The problem is that the IRB system is so fundamentally misconceived that it is virtually a model of how to regulate badly. Good regulation is accountable, but IRBs are effectively answerable to nobody. Good regulation has clearly defined jurisdictional limits, but IRBs may intervene as they wish. Good regulation is guided by clear rules, but IRBs have little more than empty principles. Good regulation is disciplined by fair procedures, but IRBs can ignore every fundamental precept of due process. Good regulation is transparent, but IRBs need not even explain — much less justify — their decisions. Good regulation is staffed by experts, but IRB members cannot be competent in all the specialties they regulate. Good regulation has manageable workloads, but IRBs regulate more details of more research in more ways than they can review responsibly, and they have steadily broadened and intensified their hold over research.
In short, the IRB system makes unreliable decisions because it is lawless and unaccountable, because its organization, procedures, membership and imperialism are so inappropriate. The problem is not regulation, it is bad regulation.
IRB review of social-science research suffers from all the problems of fundamentally misconceived regulation that I just described. But those problems are exacerbated by the fact that the IRB system was designed for biomedical research. Thus IRBs too often ask questions and impose restrictions ill suited to social-science research. In addition, many kinds of social-science research are ideologically controversial, tempting IRBs to use their power to promote their own preferences.
One approach to that question is to ask how we protect patients from doctors, who (for lack of adequate evidence from research) must daily treat patients with unproved methods and whose misjudgments yearly kill and injure far more people than research has in all its modern history. We do not make doctors get prior approval for every treatment from a doctor review board. Another approach to that question is to ask how we protect the public from journalists, who daily invade privacy and damage reputations in ways researchers would find wholly unethical. We do not make journalists get prior approval for every interview question from a press review board. In the case of both doctors and journalists, we recognize that the harm that regulation did would inevitably exceed the good, just as the harm of the IRB system inevitably exceeds its benefits. We regulate doctors and journalists as we regulate most people, by punishing wrongdoers (administratively, criminally or through private lawsuits). Sanctions can already be visited upon researchers, and if more sanctions or harsher sanctions are needed, they can be supplied.