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Friday, January 2, 2004

Regulatory Abnegation and the "Great Man" Theory of Regulators
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Randy May's post below prompted me to rib him about urging regulators to be bold. This is something he rarely and rightly does, and in his post he urges the boldness in a deregulatory direction. Misdirected regulatory boldness is something we don't need.

Randy's proposed New Year's resolution raises an interesting question about the nature of institutions and points to the rarity of a governmental agency giving up authority over its regulatees. It is of course not unprecedented, but it is rare. Moreover, the legal standards with which the communications regulators are empowered -- "public interest," "just and reasonable," "public convenience and necessity" -- are so broad and elastic that virtually any action can be justified. At best, the standards allow enough temporizing that even a deregulatory action can be quickly and easily reversed. Thus, this leads to the familiar complaints about regulatory certainty and stability. Any player has to apply a heavy discount rate to the regulatory regime having a semblance of stability.

It is generally my contention that consumers would be better off in a deregulated environment; and where transitional regulation is necessary, it must be limited in scope and duration. This has not come close to happening. Indeed, instances where regulators categorically exit their field are rare, but necessary if a competitive industry and hence consumers are going to thrive. The Fowler FCC had some successes in the 1980s. The classic cases are the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) under Fred Kahn and the Senator Kennedy-led judiciary committee under the counsel of Stephen Breyer. But, deregulation is the exception to the rule that legacy regulation has incredible inertia.

To explain deregulatory regulators, I need to reach for the unfashionable "Great Man" theory of history -- individuals of great intellect and political acumen who are able to navigate the shoals of rentseekers and agency-aggrandizers actually to refrain from using legal powers granted to them. [This would be in contrast to the now-fashionable "social history" method: "the 20th century peasant ate his suet, dug around his dunghill and paid his phone bill to sustain the plutocrat executives in the castle..."]

Since the advent of communications competition, the great man of the Act is Reed Hundt, who still apparently believes that smart industrial policymakers like, say, him can "manage" markets to beneficial outcomes. Ugh.

This coming year will be Chairman Powell's test as a "Great Man" of regulation. Can he actually accomplish the promising deregulatory actions he promises in his speeches? Here's hoping Randy's counseled boldness prevails.

posted by Ray Gifford @ 12:20 PM | General

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