Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Regulator's Dilemma

Imagine two rooms: one is a group of consumers and one is a group of producers. For now the rooms are completely isolated from one another. As they are labeled, these two groups will interact in trade.

Now imagine a regulator whose job is to, well, to do something. The regulator has imperfect information but is guided by a few beliefs about the job to be done. The first is a belief that the job exists somewhere along the dimension of necessity, which extends from anti-necessary to necessary. At the extreme of necessary the regulatory job is required for a good outcome. Anti-necessary is not the same as unnecessary; rather it means the job of regulation is in fact destructive—that the execution of the regulatory job brings a clear net harm.

The second belief is about where the need exists. Is it the consumers or the producers who need "help"? Let's call this dimension need.

The third belief is that he as the regulator will do a good job of fulfilling the regulatory mission. Let's call this dimension effectiveness. This dimension obviously extends from positive to negative meaning he does a good job or a bad job regulating.

The regulator has limited resources in addition to imperfect information. He must make tradeoffs. The interaction of where his beliefs land on the three-dimensional grid of necessity, need, and effectiveness will determine how he approaches the job of regulator (of course, it may not just be his beliefs that guide that decision, but he is a good proxy for the fact that something guides those beliefs).

For example he can concentrate his efforts on the group of consumers. In this case he surveys the room of consumers with the underlying belief that 'there are people in this room who can't be trusted to make good decisions even if there is no fraud involved. I must protect those idiots from themselves.' Call this option 1.

Alternatively he can concentrate on the producers thinking 'there are people in this room who can't be trusted to act ethically. I must stop those crooks.' Call this option 2.

And of course there is the more likely option that he divides his efforts between both groups. Call this option 3.

Here are my thoughts:

  • We unfortunately tend to view the job of regulation and regulators as highly necessary and highly effective. This means they punch hard and with impunity. The only thing left to decide is where they punch.
  • Option 1 can be a realistic point of view or it can be a disgusting point of view. People do make poor choices—all the time, every day. But the magnitude of those poor choices matters. So does the incentive arrangement—who is in the best position to benefit from a good choice and hurt but learn from a bad choice. At the extreme this point of view relies on a paternalistic philosophy that assumes the best way to make decisions is through a poorly incentivized and poorly informed regulator. Free market processes are highly superior to a regulator if option 1 is our focus for regulation.
  • Option 2 is the best case that can be made for regulation. There will be fraud and with it real blood. But again the role of the regulator can and should be limited here. The regulator can be a blunt and poor instrument for discovering and preventing fraud in all its forms including unintentional harm. Liability law via common law and contract law (both emergent processes) can be equal or better regulators than a pure regulator himself.
  • Option 3 is where most regulation tends to land from the SEC to the FDA. And think about how the more dynamic real world plays out. The rooms aren’t actually isolated from one another nor are the groups mutually exclusive. Everyone is in one big room wearing multiple labels. The imperfectly informed regulator is going to look for the help of the relatively informed producers to help guide his attempts at helping consumers. He is asking people, some of whom are crooks and many of whom have ulterior motives, to structure and enforce option 1. He will also look to define fraud from the point of view of the “victim”. The relatively injured consumers (who will self-select among those who have suffered a harm—happy people don’t complain) will help guide the regulator. He is asking people, some of whom are notoriously making bad decisions but not bearing the full burden of those choices, to structure and enforce option 2. This is a formula for regulation that is anti-necessary, ineffective at all the wrong times, and fulfilling mythical needs.