I expect that, once James Arthur Ray's manslaughter trial begins, calls to "regulate self-help" will become louder and more widespread. Because there's a lull in media coverage of the Sedona incident, I think now is a good time to soberly consider some questions about whether and how the government could go about regulating personal development, and the impact regulation might have.
I'm going to raise some of those issues in this series. I think the first question to address is what we mean by "regulation," since we can't go into the particulars of what and how to regulate without that understanding.
What Is Regulation?
After all, self-development books, seminars, and so on are already subject to many generally applicable laws -- meaning laws that weren't specifically designed for personal development, but apply to it anyway.
The criminal laws obviously apply to personal growth teachers, as we see in the Sedona matter. Contract and tort law applies to self-development -- if someone sells a book or leads a workshop that doesn't do what its advertising promised, they can be sued for fraud or breach of contract. In this sense, self-development is already "regulated."
But in my experience, this isn't usually what people mean when they talk about regulation. My sense is that "regulation" typically refers to laws and rules tailored to a particular business or area of life -- for example, self-help, or securities trading.
Normally, regulations, as commonly understood, are also preventive -- meaning they require us to take precautions to prevent harm, rather than punishing people for inflicting harm. Laws against driving without a license are a good example -- they don't punish people for causing accidents, but rather for failing to pass tests that, in the state's view, ensure that they will drive with some degree of safety.
Some areas of personal development are "regulated" in this sense. To hold yourself out as a therapist, in most of the U.S., you need a license, and to get that license you need to -- among other things -- earn an advanced degree in psychology and pass a test. Other areas are not. For example, I (thankfully) don't need a license to be a self-development blogger.
The Need For Cost-Benefit Analysis
So, the next important question, in my view, is: do we need more regulations of the preventive sort in the self-development field? To answer that question, we need some idea of the costs and benefits of personal growth ideas and techniques.
I think this is a key point, because the criticisms and calls for regulation around personal development tend to focus solely on its costs. But that discussion is incomplete. For example, we often hear people decry the outrageous price of a product or workshop. But without an understanding of that offering's benefits, we can't fairly judge whether its price is "too high."
A new car in the U.S. typically costs tens of thousands of dollars, which to most people seems like "a lot of money" in the abstract, but people are often willing to pay that kind of price for a car because of the benefits they expect from car ownership -- being able to go various places quickly, and so on.
Importantly, as a society, we regularly do this kind of cost-benefit analysis even when it comes to activities involving a risk of serious injury or death. To go back to an earlier example, driving is obviously this kind of activity.
If we only looked at the number of deaths and injuries that happen while driving, we would instantly decide that a total ban on driving was justified. But that hasn't happened, because the benefits of being able to drive are widely recognized.
Hold On, What's A Benefit?
This brings us to yet another series of questions: what are the benefits of personal development? What qualifies as a "benefit"? Who gets to make that judgment?
For instance, if someone subjectively reports that they "feel better" due to some personal growth practice, does that mean they benefited from it? Or will we require a "benefit" to be objectively measurable -- for instance, will we judge a product or service as worthwhile only if people who use it tend to make more money, "find the one," or something along those lines?
All this and more . . . coming soon!