Regulators are not heroes

Adam C Smith and Stewart Dompe have a piece on creating this huge aura around heroic regulators. The first of the author has this iconic name and the article is just such an apt fit.

We should realize that markets solving the problems are a much better deal Hahn regulators doing the job:

Amazon is suing thousands of “fake” reviewers, who, for a fee, have posted positive reviews for various products. These pseudo reviews violate the spirit — and possibly the functionality — of Amazon’s largely self-governed rating system. Customers rely on reviews to guide their own choices, and a wave of sponsored reviews can mislead them into choosing inferior products.

A similar theme plays out in George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s newest behavioral economics-cum-self-help book, Phishing for Phools. The authors, both Nobel laureates, claim that an unregulated market leads to massive amounts of manipulation and deception. Just how much remains unspecified, but the general thrust of the argument is that regulatory heroes are needed to rein in villainous dealers.

It is no surprise then that the authors favor heroic efforts of an older progressive sort, such as the works of Alice Lakey or her modern-day counterpart Elizabeth Warren. Their work, respectively, led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These progressives are seen as heroic for taking “action not selfishly but for the public good.” The trouble with such heroes, however, is that they invariably focus not on educating consumers so that they may make better choices but on corralling the cat herd of bureaucrats and politicians into ever-expanding spheres of regulation.

While it is true that consumer regulation can provide focal points that help buyers and sellers interact — in fact, Amazon appealed to just that in its lawsuit — this truth nevertheless misses the pivotal point (and an awkward one for Akerlof and Shiller) that it is Amazon that is working to resolve the problem, not government regulators.


Make no mistake. Akerlof’s classic paper on the quality of goods in a world of imperfect information clearly outlines a problem that markets must address, but it is a problem for both consumers and the market platforms on which they participate. Those platforms have a natural incentive to promote the information consumers need in order to make more informed decisions. The incentives faced by regulators are less well aligned with consumers’ interests. (But advocates of regulation rarely ask what incentives drive government regulators.)

There is another aspect of Akerlof’s model that is telling in this regard: in equilibrium, the so-called “lemons market” should unravel as more and more consumers become frustrated with ever-decreasing levels of quality. Thus, the market platform should topple over. The trouble with this theoretical outcome is that it again fails to account for the empirical observation that it is markets that are solving market problems.

Akerlof’s co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize, Michael Spence, would have no trouble with this observation. Spence noted that it is far more interesting to compare the outcomes in the market to what is possible in a world of incomplete information, not to what is found where no imperfection exists by assumption. Spence explained in his Nobel address that when facing a world of imperfect information, the asymmetry between buyer and seller “cannot be simply removed by a wave of the pen.”

Well many a times, we just needlessly extend a paper to all kinds of spaces. And in this process we fail to get the main message of the paper. Most of these so called iconic papers have a pretty simple message.

This is the same issue running in India as well. We just hail all these regulators and keep picking policy agents of the year and so on. We should realize the unintended consequences of all this intervention business and how today’s heroes are tomorrow’s villains.

We need regulation but not heroic regulators.

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