What is Regulatory Capture?

Lynne Kiesling

Regulatory capture is one of the defining phenomena in the political economy of regulation. What is regulatory capture, exactly? In a Tech Liberation post from 2010, Adam Thierer offers this definition:

“Regulatory capture” occurs when special interests co-opt policymakers or political bodies — regulatory agencies, in particular — to further their own ends.  Capture theory is closely related to the “rent-seeking” and “political failure” theories developed by the public choice school of economics.  Another term for regulatory capture is “client politics,” which according to James Q. Wilson, “occurs when most or all of the benefits of a program go to some single, reasonably small interest (and industry, profession, or locality) but most or all of the costs will be borne by a large number of people (for example, all taxpayers).”  (James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy, 1989, at 76).

This short video from Susan Dudley at George Washington University provides a concise introduction to the concept:

As she points out, one of the consistent outcomes arising from regulatory capture is that the regulated industry can use regulation in ways to increase its benefits at the expense of consumers.

In the post quoted above, Adam does a great service by generating a compendium of quotes from economists and other analysts about regulatory capture and he’s added to this list since the original post. His chronological list gives you a good sense of how pervasive the phenomenon is of politically-connected interests to shape regulation to their own advantage.

Regulatory capture: putting the “crony” in crony capitalism for as long as regulations and politics have existed.

2 thoughts on “What is Regulatory Capture?

  1. I’m not an economist, Lynn, but it seems to me that Regulatory Capture is one (very costly) example of the more general principal-agent problem. One nice aspect of the principal-agent problem is that issues relating to it are pervasive and not at all concentrated in the public sector.

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