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11.1 Public Interest versus Private Interest

Learning Objective

  1. Why can’t the government legislate bad things out of existence and which model of government, public interest or private interest, is the most accurate depiction of reality?

Whenever anything seemingly bad happens in the world, many people today immediately clamor for the government to do something about it. That is sometimes an appropriate response, but many times it is not. For starters, government can’t fix the world by decree. Simply making an activity illegal does not mean that it will stop. Because the government faces a budget constraint and opportunity costs, it can’t afford to monitor everyone all the time. What’s bad for some is often good for others, so many people willingly supply illegal goods or activities. As a result, many illegal activities are commonplace; in no particular order, sodomy, drug use, reckless use of automobiles, and music piracy come to mind.

The second problem with relying on government to fix bad things is that government officials are not the angels many people assume they are. It’s not your fault. Especially if you went through the U.S. public school system, you likely learned an interpretation of government called the public interest model. As its name suggests, the public interest modelA model of government developed by political scientists that posits that politicians, bureaucrats, and other government workers serve the public in lieu of themselves. posits that government officials work in the interests of the public, of “the people,” if you will. It’s the sort of thing Abraham Lincoln had in mind in his famous Gettysburg Address when he said “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That’s outstanding political rhetoric, better than anything current spin artists concoct, but is it a fair representation of reality?

Many economists think not. They believe that private interest prevails, even in the government. According to their model, called the public choiceSee private interest model. or, less confusingly, the private interest modelA model of government developed by economists that posits that politicians, bureaucrats, and other government workers serve themselves in lieu of the citizens or public., politicians and bureaucrats often behave in their own interests rather than those of the public. Of course, they don’t go around saying that we need law X or regulation Y to help me to get rich via bribes, to bailout my brother-in-law, or to ensure that I soon receive a cushy job in the private sector. Rather, they say that we need law X or regulation Y to protect widows and orphans, to stymie the efforts of bad guys, or to make the rich pay for their success.

In many countries, the ones we will call “predatory” in the context of the Growth Diamond model discussed in Chapter 23 "Aggregate Supply and Demand, the Growth Diamond, and Financial Shocks", the private interest model clearly holds sway. In rich countries, the public interest model becomes more plausible. Nevertheless, many economic regulations, though clothed in public interest rhetoric, appear on close inspection to conform to the private interest model. As University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate George Stigler pointed out decades ago, regulators are often “captured” by the industry they regulate. In other words, the industry establishes regulations for itself by influencing the decisions of regulators. Financial regulators, as we’ll see, are no exception.

Regardless of regulators’ and politicians’ motivations, another very sticky question arises: could regulators stop bad activities, events, and people even if they wanted to? The answer in many contexts appears to be an unequivocal “No!” The reason is our old nemesis, asymmetric information. That horrible hellhound, readers should recall, inheres in nature and pervades all. It flummoxes governments as much as markets and intermediaries. The implications of this insight are devastating for the effectiveness of regulators and their regulations, as Figure 11.1 "Asymmetric information and regulation" makes clear.

Figure 11.1 Asymmetric information and regulation

Although Figure 11.1 "Asymmetric information and regulation" is esthetically pleasing (great job, guys!) it does not paint a pretty picture. Due to multiple levels of nearly intractable problems of asymmetric information, democracyA type of government that is of, for, and by the people because it allows citizens to choose candidates and policies via elections. is no guarantee that government will serve the public interest. Matters are even worse in societies still plagued by predatory governmentA type of government that is of, for, and by the ruling elite and that fails to supply basic public goods like life, liberty, and property., where corruption further fouls up the works by giving politicians, regulators, and bankers (and other financiers) incentives to perpetuate the current system, no matter how suboptimal it may be from the public’s point of view.

And if you really want to get your head spinning, consider this: agency problems within the government, within regulatory bureaucracies, and within banks abound. Within banks, traders and loan officers want to keep their jobs, earn promotions, and bring home large bonuses. They can do the latter two by taking large risks, and sometimes they choose to do so. Sometimes shareholders want to take on much larger risks than managers or depositors or other debt holders do. Sometimes it’s the managers who have incentives to place big bets, to get their stock options “in the money.” Within bureaucracies, regulators have incentives to hide their mistakes and to take credit for good outcomes, even if they had little or nothing to do with them. The same is true for the government, where the legislature may try to discredit the executive’s policies, or vice versa, and withhold information or even spread disinformation to “prove” its case.

Stop and Think Box

In the 1910s and early 1920s, a majority of U.S. states passed securities regulations called Blue Sky Laws that ostensibly sought to prevent slimy securities dealers from selling nothing but the blue sky to poor, defenseless widows and orphans. Can you figure out what was really going on? (Hint: Recall that this was a period of traditional banking, unit banks, the 3-6-3 rule, and all that. Recall, too, that securities markets are an alternative method of linking investors to borrowers.)

We probably gave it away with that last hint. Blue Sky Laws, scholars now realize, were veiled attempts to protect the monopolies of unit bankers upset about losing business to the securities markets. Unable to garner public sympathy for their plight, the bankers instead spoke in terms of public interest, of defrauded widows and orphans. There were certainly some scams about, but not enough to warrant the more virulent Blue Sky Laws, which actually gave state officials the power to forbid issuance of securities they didn’t like, and in some states, that was most of them!

It’s okay if you feel a bit uneasy with these new ideas. We think that as adults you can handle straight talk. It’ll be better for everyone—you, me, our children and grandchildren—if you learn to look at the government’s actions with a jaundiced eye. Regulators have failed in the past and will do so again unless we align the interests of all the major parties depicted in Figure 11.1 "Asymmetric information and regulation" more closely, empowering market forces to do most of the heavy lifting.

Key Takeaways

  • The government can’t legislate bad things away because it can’t be every place at once. Like the rest of us, government faces budget constraints and opportunity costs. Therefore, it cannot stop activities that some people enjoy or find profitable.
  • According to the public interest model, government tries to enact laws, regulations, and policies that benefit the public.
  • The private interest (or public choice) model, by contrast, suggests that government officials enact laws that are in their own private interest.
  • It is important to know which model is a more accurate description of reality because the models have very different implications for our attitudes toward regulation.
  • If one believes the public interest model is usually correct, then one will be more likely to call for government regulation, even if one admits that regulatory goals may in fact be difficult to achieve regardless of the intentions of politicians and bureaucrats.
  • If one believes the private interest model is a more accurate depiction of the real world, one will be more skeptical of government regulation.
  • Asymmetric information creates a principal-agent problem between the public and elected officials, another principal-agent problem between those officials and regulators, and yet another principal-agent problem between regulators and banks (and other financial firms) because in each case, one party (politicians, regulators, banks) knows more than the other (public, politicians, regulators).
  • So there are at least three places where the public’s interest can be stymied: in political elections, in the interaction between Congress and the president and regulatory agencies, and in the interaction between regulators and the regulated. And that’s ignoring the often extensive agency problems found within governments, regulatory agencies, and financial institutions!