is also in the process of spawning thousands of pages of regulation. You don't have to be opposed to tighter financial regulation or universal health care to recognize that something is wrong with laws so elaborate that almost no one affected has the time or the will to read them.
Who benefits from the growth of complex and cumbersome regulation? The answer is: lawyers, not forgetting lobbyists and compliance departments. For complexity is not the friend of the little man. It is the friend of the deep pocket. It is the friend of cronyism.