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Government Control

Why does regulation of private industry so often inure to the benefit of the regulated at the expense of consumers? In the popular mind, at least, regulating powerful market players restrains “excessive” profits or ensures that their practices meet certain standards. More often than not, however, regulation empowers the strongest market players at the expense of the very competition that would otherwise restrain prices and provide innovative alternatives. The more complex the regulation, the more likely that will be the result. Smaller firms seldom have the wherewithal to deal with complicated regulatory compliance. Moreover, regulatory standards are promulgated by politicians, bureaucrats, and often the most powerful market players themselves. If ever a system was “rigged”, to quote a couple of well-known presidential candidates, it is the regulatory apparatus. Pro-regulation candidates might well have the voters’ best interests at heart, or maybe not, but the losers are usually consumers and the winners are usually the dominant firms in any regulated industry.

The extent to which our wanderings into the regulatory maze have rewarded crony capitalists — rent seekers — is bemoaned by Daniel Mitchell in “A Very Depressing Chart on Creeping Cronyism in the American Economy“. The chart shows that about 40% of the increase in U.S. corporate profits since 1970 was generated by rent-seeking efforts — not by activities that enhance productivity and output. The chart is taken from an article in the Harvard Business Review by James Bessen of Boston University called “Lobbyists Are Behind the Rise in Corporate Profits“. Here are a couple of choice quotes from the article:

Lobbying and political campaign spending can result in favorable regulatory changes, and several studies find the returns to these investments can be quite large. For example, one study finds that for each dollar spent lobbying for a tax break, firms received returns in excess of $220. …regulations that impose costs might raise profits indirectly, since costs to incumbents are also entry barriers for prospective entrants. For example, one study found that pollution regulations served to reduce entry of new firms into some manufacturing industries.”

“This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits [since 1970]. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. …while political rent seeking is nothing new, the outsize effect of political rent seeking on profits and firm values is a recent development, largely occurring since 2000. Over the last 15 years, political campaign spending by firm PACs has increased more than thirtyfold and the Regdata index of regulation has increased by nearly 50% for public firms.

A good explanation of Bessen’s findings is provided by Guy Rolnik, including an interview with Bessen. Law Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee put his finger on the same issue in an earlier article entitled “Why we still don’t have flying cars“. One can bicker about the relative merits of various regulations, but as Reynolds points out, the expansion of the administrative and regulatory state has led to a massive diversion of resources that is very much a detriment to the intended beneficiaries of regulation:

… 1970 marks what scholars of administrative law (like me) call the ‘regulatory explosion.’ Although government expanded a lot during the New Deal under FDR, it wasn’t until 1970, under Richard Nixon, that we saw an explosion of new-type regulations that directly burdened people and progress: The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, the founding of Occupation Safety and Health Administration, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, etc. — all things that would have made the most hard-boiled New Dealer blanch.

Within a decade or so, Washington was transformed from a sleepy backwater (mocked by John F. Kennedy for its ‘Southern efficiency and Northern charm’) to a city full of fancy restaurants and expensive houses, a trend that has only continued in the decades since. The explosion of regulations led to an explosion of people to lobby the regulators, and lobbyists need nice restaurants and fancy houses.

Matt Ridley hits on a related point in “Industrial Strategy Can Be Regressive“, meaning that government planning and industrial regulation have perverse effects on prices and economic growth that hit the poor the hardest. Ridley, who is British, discusses regressivity in the context of his country’s policy environment, but the lessons are general:

The history of industrial strategies is littered with attempts to pick winners that ended up picking losers. Worse, it is government intervention, not laissez faire, that has done most to increase inequality and to entrench wealth and privilege. For example, the planning system restricts the supply of land for housebuilding, raising property prices to the enormous benefit of the haves (yes, that includes me) at the expense of the have-nots. … 

Why are salaries so high in financial services? Because there are huge barriers to entry erected by government, which hands incumbent firms enormous quasi-monopoly advantages and thereby shelters them from upstart competition. Why are cancer treatments so expensive? Because governments give monopolies called patents to the big firms that invent them. Why are lawyers so rich? Because there is a government-licensed cartel restricting the supply of them.

Ridley’s spirited article gives emphasis to the fact that the government cannot plan the economy any more than it can plan the way our tastes and preferences will evolve and respond to price incentives; it cannot plan production any more than it can anticipate changes in resource availability; it cannot dictate technologies wisely any more than it can predict the innumerable innovations brought forth by private initiative and market needs; it almost never can regulate any better than the market can regulate itself! But government is quite capable of distorting prices, imposing artificial rules, picking suboptimal technologies, consuming resources, and rewarding cronies. One should never underestimate the potential for regulation, and government generally, to screw things up!