Correcting the Federalist Society Review’s Mischaracterization of How to Regulate

Thom Lambert —  9 July 2018

Ours is not an age of nuance.  It’s an age of tribalism, of teams—“Yer either fer us or agin’ us!”  Perhaps I should have been less surprised, then, when I read the unfavorable review of my book How to Regulate in, of all places, the Federalist Society Review.

I had expected some positive feedback from reviewer J. Kennerly Davis, a contributor to the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project.  The “About” section of the Project’s website states:

In the ultra-complex and interconnected digital age in which we live, government must issue and enforce regulations to protect public health and safety.  However, despite the best of intentions, government regulation can fail, stifle innovation, foreclose opportunity, and harm the most vulnerable among us.  It is for precisely these reasons that we must be diligent in reviewing how our policies either succeed or fail us, and think about how we might improve them.

I might not have expressed these sentiments in such pro-regulation terms.  For example, I don’t think government should regulate, even “to protect public health and safety,” absent (1) a market failure and (2) confidence that systematic governmental failures won’t cause the cure to be worse than the disease.  I agree, though, that regulation is sometimes appropriate, that government interventions often fail (in systematic ways), and that regulatory policies should regularly be reviewed with an eye toward reducing the combined costs of market and government failures.

Those are, in fact, the central themes of How to Regulate.  The book sets forth an overarching goal for regulation (minimize the sum of error and decision costs) and then catalogues, for six oft-cited bases for regulating, what regulatory tools are available to policymakers and how each may misfire.  For every possible intervention, the book considers the potential for failure from two sources—the knowledge problem identified by F.A. Hayek and public choice concerns (rent-seeking, regulatory capture, etc.).  It ends up arguing:

  • for property rights-based approaches to environmental protection (versus the command-and-control status quo);
  • for increased reliance on the private sector to produce public goods;
  • that recognizing property rights, rather than allocating usage, is the best way to address the tragedy of the commons;
  • that market-based mechanisms, not shareholder suits and mandatory structural rules like those imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, are the best way to constrain agency costs in the corporate context;
  • that insider trading restrictions should be left to corporations themselves;
  • that antitrust law should continue to evolve in the consumer welfare-focused direction Robert Bork recommended;
  • against the FCC’s recently abrogated net neutrality rules;
  • that occupational licensure is primarily about rent-seeking and should be avoided;
  • that incentives for voluntary disclosure will usually obviate the need for mandatory disclosure to correct information asymmetry;
  • that the claims of behavioral economics do not justify paternalistic policies to protect people from themselves; and
  • that “libertarian-paternalism” is largely a ruse that tends to morph into hard paternalism.

Given the congruence of my book’s prescriptions with the purported aims of the Regulatory Transparency Project—not to mention the laundry list of specific market-oriented policies the book advocates—I had expected a generally positive review from Mr. Davis (whom I sincerely thank for reading and reviewing the book; book reviews are a ton of work).

I didn’t get what I’d expected.  Instead, Mr. Davis denounced my book for perpetuating “progressive assumptions about state and society” (“wrongheaded” assumptions, the editor’s introduction notes).  He responded to my proposed methodology with a “meh,” noting that it “is not clearly better than the status quo.”  His one compliment, which I’ll gladly accept, was that my discussion of economic theory was “generally accessible.”

Following are a few thoughts on Mr. Davis’s critiques.

Are My Assumptions Progressive?

According to Mr. Davis, my book endorses three progressive concepts:

(i) the idea that market based arrangements among private parties routinely misallocate resources, (ii) the idea that government policymakers are capable of formulating executive directives that can correct private ordering market failures and optimize the allocation of resources, and (iii) the idea that the welfare of society is actually something that exists separate and apart from the individual welfare of each of the members of society.

I agree with Mr. Davis that these are progressive ideas.  If my book embraced them, it might be fair to label it “progressive.”  But it doesn’t.  Not one of them.

  1. Market Failure

Nothing in my book suggests that “market based arrangements among private parties routinely misallocate resources.”  I do say that “markets sometimes fail to work well,” and I explain how, in narrow sets of circumstances, market failures may emerge.  Understanding exactly what may happen in those narrow sets of circumstances helps to identify the least restrictive option for addressing problems and would thus would seem a pre-requisite to effective policymaking for a conservative or libertarian.  My mere invocation of the term “market failure,” however, was enough for Mr. Davis to kick me off the team.

Mr. Davis ignored altogether the many points where I explain how private ordering fixes situations that could lead to poor market performance.  At the end of the information asymmetry chapter, for example, I write,

This chapter has described information asymmetry as a problem, and indeed it is one.  But it can also present an opportunity for profit.  Entrepreneurs have long sought to make money—and create social value—by developing ways to correct informational imbalances and thereby facilitate transactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur.

I then describe the advent of companies like Carfax, AirBnb, and Uber, all of which offer privately ordered solutions to instances of information asymmetry that might otherwise create lemons problems.  I conclude:

These businesses thrive precisely because of information asymmetry.  By offering privately ordered solutions to the problem, they allow previously under-utilized assets to generate heretofore unrealized value.  And they enrich the people who created and financed them.  It’s a marvelous thing.

That theme—that potential market failures invite privately ordered solutions that often obviate the need for any governmental fix—permeates the book.  In the public goods chapter, I spend a great deal of time explaining how privately ordered devices like assurance contracts facilitate the production of amenities that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable.  In discussing the tragedy of the commons, I highlight Elinor Ostrom’s work showing how “groups of individuals have displayed a remarkable ability to manage commons goods effectively without either privatizing them or relying on government intervention.”  In the chapter on externalities, I spend a full seven pages explaining why Coasean bargains are more likely than most people think to prevent inefficiencies from negative externalities.  In the chapter on agency costs, I explain why privately ordered solutions like the market for corporate control would, if not precluded by some ill-conceived regulations, constrain agency costs better than structural rules from the government.

Disregarding all this, Mr. Davis chides me for assuming that “markets routinely fail.”  And, for good measure, he explains that government interventions are often a bigger source of failure, a point I repeatedly acknowledge, as it is a—perhaps the—central theme of the book.

  1. Trust in Experts

In what may be the strangest (and certainly the most misleading) part of his review, Mr. Davis criticizes me for placing too much confidence in experts by giving short shrift to the Hayekian knowledge problem and the insights of public choice.

          a.  The Knowledge Problem

According to Mr. Davis, the approach I advocate “is centered around fully functioning experts.”  He continues:

This progressive trust in experts is misplaced.  It is simply false to suppose that government policymakers are capable of formulating executive directives that effectively improve upon private arrangements and optimize the allocation of resources.  Friedrich Hayek and other classical liberals have persuasively argued, and everyday experience has repeatedly confirmed, that the information needed to allocate resources efficiently is voluminous and complex and widely dispersed.  So much so that government experts acting through top down directives can never hope to match the efficiency of resource allocation made through countless voluntary market transactions among private parties who actually possess the information needed to allocate the resources most efficiently.

Amen and hallelujah!  I couldn’t agree more!  Indeed, I said something similar when I came to the first regulatory tool my book examines (and criticizes), command-and-control pollution rules.  I wrote:

The difficulty here is an instance of a problem that afflicts regulation generally.  At the end of the day, regulating involves centralized economic planning:  A regulating “planner” mandates that productive resources be allocated away from some uses and toward others.  That requires the planner to know the relative value of different resource uses.  But such information, in the words of Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek, “is not given to anyone in its totality.”  The personal preferences of thousands or millions of individuals—preferences only they know—determine whether there should be more widgets and fewer gidgets, or vice-versa.  As Hayek observed, voluntary trading among resource owners in a free market generates prices that signal how resources should be allocated (i.e., toward the uses for which resource owners may command the highest prices).  But centralized economic planners—including regulators—don’t allocate resources on the basis of relative prices.  Regulators, in fact, generally assume that prices are wrong due to the market failure the regulators are seeking to address.  Thus, the so-called knowledge problem that afflicts regulation generally is particularly acute for command-and-control approaches that require regulators to make refined judgments on the basis of information about relative costs and benefits.

That was just the first of many times I invoked the knowledge problem to argue against top-down directives and in favor of market-oriented policies that would enable individuals to harness local knowledge to which regulators would not be privy.  The index to the book includes a “knowledge problem” entry with no fewer than nine sub-entries (e.g., “with licensure regimes,” “with Pigouvian taxes,” “with mandatory disclosure regimes”).  There are undoubtedly more mentions of the knowledge problem than those listed in the index, for the book assesses the degree to which the knowledge problem creates difficulties for every regulatory approach it considers.

Mr. Davis does mention one time where I “acknowledge[] the work of Hayek” and “recognize[] that context specific information is vitally important,” but he says I miss the point:

Having conceded these critical points [about the importance of context-specific information], Professor Lambert fails to follow them to the logical conclusion that private ordering arrangements are best for regulating resources efficiently.  Instead, he stops one step short, suggesting that policymakers defer to the regulator most familiar with the regulated party when they need context-specific information for their analysis.  Professor Lambert is mistaken.  The best information for resource allocation is not to be found in the regional office of the regulator.  It resides with the persons who have long been controlled and directed by the progressive regulatory system.  These are the ones to whom policymakers should defer.

I was initially puzzled by Mr. Davis’s description of how my approach would address the knowledge problem.  It’s inconsistent with the way I described the problem (the “regional office of the regulator” wouldn’t know people’s personal preferences, etc.), and I couldn’t remember ever suggesting that regulatory devolution—delegating decisions down toward local regulators—was the solution to the knowledge problem.

When I checked the citation in the sentences just quoted, I realized that Mr. Davis had misunderstood the point I was making in the passage he cited (my own fault, no doubt, not his).  The cited passage was at the very end of the book, where I was summarizing the book’s contributions.  I claimed to have set forth a plan for selecting regulatory approaches that would minimize the sum of error and decision costs.  I wanted to acknowledge, though, the irony of promulgating a generally applicable plan for regulating in a book that, time and again, decries top-down imposition of one-size-fits-all rules.  Thus, I wrote:

A central theme of this book is that Hayek’s knowledge problem—the fact that no central planner can possess and process all the information needed to allocate resources so as to unlock their greatest possible value—applies to regulation, which is ultimately a set of centralized decisions about resource allocation.  The very knowledge problem besetting regulators’ decisions about what others should do similarly afflicts pointy-headed academics’ efforts to set forth ex ante rules about what regulators should do.  Context-specific information to which only the “regulator on the spot” is privy may call for occasional departures from the regulatory plan proposed here.

As should be obvious, my point was not that the knowledge problem can generally be fixed by regulatory devolution.  Rather, I was acknowledging that the general regulatory approach I had set forth—i.e., the rules policymakers should follow in selecting among regulatory approaches—may occasionally misfire and should thus be implemented flexibly.

           b.  Public Choice Concerns

A second problem with my purported trust in experts, Mr. Davis explains, stems from the insights of public choice:

Actual policymakers simply don’t live up to [Woodrow] Wilson’s ideal of the disinterested, objective, apolitical, expert technocrat.  To the contrary, a vast amount of research related to public choice theory has convincingly demonstrated that decisions of regulatory agencies are frequently shaped by politics, institutional self-interest and the influence of the entities the agencies regulate.

Again, huzzah!  Those words could have been lifted straight out of the three full pages of discussion I devoted to public choice concerns with the very first regulatory intervention the book considered.  A snippet from that discussion:

While one might initially expect regulators pursuing the public interest to resist efforts to manipulate regulation for private gain, that assumes that government officials are not themselves rational, self-interest maximizers.  As scholars associated with the “public choice” economic tradition have demonstrated, government officials do not shed their self-interested nature when they step into the public square.  They are often receptive to lobbying in favor of questionable rules, especially since they benefit from regulatory expansions, which tend to enhance their job status and often their incomes.  They also tend to become “captured” by powerful regulatees who may shower them with personal benefits and potentially employ them after their stints in government have ended.

That’s just a slice.  Elsewhere in those three pages, I explain (1) how the dynamic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs allows inefficient protectionist policies to persist, (2) how firms that benefit from protectionist regulation are often assisted by “pro-social” groups that will make a public interest case for the rules (Bruce Yandle’s Bootleggers and Baptists syndrome), and (3) the “[t]wo types of losses [that] result from the sort of interest-group manipulation public choice predicts.”  And that’s just the book’s initial foray into public choice.  The entry for “public choice concerns” in the book’s index includes eight sub-entries.  As with the knowledge problem, I addressed the public choice issues that could arise from every major regulatory approach the book considered.

For Mr. Davis, though, that was not enough to keep me out of the camp of Wilsonian progressives.  He explains:

Professor Lambert devotes a good deal of attention to the problem of “agency capture” by regulated entities.  However, he fails to acknowledge that a symbiotic relationship between regulators and regulated is not a bug in the regulatory system, but an inherent feature of a system defined by extensive and continuing government involvement in the allocation of resources.

To be honest, I’m not sure what that last sentence means.  Apparently, I didn’t recite some talismanic incantation that would indicate that I really do believe public choice concerns are a big problem for regulation.  I did say this in one of the book’s many discussions of public choice:

A regulator that has both regular contact with its regulatees and significant discretionary authority over them is particularly susceptible to capture.  The regulator’s discretionary authority provides regulatees with a strong motive to win over the regulator, which has the power to hobble the regulatee’s potential rivals and protect its revenue stream.  The regular contact between the regulator and the regulatee provides the regulatee with better access to those in power than that available to parties with opposing interests.  Moreover, the regulatee’s preferred course of action is likely (1) to create concentrated benefits (to the regulatee) and diffuse costs (to consumers generally), and (2) to involve an expansion of the regulator’s authority.  The upshot is that that those who bear the cost of the preferred policy are less likely to organize against it, and regulators, who benefit from turf expansion, are more likely to prefer it.  Rate-of-return regulation thus involves the precise combination that leads to regulatory expansion at consumer expense: broad and discretionary government power, close contact between regulators and regulatees, decisions that generally involve concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, and regular opportunities to expand regulators’ power and prestige.

In light of this combination of features, it should come as no surprise that the history of rate-of-return regulation is littered with instances of agency capture and regulatory expansion.

Even that was not enough to convince Mr. Davis that I reject the Wilsonian assumption of “disinterested, objective, apolitical, expert technocrat[s].”  I don’t know what more I could have said.

  1. Social Welfare

Mr. Davis is right when he says, “Professor Lambert’s ultimate goal for his book is to provide policymakers with a resource that will enable them to make regulatory decisions that produce greater social welfare.”  But nowhere in my book do I suggest, as he says I do, “that the welfare of society is actually something that exists separate and apart from the individual welfare of each of the members of society.”  What I mean by “social welfare” is the aggregate welfare of all the individuals in a society.  And I’m careful to point out that only they know what makes them better off.  (At one point, for example, I write that “[g]overnment planners have no way of knowing how much pleasure regulatees derive from banned activities…or how much displeasure they experience when they must comply with an affirmative command…. [W]ith many paternalistic policies and proposals…government planners are really just guessing about welfare effects.”)

I agree with Mr. Davis that “[t]here is no single generally accepted methodology that anyone can use to determine objectively how and to what extent the welfare of society will be affected by a particular regulatory directive.”  For that reason, nowhere in the book do I suggest any sort of “metes and bounds” measurement of social welfare.  (I certainly do not endorse the use of GDP, which Mr. Davis rightly criticizes; that term appears nowhere in the book.)

Rather than prescribing any sort of precise measurement of social welfare, my book operates at the level of general principles:  We have reasons to believe that inefficiencies may arise when conditions are thus; there is a range of potential government responses to this situation—from doing nothing, to facilitating a privately ordered solution, to mandating various actions; based on our experience with these different interventions, the likely downsides of each (stemming from, for example, the knowledge problem and public choice concerns) are so-and-so; all things considered, the aggregate welfare of the individuals within this group will probably be greatest with policy x.

It is true that the thrust of the book is consequentialist, not deontological.  But it’s a book about policy, not ethics.  And its version of consequentialism is rule, not act, utilitarianism.  Is a consequentialist approach to policymaking enough to render one a progressive?  Should we excise John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty from the classical liberal canon?  I surely hope not.

Is My Proposed Approach an Improvement?

Mr. Davis’s second major criticism of my book—that what it proposes is “just the status quo”—has more bite.  By that, I mean two things.  First, it’s a more painful criticism to receive.  It’s easier for an author to hear “you’re saying something wrong” than “you’re not saying anything new.”

Second, there may be more merit to this criticism.  As Mr. Davis observes, I noted in the book’s introduction that “[a]t times during the drafting, I … wondered whether th[e] book was ‘original’ enough.”  I ultimately concluded that it was because it “br[ought] together insights of legal theorists and economists of various stripes…and systematize[d] their ideas into a unified, practical approach to regulating.”  Mr. Davis thinks I’ve overstated the book’s value, and he may be right.

The current regulatory landscape would suggest, though, that my book’s approach to selecting among potential regulatory policies isn’t “just the status quo.”  The approach I recommend would generate the specific policies catalogued at the outset of this response (in the bullet points).  The fact that those policies haven’t been implemented under the existing regulatory approach suggests that what I’m recommending must be something different than the status quo.

Mr. Davis observes—and I acknowledge—that my recommended approach resembles the review required of major executive agency regulations under Executive Order 12866, President Clinton’s revised version of President Reagan’s Executive Order 12291.  But that order is quite limited in its scope.  It doesn’t cover “minor” executive agency rules (those with expected costs of less than $100 million) or rules from independent agencies or from Congress or from courts or at the state or local level.  Moreover, I understand from talking to a former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is charged with implementing the order, that it has actually generated little serious consideration of less restrictive alternatives, something my approach emphasizes.

What my book proposes is not some sort of governmental procedure; indeed, I emphasize in the conclusion that the book “has not addressed … how existing regulatory institutions should be reformed to encourage the sort of analysis th[e] book recommends.”  Instead, I propose a way to think through specific areas of regulation, one that is informed by a great deal of learning about both market and government failures.  The best audience for the book is probably law students who will someday find themselves influencing public policy as lawyers, legislators, regulators, or judges.  I am thus heartened that the book is being used as a text at several law schools.  My guess is that few law students receive significant exposure to Hayek, public choice, etc.

So, who knows?  Perhaps the book will make a difference at the margin.  Or perhaps it will amount to sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But I don’t think a classical liberal could fairly say that the analysis it counsels “is not clearly better than the status quo.”

A Truly Better Approach to Regulating

Mr. Davis ends his review with a stirring call to revamp the administrative state to bring it “in complete and consistent compliance with the fundamental law of our republic embodied in the Constitution, with its provisions interpreted to faithfully conform to their original public meaning.”  Among other things, he calls for restoring the separation of powers, which has been erased in agencies that combine legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and for eliminating unchecked government power, which results when the legislature delegates broad rulemaking and adjudicatory authority to politically unaccountable bureaucrats.

Once again, I concur.  There are major problems—constitutional and otherwise—with the current state of administrative law and procedure.  I’d be happy to tear down the existing administrative state and begin again on a constitutionally constrained tabula rasa.

But that’s not what my book was about.  I deliberately set out to write a book about the substance of regulation, not the process by which rules should be imposed.  I took that tack for two reasons.  First, there are numerous articles and books, by scholars far more expert than I, on the structure of the administrative state.  I could add little value on administrative process.

Second, the less-addressed substantive question—what, as a substantive matter, should a policy addressing x do?—would exist even if Mr. Davis’s constitutionally constrained regulatory process were implemented.  Suppose that we got rid of independent agencies, curtailed delegations of rulemaking authority to the executive branch, and returned to a system in which Congress wrote all rules, the executive branch enforced them, and the courts resolved any disputes.  Someone would still have to write the rule, and that someone (or group of people) should have some sense of the pros and cons of one approach over another.  That is what my book seeks to provide.

A hard core Hayekian—one who had immersed himself in Law, Legislation, and Liberty—might respond that no one should design regulation (purposive rules that Hayek would call thesis) and that efficient, “purpose-independent” laws (what Hayek called nomos) will just emerge as disputes arise.  But that is not Mr. Davis’s view.  He writes:

A system of governance or regulation based on the rule of law attains its policy objectives by proscribing actions that are inconsistent with those objectives.  For example, this type of regulation would prohibit a regulated party from discharging a pollutant in any amount greater than the limiting amount specified in the regulation.  Under this proscriptive approach to regulation, any and all actions not specifically prohibited are permitted.

Mr. Davis has thus contemplated a purposive rule, crafted by someone.  That someone should know the various policy options and the upsides and downsides of each.  How to Regulate could help.

Conclusion

I’m not sure why Mr. Davis viewed my book as no more than dressed-up progressivism.  Maybe he was triggered by the book’s cover art, which he says “is faithful to the progressive tradition,” resembling “the walls of public buildings from San Francisco to Stalingrad.”  Maybe it was a case of Sunstein Derangement Syndrome.  (Progressive legal scholar Cass Sunstein had nice things to say about the book, despite its criticisms of a number of his ideas.)  Or perhaps it was that I used the term “market failure.”  Many conservatives and libertarians fear, with good reason, that conceding the existence of market failures invites all sorts of government meddling.

At the end of the day, though, I believe we classical liberals should stop pretending that market outcomes are always perfect, that pure private ordering is always and everywhere the best policy.  We should certainly sing markets’ praises; they usually work so well that people don’t even notice them, and we should point that out.  We should continually remind people that government interventions also fail—and in systematic ways (e.g., the knowledge problem and public choice concerns).  We should insist that a market failure is never a sufficient condition for a governmental fix; one must always consider whether the cure will be worse than the disease.  In short, we should take and promote the view that government should operate “under a presumption of error.”

That view, economist Aaron Director famously observed, is the essence of laissez faire.  It’s implicit in the purpose statement of the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project.  And it’s the central point of How to Regulate.

So let’s go easy on the friendly fire.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.