The Frame Game

It’s a new year, and with it has come a whole new crop of state and local elected officials. It’s early, but the signs are not auspicious.

One of the first official pronouncements from Indiana’s newly inaugurated Governor was a solemnly-delivered promise to stop regulating—to cease issuing administrative rules except when “absolutely necessary.” Cynics noted that the language of the executive order pretty much anticipated business as usual, but they missed the point of the exercise, which was to confirm the new Governor’s conservative, small-government “bona fides.”  And what better way to accomplish that than by demonstrating his profound misunderstanding of his own job responsibilities and the role of the state in the operation of the market?

What is the proper role of government in a capitalist system? It is to act as “umpire” or referee, ensuring that everyone plays by the rules. Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt who reminded us that monopolies distort markets? If one company can dominate a market, that company can dictate prices and other terms with the result that free-market transactions—defined as exchanges between a willing buyer and a willing seller both of whom possess the necessary relevant information—will no longer be a genuinely voluntary transaction.

If Manufacturer A can avoid the cost of disposing of the waste produced by his factory by dumping it into the nearest river, he will be able to compete unfairly with Manufacturer B, who is following the rules governing proper waste disposal.

If Chicken Farmer A is able to control his costs and gain market share by failing to keep his coops clean and his chickens free of disease, unwary consumers will become ill.

Most economists agree that in order for markets to operate properly, government must act as an “umpire” in such situations, assuring a level playing field.  They use the term “market failure” to describe  three situations in which Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t work: when monopolies or corrupt practices replace competition; when so-called “externalities” like pollution harm people who aren’t party to the transaction (who are neither buyer nor seller); and when there are “information asymmetries,” that is, when buyers don’t have access to information they need to bargain in their own interest.

Policymakers and economists may disagree about the need for particular regulations, or the optimum number of regulations, or the relative costs and benefits of suggested regulations, but most do agree that capitalism requires appropriate regulation. Unregulated markets can lead to a very different system, a system about which I have previously blogged, called corporatism. In corporatist systems, government regulations favoring powerful corporate interests are the result of lobbying by corporate and monied special interests that stand to benefit from them. You might think of it as a football game where one side has paid the umpire to make calls favorable to that team.

The rhetorical framework employed by Governor Pence, where the forces of Leviathan–defined as the government in which he serves–are in opposition to the creative energy of the market, has been a staple of American politics for at least three decades. Unfortunately, it’s an incomplete and misleading framework, and its continued use undermines both the government’s ability to do its job and, ironically, citizens’ ability to impose appropriate limits on government authority.

American politics has devolved into an exchange of bumper-sticker slogans and labels barely masquerading as discussion. Terms like capitalist, fascist, socialist and communist are used as epithets by people who rather clearly have no real acquaintance with the elements of those economic philosophies. The result is a discourse that has more in common with a mud fight than a debate, a faux “conversation” where everyone is talking nonsense, but it really doesn’t matter because no one is listening anyway.

Those of us who teach public administration talk a lot about transparency. An essential element of that transparency is a “back to basics” honest discussion about the role of government. Americans may be talking a lot, but we are not having that discussion.

It’s seductively easy to blame “Washington” or “government” or “the Statehouse” for doing too much or not doing enough or doing the wrong things. It’s a lot more difficult to have an adult discussion with one’s constituents about the complexities and ambiguities of decision-making in the administrative state. I get that: no one was ever elected using a campaign slogan proclaiming “On the one hand…but on the other hand..” (I know. I once tried.)

Until we elect people who are willing to have that honest discussion, however, we will continue to see officeholders—many of whom have spent their entire lives in government—rhetorically biting the hand that feeds them, and continuing to undermine the enterprise they claim to serve by mischaracterizing the questions we face.

Government officials do not face a choice between regulation and the free market. They face a much more difficult question: which regulations will protect the operation of the market and ensure a level playing field? How much is enough, and how much is too much? What are the costs and what are the benefits? Who will bear those costs?

Elected officials who don’t understand that this is the question aren’t likely to endorse sensible answers.


  1. I think this is related to the gist of this article; never been sure who to contact to ask. It regards the monopoly public utilities who hold control over us. For the past two years or so we have all received these offers of reasonable insurance rates to repair utility lines and wires outside our homes – are these legal demands or are they scare tactics? This has not been an issue until recently when all of our utility lines have aged and our rates have continued to go up. Isn’t maintenance on thier property part of what we pay for monthly? On December 18th I had to cash out my CD to pay for new sewer lines after 5 years of problems, the last 2 weeks the sewer backed up into my basement 7 times. A camera run through the sewer showed the line had collapsed in places; my friend and handyman watched as all work was done so it was necessary. Are we liable for the property belonging to public utilities? Who actually gets these so-called insurance premiums they offer?

  2. You should also consider rules and regulations that protect the public such as: Traffic regulations
    Food safety
    Professional standards
    Building codes
    I could come up with a lot more that need constant attention. Does Governor Pence include all these?

  3. Governor Pence has made it a point to identify himself as a Christian. Let’s see what happens when the wounded plea for justice and he is in the position to make it happen, sometimes just by enforcing a regulation. As governor, he can’t pick and choose his hobby horse, as he did during his worthless years in the House. This is a real job, and if he is what he says he is, it is far more important than he may realize.

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