Regulatory capture

In politics, regulatory capture (also client politics) is a corruption of authority that occurs when a political entity, policymaker, or regulatory agency is co-opted to serve the commercial, ideological, or political interests of a minor constituency, such as a particular geographic area, industry, profession, or ideological group.[1][2]

When regulatory capture occurs, a special interest is prioritized over the general interests of the public, leading to a net loss for society. Government agencies suffering regulatory capture are called "captured agencies." The theory of client politics is related to that of rent-seeking and political failure; client politics "occurs when most or all of the benefits of a program go to some single, reasonably small interest (e.g., industry, profession, or locality) but most or all of the costs will be borne by a large number of people (for example, all taxpayers)."[3]


Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) as Barrier-to-Competition: Applications-to-Operate vs In-Operation

For public choice theorists, regulatory capture occurs because groups or individuals with a high-stakes interest in the outcome of policy or regulatory decisions can be expected to focus their resources and energies in attempting to gain the policy outcomes they prefer, while members of the public, each with only a tiny individual stake in the outcome, will ignore it altogether.[4] Regulatory capture refers to the actions by interest groups when this imbalance of focused resources devoted to a particular policy outcome is successful at "capturing" influence with the staff or commission members of the regulatory agency, so that the preferred policy outcomes of the special interest groups are implemented.

... as a rule, regulation is acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefit... We propose the general hypothesis: every industry or occupation that has enough political power to utilize the state will seek to control entry. In addition, the regulatory policy will often be so fashioned as to retard the rate of growth of new firms.
-- The Theory of Economic Regulation, George Stigler, 1971[5]

Regulatory capture theory is a core focus of the branch of public choice referred to as the economics of regulation; economists in this specialty are critical of conceptualizations of governmental regulatory intervention as being motivated to protect public good. Often cited articles include Bernstein (1955), Huntington (1952), Laffont & Tirole (1991), and Levine & Forrence (1990). The theory of regulatory capture is associated with Nobel laureate economist George Stigler,[6] one of its major developers.[7]

Likelihood of regulatory capture is a risk to which an agency is exposed by its very nature.[8] This suggests that a regulatory agency should be protected from outside influence as much as possible. Alternatively, it may be better to not create a given agency at all lest the agency become victim, in which case it may serve its regulated subjects rather than those whom the agency was designed to protect. A captured regulatory agency is often worse than no regulation, because it wields the authority of government. However, increased transparency of the agency may mitigate the effects of capture. Recent evidence suggests that, even in mature democracies with high levels of transparency and media freedom, more extensive and complex regulatory environments are associated with higher levels of corruption (including regulatory capture).[9]

Relationship with federalismEdit

There is substantial academic literature suggesting that smaller government units are easier for small, concentrated industries to capture than large ones. For example, a group of states or provinces with a large timber industry might have their legislature and/or their delegation to the national legislature captured by lumber companies. These states or provinces then becomes the voice of the industry, even to the point of blocking national policies that would be preferred by the majority across the whole federation. Moore and Giovinazzo (2012) call this "distortion gap".[10]

The opposite scenario is possible with very large industries, however. Very large and powerful industries (e.g. energy, banking, weapon system construction) can capture national governments, and then use that power to block policies at the federal, state or provincial level that the voters may want,[11] although even local interests can thwart national priorities.[12]

Economic rationaleEdit

The idea of regulatory capture has an economic basis: vested interests in an industry have the greatest financial stake in regulatory activity of any social agent and are thus more likely to be moved to influence the regulatory body than relatively dispersed individual consumers,[4] each of whom has little particular incentive to try to influence regulators. When regulators form expert bodies to examine policy, these invariably feature current or former industry members, or at the very least, individuals with lives and contacts in the industry to be reviewed. Capture is also facilitated in situations where consumers or taxpayers have a poor understanding of underlying issues and businesses enjoy a knowledge advantage.[13]

Some economists, such as Jon Hanson and his co-authors, argue that the phenomenon extends beyond just political agencies and organizations. Businesses have an incentive to control anything that has power over them, including institutions from the media, academia and popular culture, thus they will try to capture them as well. This phenomenon is called "deep capture".[14]

Regulatory public interest is based on market failure and welfare economics. It holds that regulation is the response of the government to public needs. Its purpose is to make up for market failures, improve the efficiency of resource allocation, and maximize social welfare. Posner pointed out that the public interest theory contains the assumption that the market is fragile, and that if left unchecked, it will tend to be unfair and inefficient, and government regulation is a costless and effective way to meet the needs of social justice and efficiency. Mimik believes that government regulation is a public administration policy that focuses on private behavior. It is a rule drawn from the public interest. Irving and Brouhingan saw regulation as a way of obeying public needs and weakening the risk of market operations. It also expressed the view that regulation reflects the public interest.


The review of the United States' history of regulation at the end of the 19th century,[clarification needed] especially the regulation of railway tariffs by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887, revealed that regulations and market failures are not co-relevant. At least until the 1960s, in terms of regulatory experience, regulation was developed in the direction of favoring producers, and regulation increased the profits of manufacturers within the industry. In potentially competitive industries such as the trucking industry and the taxi industry, regulations allow pricing to be higher than cost and prevent entrants. In the natural monopoly industries such as the electric power industry, there are facts that regulation has little effect on prices, so the industry can earn profits above normal profits. Empirical evidence proves that regulation is beneficial to producers.[citation needed]

These empirical observations have led to the emergence and development of regulatory capture theory. Contrary to regulatory public interest theory, regulation capture theory holds that the provision of regulation is adapting to the industry's need for regulation, that is, the legislator is controlled and captured by the industry in regulation, and the regulation institution is gradually controlled by the industry. That is, the regulator is captured by the industry. The basic view of the regulatory capture theory is that no matter how the regulatory scheme is designed, the regulation of an industry by a regulatory agency is actually "captured" by the industry. The implication is that regulation increases the profits of the industry rather than social welfare.[citation needed]

The above-mentioned regulatory capture theory is essentially a purely capture theory in the early days, that is, the regulators and legislators were captured and controlled by the industry. The later regulatory models, such as those by Stigler, Pelzmann, or Becker, belong to the regulatory capture theory in the eyes of Posner (1974) and others. Because these models all reflect that regulators and legislators are not pursuing the maximization of public interests, but the maximization of private interests, that is, using "private interest" theory to explain the origin and purpose of regulation. Aton (1986) argues that Stigler's theoretical logic is clear and more central than the previous "capture theory" hypothesis, but it is difficult to distinguish between the two.[citation needed]

Regulatory capture theory has a specific meaning, that is, an experience statement that regulations are beneficial for producers in real life. In fact, it is essentially not a true regulatory theory. Although the analysis results are similar to the Stigler model provide interpretation and support for the regulatory capture theory is beneficial for producers, however the analysis methods of the latter are completely different. Stigler used standard economic analysis methods to analyze the regulation behavior, then created a new regulatory theory—regulatory economic theory. Of course, different divisions depend on the criteria for division, and they essentially depend on the researchers' different understanding of specific concepts.[citation needed]

Justice Douglas’ dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton (1972) describes concern that regulatory agencies become too favorable with their regulated industries.[citation needed]


There are two basic types of regulatory capture:[15][16]

  • Materialist capture, also called financial capture, in which the captured regulator's motive is based on its material self-interest. This can result from bribery, revolving doors, political donations, or the regulator's desire to maintain its government funding. These forms of capture often amount to political corruption.
  • Non-materialist capture, also called cognitive capture or cultural capture, in which the regulator begins to think like the regulated industry. This can result from interest-groups lobbying by the industry. Highly specialized technical industries can be at risk of cultural capture, because the regulating agency typically needs to employ experts in the regulated area, and the pool of such experts typically consists largely of existing or former employees from the regulated industry.

Another distinction can be made between capture retained by big firms and by small firms.[17] While Stigler mainly referred, in his work,[18] to large firms capturing regulators by bartering their vast resources (materialist capture) – small firms are more prone to retain non-materialist capture via a special underdog rhetoric.[17]

See alsoEdit

Other American groups promoting transparency


  1. ^ Dal Bó, Ernesto (2006). "Regulatory capture: A review". Oxford Review of Economic Policy. 22 (2): 203–225. doi:10.1093/oxrep/grj013.
  2. ^ Regulatory Capture Definition, Investopedia, archived from the original on October 3, 2015, retrieved October 2, 2015
  3. ^ Wilson, James (2000). Bureaucracy : what government agencies do and why they do it. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465007856.
  4. ^ a b Timothy B. Lee, "Entangling the Web" Archived 2018-07-06 at the Wayback Machine The New York Times (August 3, 2006). Retrieved April 1, 2011
  5. ^ Stigler, George (1915). "The Theory of Economic Regulation" (PDF). Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science, (Spring, 1971). 2 (1): 3–21. CiteSeerX doi:10.2307/3003160. JSTOR 3003160. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-09-18. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  6. ^ Regulatory Capture 101: Impressionable journalists finally meet George Stigler, Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2014, archived from the original on October 18, 2014, retrieved March 14, 2017
  7. ^ Edmund Amann (Ed.), Regulating Development: Evidence from Africa and Latin America Archived 2016-12-12 at the Wayback Machine Google Books. Edward Elgar Publishing (2006), p. 14. ISBN 978-1-84542-499-2. Retrieved April 14, 2011
  8. ^ Gary Adams, Sharon Hayes, Stuart Weierter and John Boyd, "Regulatory Capture: Managing the Risk" Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine ICE Australia, International Conferences and Events (PDF) (October 24, 2007). Retrieved April 14, 2011
  9. ^ Hamilton, Alexander (2013), Small is beautiful, at least in high-income democracies: the distribution of policy-making responsibility, electoral accountability, and incentives for rent extraction [1] Archived 2016-06-07 at the Wayback Machine, World Bank.
  10. ^ T. Moore, Ryan; T. Giovinazzo, Christopher (5 April 2011). "The Distortion Gap: Policymaking under Federalism and Interest Group Capture". Publius. 42 (2): 189–210. doi:10.1093/publius/pjr037. JSTOR 41441079. Archived from the original on 30 October 2020. Retrieved 17 May 2018 – via ResearchGate.
  11. ^ Richter, Wolf (February 21, 2013). "The Military Industrial Complex Is Too Strong Is Too Many States". Archived from the original on 2017-08-08. Retrieved 2017-08-08. Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, an "anti-war Democratic senator from Washington State" who "voted against the Iraq war resolution and subsequent troop surges." She's spearheading the Senate's efforts to bring the budget in line. Until it gets to Boeing... "Champion for the Boeing Co.," is how Boeing spokesman Doug Kennett endorsed her during her reelection campaign in 2010.
  12. ^ Savage, Charlie (February 6, 2017). "As Trump Vows Building Splurge, Famed Traffic Choke Point Offers Warning". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2020-10-30. Retrieved 2017-08-14. Millions of people who travel between the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest each year fight through Breezewood, Pa., a strange gap in the Interstate System... no ramps join [I-70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike] at their crossing. Instead, drivers travel... blocks with traffic lights and dense bazaar of gas stations, fast-food restaurants and motels... [In order] for a bypass to be considered, essentially Breezewood's own Bedford County must propose it... "It's just not an issue that really appears on the radar for us," said Donald Schwartz, the Bedford County planning director.
  13. ^ "Thin Political Markets: The Soft Underbelly of Capitalism". Archived from the original on 27 February 2018. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  14. ^ Hanson, Jon; Yosifon, David G. (2003). "The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 152 (1): 129–346. doi:10.2307/3313062.
  15. ^ Carpenter, Daniel; Moss, David A. (2014). "Preventing Regulatory Capture" (PDF). Cambridge University Press. Archived (PDF) from the original on July 16, 2015. Retrieved May 22, 2015.
  16. ^ Engstrom, David Freeman. "Corralling Capture" (PDF). Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Archived (PDF) from the original on October 30, 2020. Retrieved May 22, 2015.
  17. ^ a b Yadin, Sharon (2015). "Too Small to Fail: State Bailouts and Capture by Industry Underdogs". 43 Capital University Law Review 889. Archived from the original on 2016-06-18.
  18. ^ Stigler, George (1971). "The Theory of Economic Regulation". 2 Bell J. Econ. & MGMT. Sci. 2: 3. doi:10.2307/3003160. JSTOR 3003160.

Further readingEdit