Archives For Knowledge Problem

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.

My new book, How to Regulate: A Guide for Policymakers, will be published in a few weeks.  A while back, I promised a series of posts on the book’s key chapters.  I posted an overview of the book and a description of the book’s chapter on externalities.  I then got busy on another writing project (on horizontal shareholdings—more on that later) and dropped the ball.  Today, I resume my book summary with some thoughts from the book’s chapter on public goods.

With most goods, the owner can keep others from enjoying what she owns, and, if one person enjoys the good, no one else can do so.  Consider your coat or your morning cup of Starbucks.  You can prevent me from wearing your coat or drinking your coffee, and if you choose to let me wear the coat or drink the coffee, it’s not available to anyone else.

There are some amenities, though, that are “non-excludable,” meaning that the owner can’t prevent others from enjoying them, and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that one person’s consumption of them doesn’t prevent others from enjoying them as well.  National defense and local flood control systems (levees, etc.) are like this.  So are more mundane things like public art projects and fireworks displays.  Amenities that are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous are “public goods.”

[NOTE:  Amenities that are either non-excludable or non-rivalrous, but not both, are “quasi-public goods.”  Such goods include excludable but non-rivalrous “club goods” (e.g., satellite radio programming) and non-excludable but rivalrous “commons goods” (e.g., public fisheries).  The public goods chapter of How to Regulate addresses both types of quasi-public goods, but I won’t discuss them here.]

The primary concern with public goods is that they will be underproduced.  That’s because the producer, who must bear all the cost of producing the good, cannot exclude benefit recipients who do not contribute to the good’s production and thus cannot capture many of the benefits of his productive efforts.

Suppose, for example, that a levee would cost $5 million to construct and would create $10 million of benefit by protecting 500 homeowners from expected losses of $20,000 each (i.e., the levee would eliminate a 10% chance of a big flood that would cause each homeowner a $200,000 loss).  To maximize social welfare, the levee should be built.  But no single homeowner has an incentive to build the levee.  At least 250 homeowners would need to combine their resources to make the levee project worthwhile for participants (250 * $20,000 in individual benefit = $5 million), but most homeowners would prefer to hold out and see if their neighbors will finance the levee project without their help.  The upshot is that the levee never gets built, even though its construction is value-enhancing.

Economists have often jumped from the observation that public goods are susceptible to underproduction to the conclusion that the government should tax people and use the revenues to provide public goods.  Consider, for example, this passage from a law school textbook by several renowned economists:

It is apparent that public goods will not be adequately supplied by the private sector. The reason is plain: because people can’t be excluded from using public goods, they can’t be charged money for using them, so a private supplier can’t make money from providing them. … Because public goods are generally not adequately supplied by the private sector, they have to be supplied by the public sector.

[Howell E. Jackson, Louis Kaplow, Steven Shavell, W. Kip Viscusi, & David Cope, Analytical Methods for Lawyers 362-63 (2003) (emphasis added).]

That last claim seems demonstrably false.   Continue Reading…

Following is the second in a series of posts on my forthcoming book, How to Regulate: A Guide for Policy Makers (Cambridge Univ. Press 2017).  The initial post is here.

As I mentioned in my first post, How to Regulate examines the market failures (and other private ordering defects) that have traditionally been invoked as grounds for government regulation.  For each such defect, the book details the adverse “symptoms” produced, the underlying “disease” (i.e., why those symptoms emerge), the range of available “remedies,” and the “side effects” each remedy tends to generate.  The first private ordering defect the book addresses is the externality.

I’ll never forget my introduction to the concept of externalities.  P.J. Hill, my much-beloved economics professor at Wheaton College, sauntered into the classroom eating a giant, juicy apple.  As he lectured, he meandered through the rows of seats, continuing to chomp on that enormous piece of fruit.  Every time he took a bite, juice droplets and bits of apple fell onto students’ desks.  Speaking with his mouth full, he propelled fruit flesh onto students’ class notes.  It was disgusting.

It was also quite effective.  Professor Hill was making the point (vividly!) that some activities impose significant effects on bystanders.  We call those effects “externalities,” he explained, because they are experienced by people who are outside the process that creates them.  When the spillover effects are adverse—costs—we call them “negative” externalities.  “Positive” externalities are spillovers of benefits.  Air pollution is a classic example of a negative externality.  Landscaping one’s yard, an activity that benefits one’s neighbors, generates a positive externality.

An obvious adverse effect (“symptom”) of externalities is unfairness.  It’s not fair for a factory owner to capture the benefits of its production while foisting some of the cost onto others.  Nor is it fair for a homeowner’s neighbors to enjoy her spectacular flower beds without contributing to their creation or maintenance.

A graver symptom of externalities is “allocative inefficiency,” a failure to channel productive resources toward the uses that will wring the greatest possible value from them.  When an activity involves negative externalities, people tend to do too much of it—i.e., to devote an inefficiently high level of productive resources to the activity.  That’s because a person deciding how much of the conduct at issue to engage in accounts for all of his conduct’s benefits, which ultimately inure to him, but only a portion of his conduct’s costs, some of which are borne by others.  Conversely, when an activity involves positive externalities, people tend to do too little of it.  In that case, they must bear all of the cost of their conduct but can capture only a portion of the benefit it produces.

Because most government interventions addressing externalities have been concerned with negative externalities (and because How to Regulate includes a separate chapter on public goods, which entail positive externalities), the book’s externalities chapter focuses on potential remedies for cost spillovers.  There are three main options, which are discussed below the fold. Continue Reading…

So I’ve just finished writing a book (hence my long hiatus from Truth on the Market).  Now that the draft is out of my hands and with the publisher (Cambridge University Press), I figured it’s a good time to rejoin my colleagues here at TOTM.  To get back into the swing of things, I’m planning to produce a series of posts describing my new book, which may be of interest to a number of TOTM readers.  I’ll get things started today with a brief overview of the project.

The book is titled How to Regulate: A Guide for Policy Makers.  A topic of that enormity could obviously fill many volumes.  I sought to address the matter in a single, non-technical book because I think law schools often do a poor job teaching their students, many of whom are future regulators, the substance of sound regulation.  Law schools regularly teach administrative law, the procedures that must be followed to ensure that rules have the force of law.  Rarely, however, do law schools teach students how to craft the substance of a policy to address a new perceived problem (e.g., What tools are available? What are the pros and cons of each?).

Economists study that matter, of course.  But economists are often naïve about the difficulty of transforming their textbook models into concrete rules that can be easily administered by business planners and adjudicators.  Many economists also pay little attention to the high information requirements of the policies they propose (i.e., the Hayekian knowledge problem) and the susceptibility of those policies to political manipulation by well-organized interest groups (i.e., public choice concerns).

How to Regulate endeavors to provide both economic training to lawyers and law students and a sense of the “limits of law” to the economists and other policy wonks who tend to be involved in crafting regulations.  Below the fold, I’ll give a brief overview of the book.  In later posts, I’ll describe some of the book’s specific chapters. Continue Reading…

UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Vint Cerf coined the term “permissionless innovation,” and, thus, that he did so with the sorts of private impediments discussed below in mind rather than government regulation. So consider the title of this post changed to “Permissionless innovation SHOULD not mean ‘no contracts required,'” and I’ll happily accept that my version is the “bastardized” version of the term. Which just means that the original conception was wrong and thank god for disruptive innovation in policy memes!

Can we dispense with the bastardization of the “permissionless innovation” concept (best developed by Adam Thierer) to mean “no contracts required”? I’ve been seeing this more and more, but it’s been around for a while. Some examples from among the innumerable ones out there:

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it’s crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for “permissionless innovation” that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

Net neutrality is replete with this sort of idea — that any impediment to edge providers (not networks, of course) doing whatever they want to do at a zero price is a threat to innovation.

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17)That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

At least he puts it in the context of the Court’s suggestion that Congress pass a law, but what he really wants is to not have to ask “permission” of content providers to use their content.

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

But, of course, the problem with all of this is that it goes back to creating permission culture, rather than a culture where people freely create. You won’t be able to use these popular or useful tools to build on the works of others — which, contrary to the claims of today’s copyright defenders, is a key component in almost all creativity you see out there — without first getting permission.

Fair use is, by definition, supposed to be “permissionless.” But the concept is hardly limited to fair use, is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright (see, e.g., Mike Masnick again), which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism. As Gordon Crovitz writes, quoting Thierer:

“The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,'” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about private contracts.

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord. But that some form of “permission” may be required to use someone else’s creative works or other property (including broadband networks) is no different. And, in fact, it is these sorts of contracts (and, yes, the revenue that may come with them) that facilitates people engaging with other commercial actors to produce things of value in the first place. The same can’t be said of government permission.

Don’t get me wrong – there may be some net welfare-enhancing regulatory limits that might require forms of government permission. But the real concern is the pervasive abuse of these limits, imposed without anything approaching a rigorous welfare determination. There might even be instances where private permission, imposed, say, by a true monopolist, might be problematic.

But this idea that any contractual obligation amounts to a problematic impediment to innovation is absurd, and, in fact, precisely backward. Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

“Permissionless innovation” is a great phrase and, well developed (as Adam Thierer has done), a useful concept. But its bastardization to justify interference with private contracts is unsupported and pernicious.

In Part One, I addressed the argument by some libertarians that so-called “traditional property rights in land” are based in inductive, ground-up “common law court decisions,” but that intellectual property (IP) rights are top-down, artificial statutory entitlements.  Thus, for instance, libertarian law professor, Tom Bell, has written in the University of Illinois Journal of Law, Technology & Policy: “With regard to our tangible rights to person and property, they’re customary and based in common law. Where do the copyrights and patents come from? From the legislative process.” 2006 Univ.Ill. J. L. Tech. & Pol’y 92, 110 (sorry, no link). 

I like Tom, but, as I detailed in Part One, he’s just wrong in his contrast here between the “customary” “common law” court decisions creating property versus the  “legislative process” creating IP rights. This is myth masquerading as history. As all first-year property students learn each year, the foundation of Anglo-American property law is based in a statute, and many property rights in land were created by statutes enacted by Parliament or early American state legislatures.  In fact, the first statute — the Statute Quai Empotores of 1290 — was enacted by Parliament to overrule feudal “custom” enforced by the “common law” decisions at that time, creating by statutory fiat the basic foundational rule of the Anglo-American property right that property rights are alieanable.

As an aside, Geoff Manne asked an excellent question in the comments to Part One: Who cares? My response is that in part it’s important to call out the use of a descriptive historical claim to bootstrap a normative argument. The question is not who cares, but rather the question is why does Tom, Jerry Brito and other libertarians care so much about creating this historical myth, and repeatedly asserting it in their writings and in their presentations? The reason is because this triggers a normative context for many libertarians steeped in Hayek’s theories about the virtues of disaggregated decision-making given dispersed or localized knowledge, as contrasted with the vices of centralized, top-down planning. Thus, by expressly contrasting as an alleged historical fact that property arises from “customary” “common law” court decisions versus the top-down “legislative processes” creating IP, this provides normative traction against IP rights without having to do the heavy lifting of actually proving this as a normative conclusion. Such is the rhetorical value of historical myths generally — they provide normative framings in the guise of a neutral, objective statement of historical fact — and this is why they are a common feature of policy debates, especially in patent law.

What’s even more interesting is that this is not just a historical myth about the source of property rights in land, which were created by both statutes and court decisions, but it’s also an historical myth about IP rights, which are also created by both statutes and court decisions. The institutional and doctrinal interplay between Parliament’s statutes and the application and extension of these statutes by English courts in creating and enforcing property rights in land was repeated in the creation and extension of the modern Anglo-American IP system.  Who would have thunk?

Although there are lots of historical nuances to the actual legal developments, a blog posting is ideal to point out the general institutional and systemic development that occurred with IP rights. It’s often remarked, for instance, that the birth of Anglo-American patent law is in Parliament’s Statute of Monopolies (1624).  Although it’s true (at least in a generalized sense), the actual development of modern patent law — the legal regime that secures a property right in a novel and useful invention — occurred entirely at the hands of the English common law courts in the eighteenth century, who (re)interpreted this statute and extended it far beyond its original text.  (I have extensively detailed this historical development here.)  Albeit with some differences, a similar institutional pattern occurred with Parliament enacting the first modern copyright statute in 1709, the Statute of Anne, which was then interpreted, applied and extended by the English common law courts.

This institutional and doctrinal pattern repeated in America. From the very first enactment of copyright and patent statutes by the states under the Articles of Confederation, and then by Congress enacting the first federal patent and copyright statutes in 1790, courts then interpreted, applied and extended these statutes in common law fashion.  In fact, it is a cliché in patent law that many patent doctrines today were created, not by Congress, but by two judges — Justice Joseph Story and Judge Learned Hand.  Famous patent law historian, Frank Prager, writes that it is “often said that Story was one of the architects of American patent law.”  There’s an entire book published of Judge Learned Hand’s decisions in patent law. That’s how important these two judges have been in creating patent law doctrines.

So, the pattern has been that Congress passes broadly framed statutes, and the federal courts then create doctrines within these statutory frameworks.  In patent law, for instance, courts created the exhaustion doctrine, secondary liability, the experimental use defense, the infringement doctrine of equivalents, and many others.  Beyond this “common law” creation of patent doctrines, courts have further created and defined the actual requirements set forth in the patent statutes for utility, written description, enablement, etc., creating legal phrases and tests that one would search in vain for in the text of the actual patent statutes. Interestingly, Congress sometimes has subsequently codified these judicially created doctrines and sometimes it has left them alone.  Sometimes, Congress even repeals the judicially created tests, as it did in expressly abrogating the judicially created “flash of genius” test in § 103 of the 1952 Patent Act.  All of this goes to show that, just as it’s wrong to say that property rights in land are based solely in custom and common law court decision, it’s equally wrong to say that IP rights are based solely in legislation.

Admittedly, the modern copyright statutes are far more specific and complex than the patent statutes, at least before Congress passed the American Invents Act of 2011 (AIA).  In comparison to the pre-AIA patent statutes, the copyright statutes appear to be excessively complicated with industry and work-specific regimes, such as licensing for cable (§ 111), licensing for satellite transmissions (§ 119), exemptions from liability for libraries (§ 108), and licensing of “phonorecords” (§ 109), among others.  These and other provisions have been cobbled together by repeated amendments and other statutory enactments over the past century or so.  This stands in stark contrast to the invention- and industry-neutral provisions that comprised much of the pre-AIA patent statutes.

So, this is a valid point of differentiation between patents and copyrights, at least as these respective IP rights have developed in the twentieth century.  And there’s certainly a valid argument that complexity in the copyright statutes arising from such attempts to legislate for very specific works and industries increases uncertainties, which in turn unnecessarily increases administration and other transaction costs in the operation of the legal system.

Yet, it bears emphasizing again that, before there arose heavy emphasis on legislation in copyright law, many primary copyright doctrines were in fact first created by courts.  This includes, for instance, fair use and exhaustion doctrines, which were later codified by Congress. Moreover, some very important copyright doctrines remain entirely in the domain of the courts, such as secondary liability. 

The judicially created doctrine of secondary liability in copyright is perhaps the most ironic, if only because it is the use of this doctrine on the Internet against P2P services, like Napster, Aimster, Grokster, and BitTorrent operators, that sends many libertarian IP skeptics and copyleft advocates into paroxysms of outrage about how rent-seeking owners of statutory entitlements are “forcing” companies out of business, shutting down technology and violating the right to liberty on the Internet. But secondary liability is a “customary” “common law” doctrine that developed out of similarly traditional “customary” doctrines in tort law, as further extended by courts to patent and copyright!

As with the historical myth about the origins of property rights in land, the actual facts about the source and nature of IP rights belies the claims by some libertarians that IP rights are congressional “welfare grants” or congressional subsidies for crony corporations. IP rights have developed in the same way as property rights in land with both legislatures and courts creating, repealing, and extending doctrines in an important institutional and doctrinal evolution of these property rights securing technological innovation and creative works.

As I said in Part One, I enjoy a good policy argument about the value of securing property rights in patented innovation or copyrighted works.  I often discuss on panels and in debates how IP rights make possible the private-ordering mechanisms necessary to convert inventions and creative works into real-world innovation and creative products sold to consumers in the marketplace. Economically speaking, as Henry Manne pointed out in a comment to Part One, defining a property right in an asset is what makes possible value-maximizing transactions, and, I would add, morally speaking, it is what secures to the creator of that asset the right to the fruits of his or her productive labors. Thus, I would be happy to debate Tom Bell, Jerry Brito or any other similarly-minded libertarian on these issues in innovation policy, but before we can do so, we must first agree to abandon historical myths and base our normative arguments on actual facts.

New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson is arguing for a “pre-clearance”  approach to regulating new financial products:

The Food and Drug Administration vets new drugs before they reach the market. But imagine if there were a Wall Street version of the F.D.A. — an agency that examined new financial instruments and ensured that they were safe and benefited society, not just bankers.  How different our economy might look today, given the damage done by complex instruments during the financial crisis.

The idea Morgenson is advocating was set forth by law professor Eric Posner (one of my former profs) and economist E. Glen Weyl in this paper.  According to Morgenson,

[Posner and Weyl] contend that new instruments should be approved by a “financial products agency” that would test them for social utility. Ideally, products deemed too costly to society over all — those that serve only to increase speculation, for example — would be rejected, the two professors say.

While I have not yet read the paper, I have some concerns about the proposal, at least as described by Morgenson.

First, there’s the knowledge problem.  Even if we assume that agents of a new “Financial Products Administration” (FPA) would be completely “other-regarding” (altruistic) in performing their duties, how are they to know whether a proposed financial instrument is, on balance, beneficial or detrimental to society?  Morgenson suggests that “financial instruments could be judged by whether they help people hedge risks — which is generally beneficial — or whether they simply allow gambling, which can be costly.”  But it’s certainly not the case that speculative (“gambling”) investments produce no social value.  They generate a tremendous amount of information because they reflect the expectations of hundreds, thousands, or millions of investors who are placing bets with their own money.  Even the much-maligned credit default swaps, instruments Morgenson and the paper authors suggest “have added little to society,” provide a great deal of information about the creditworthiness of insureds.  How is a regulator in the FPA to know whether the benefits a particular financial instrument creates justify its risks? 

When regulators have engaged in merits review of investment instruments — something the federal securities laws generally eschew — they’ve often screwed up.  State securities regulators in Massachusetts, for example, once banned sales of Apple’s IPO shares, claiming that the stock was priced too high.  Oops.

In addition to the knowledge problem, the proposed FPA would be subject to the same institutional maladies as its model, the FDA.  The fact is, individuals do not cease to be rational, self-interest maximizers when they step into the public arena.  Like their counterparts in the FDA, FPA officials will take into account the personal consequences of their decisions to grant or withhold approvals of new products.  They will know that if they approve a financial product that injures some investors, they’ll likely be blamed in the press, hauled before Congress, etc.  By contrast, if they withhold approval of a financial product that would be, on balance, socially beneficial, their improvident decision will attract little attention.  In short, they will share with their counterparts in the FDA a bias toward disapproval of novel products.

In highlighting these two concerns, I’m emphasizing a point I’ve made repeatedly on TOTM:  A defect in private ordering is not a sufficient condition for a regulatory fix.  One must always ask whether the proposed regulatory regime will actually leave the world a better place.  As the Austrians taught us, we can’t assume the regulators will have the information (and information-processing abilities) required to improve upon private ordering.  As Public Choice theorists taught us, we can’t assume that even perfectly informed (but still self-interested) regulators will make socially optimal decisions.  In light of Austrian and Public Choice insights, the Posner & Weyl proposal — at least as described by Morgenson — strikes me as problematic.  [An additional concern is that the proposed pre-clearance regime might just send financial activity offshore.  To their credit, the authors acknowledge and address that concern.]

Obama’s Fatal Conceit

Thom Lambert —  21 September 2011

From the beginning of his presidency, I’ve wanted President Obama to succeed.  He was my professor in law school, and while I frequently disagreed with his take on things, I liked him very much. 

On the eve of his inauguration, I wrote on TOTM that I hoped he would spend some time meditating on Hayek’s The Use of Knowledge in Society.  That article explains that the information required to allocate resources to their highest and best ends, and thereby maximize social welfare, is never given to any one mind but is instead dispersed widely to a great many “men on the spot.”  I worried that combining Mr. Obama’s native intelligence with the celebrity status he attained during the presidential campaign would create the sort of “unwise” leader described in Plato’s Apology:

I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result, he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

I have now become convinced that President Obama’s biggest problem is that he believes — wrongly — that he (or his people) know better how to allocate resources than do the many millions of “men and women on the spot.”  This is the thing that keeps our very smart President from being a wise President.  It is killing economic expansion in this country, and it may well render him a one-term President.  It is, quite literally, a fatal conceit.

Put aside for a minute the first stimulus, the central planning in the health care legislation and Dodd-Frank, and the many recent instances of industrial policy (e.g., Solyndra).  Focus instead on just the latest proposal from our President.  He is insisting that Congress pass legislation (“Pass this bill!”) that directs a half-trillion dollars to ends he deems most valuable (e.g., employment of public school teachers and first responders, municipal infrastructure projects).  And he proposes to take those dollars from wealthier Americans by, among other things, limiting deductions for charitable giving, taxing interest on municipal bonds, and raising tax rates on investment income (via the “Buffet rule”).

Do you see what’s happening here?  The President is proposing to penalize private investment (where the investors themselves decide which projects deserve their money) in order to fund government investment.  He proposes to penalize charitable giving (where the givers themselves get to choose their beneficiaries) in order to fund government outlays to the needy.  He calls for impairing municipalities’ funding advantage (which permits them to raise money cheaply to fund the projects they deem most worthy) in order to fund municipal projects that the federal government deems worthy of funding.  (More on that here — and note that I agree with Golub that we should ditch the deduction for muni bond interest as part of a broader tax reform.)

In short, the President has wholly disregarded Hayek’s central point:  He believes that he and his people know better than the men and women on the spot how to allocate productive resources.  That conceit renders a very smart man very unwise.  Solyndra, I fear, is just the beginning.