Regulatory Capture and Reckless Endangerment

My review of the book Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner (published in yesterday’s Washington Post) gives examples of the many ways in which cozy relations between government and industry lead to reckless policies. Students of economics will recognize the problem as regulatory capture, which George Stigler introduced to economics many years ago.

How can we prevent regulatory capture and thereby avoid the harmful policy it causes? Studying economics is not enough, at least according to Reckless Endangerment: Amazingly, twenty-five economists appear in the book (if you count those with a PhD): Dean Baker, Ben Bernanke, Gerald Corrigan, William Dudley, Roger Ferguson, Phil Gramm, Alan Greenspan, Glenn Hubbard, Lawrence Lindsey, Rick Mishkin, Alicia Munnell, June O’Neill, Peter Orszag, Jonathan McCarthy, Robert Parry, Wayne Passmore, Richard Peach, Marvin Phaup, Robert Reischauer, John Snow, Gary Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, Larry Summers, Lawrence White, and Walker Todd. Yet only a handful of these are characterized as standing up to regulatory capture. I mentioned June O’Neill, John Snow, and Marvin Phaup in my review, and there are a few others, but many are criticized for not standing up. This isn’t proof, of course, and I am sure that many of those criticized did a good job.

Still, regulatory capture exists, and dealing with it is difficult. Lobbying per se can’t be avoided in a democracy, and industry should be able explain its case to the government. Some have suggested incentives for government officials so they can withstand pressures. Others have suggested more independence, or closing the revolving doors. Perhaps the best thing is to keep the regulatory rules simple and transparent so that it is clear if industry is getting favors. Reducing government subsidies to private firms will help. So will avoiding over-regulation.

In this regard, I am reminded of these lines from the latest Keynes-Hayek rap video:
Keynes: “Even you must admit that the lesson we’ve learned is that more oversight’s needed or else we’ll get burned”
Hayek: “Oversight? The government ‘s long been in bed with those Wall Street execs and the firms that they’ve led.”

Reckless Endangerment should make liberals and conservatives alike see the wisdom in Hayek’s reply to Keynes.

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