The Public Interest

The dead hand of regulation

James Q. Wilson

Fall 1971

After decades of public and journalistic neglect, the government agencies that set prices, control entry, and regulate conduct in many of our most important industries have suddenly found themselves in the limelight. Owing to the efforts of Ralph Nader and other advocates of “consumerism,” a considerable segment of attentive opinion has become convinced that the prosaic, often arcane decisions of these little understood commissions are not always in the public interest. Such a view is correct, and for dramatizing the fact we owe Nader and the others a debt of gratitude.


But dramatic confrontations between “raiders” and “bureaucrats,” however useful in creating an issue, are not so useful in understanding the issue. Persons easily convinced that the government is not acting rightly tend to assume that it is because the government is not righteous; if industries are being regulated wrongly, then (in this view) it must be because bad people are doing the regulating. It would be unfortunate if the resolution of the regulatory issue were framed in terms of the moralistic premises that first gave rise to it. 

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