Monday, September 6, 2010

Is reasonable regulation compatible with democracy?

Peter Boettke recently wrote a paper entitled: ‘Is the only form of “reasonable regulation” self regulation?’ (GMU Economics Paper 10-05).

This paper draws attention to the potential for self-regulating communities (governance without government) to achieve benefits of social cooperation even in unpromising situations. The subtitle describes the contents of the paper: ‘Lessons from Lin Ostrom on regulating the commons and cultivating citizens’.

Boettke attributes the concept of reasonable regulation to Anne Krueger. He tells us that Krueger got him thinking about the concept when she said at some conference that rather than central planning or unfettered markets we need reasonable regulation – regulation that is not capturable by special interests. Having read some of what Krueger has written about rent-seeking societies I imagine she put forward the concept of reasonable regulation as an ideal worth striving for rather than as something that could easily be achieved.

Boettke argues that self-regulation systems apply reasonable regulation. He suggests that since self-regulating systems are operating outside the formal realm of politics they do not face the problem of protecting against the unwarranted influence of politically empowered special interest groups.

I think that is a good point, but it may be over-stated a little. Community organizations do have to cope with the problem of protecting against the unwarranted influence of special interest groups among their members. They also have to deal with free-rider problems. The main difference is that when decisions are made within such organizations opportunistic behaviour is more easily seen to be opportunistic. It is more difficult for any individual or group to argue for unwarranted preferential treatment when the people who have to pay for this are members of the same community. It is also easier for the opportunistic tendencies of individual members to be restrained by subtle (or not so subtle) threats of retaliation by other members. It would be more defensible to argue that self-regulating systems are able to deal more effectively with the unwarranted influence of special interest groups.

Self-regulation systems seem to have some attractions for everyone opposed to statism, including self-styled commie libertarians and anarcho-capitalists (as well as sensible people like myself :-) . Such systems would presumably also be attractive to Burkean conservatives who emphasize the importance of the ‘little platoons’ i.e. the spontaneous social groups that arise in society.

Yet self-regulation may appear to be too utopian to play a major role in modern democracies. Everyone can understand that tribal groups were able to self-regulate to ensure that forests and fisheries were sustainable. They can understand that their ancestors were able to run schools and hospitals through local community organisations without help from governments. But I expect that many people would feel that there are powerful reasons why self regulation of many areas of life has been displaced by the regulatory apparatus of the democratic state. Is there something about democracy that leads inevitably to taking decisions out of the hands of local communities and placing them into the hands of governments, and then centralizing those decisions at the highest level of government?

This is a big question that I don’t think I can answer adequately at the moment. But I will make a few relevant points.

First, I think it is inevitable that a lot of people will look to politicians to offer solutions to local problems and that politicians will offer such solutions. Politicians do not win many votes by telling voters that they aren’t interested in local problems.

Second, I think that most people are aware that when a politician offers to solve problems by displacing self regulation, then someone has to pay for the costs involved. When people weigh up the benefits of regulation that will take the trouble out of things (to borrow a phrase from Charles Murray) against the additional taxes involved, there doesn’t seem to be any a priori reason why they should choose regulation. Perhaps the problem is that they think other people will pay – which could stem from confusion over tax incidence.

Third, to borrow another thought from Charles Murray (which he may have borrowed from Friedrich Hayek) I think the tendency for government regulation to displace self regulation is related to a tendency for people to see problems from an engineering perspective rather than a healing perspective. There is a tendency to try to solve problems by designing new systems to replace self regulating systems, rather than to think in terms of solutions that will enable self regulating systems to work better. I don’t think there is any fundamental reason why politicians should see themselves as engineers rather than healers.

These considerations provide grounds for optimism that reasonable regulation might be sustainable in a democracy.


In Pursuit : Of Happiness and Good GovernmentThe references to Charles Murray are from his book, ‘In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government’, which I wrote about here and here.

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