Conservatives often start from the premise that individual freedoms ought to be maximized. Since regulations limit freedoms, regulations therefore ought to be minimized. But the concept of freedom is nowhere near as straightforward as it initially appears. In deference to the general conservative love of the Constitution, the complicated nature of individual freedom can be illustrated with the example of jury duty.
In order to insure individuals are free from arbitrary or capricious imprisonment, the sixth amendment sets forth the right to a trial by an impartial jury. The jury, however, has to come from somewhere, and so the government compels individuals to give up their time and serve jury duty. Even a relatively straightforward right – the right to avoid being unfairly convicted – wound up imposing a corresponding obligation on others, the obligation to give up their time in order to participate in a system designed to increase the odds of getting a fair trial.
The government obligating me to do something is a reduction of my personal freedom, and jury duty isn’t the only example. Individual freedoms stop at the point where they violate other’s freedoms (e.g. you can’t punch me in the face for writing a blog you disagree with), a principle most conservatives agree with. By itself this wouldn’t necessarily entail a positive obligation on others, but it turns out that not everyone voluntarily cooperates, and thus society needs an enforcement mechanism. To restrict people’s freedom to violate your freedom via theft, assault, or murder, society is obligated to construct a system to both judge and enforce laws – a system that others are obligated to fund through taxes.
The right for our property not to be polluted by those upriver springs directly from the right to property. Other people can no more freely damage my property than they can take it – both are forms of theft. But since pollution doesn’t recognize property lines, this restricts my upriver neighbors from disposing of their property as they wish.
Health and safety regulations in the workplace spring from worker’s asserting rights to safe, decent working conditions. These rights are still contested, but it is clear that in a meaningful way they increase the freedom of workers to live safe, healthy lives. At the same time, they decrease the freedom of employers to offer contracts that involve work in unsafe conditions. The same tradeoff is present in minimum wage legislation, and discussions of paid family leave.
Society is complicated, and any meaningful discussion of freedom needs to recognize that there’s no simple maximization of freedom, but rather a complicated balancing act where the freedoms to own property, not be arbitrarily imprisoned, live healthy lives, and spend time with newborn children all involve corresponding restrictions on other people’s freedoms.
Regulations – like the right to a trial by jury – can increase freedom. Regulations can also balance freedoms, the way an environmental regulation balances freedom of economic activity with the freedom of others (and future others) to enjoy the environment. Finally, poor regulations can reduce freedom. Not everyone agrees on which freedoms are most important to protect or which regulations will do the best job protecting them, but the idea that regulations are monolithically bad and freedom-decreasing rules imposed by the government is simply false. Democratic deliberation about the extent of regulations is a necessary and vital part of government by the people, but the premise that regulations and freedom are always opposed to each other isn’t a solid basis for an argument.