Friday 9 February 2024

3 questions for a regulatory reform minister


So let's say you're a minister in a reforming government, a rare enough beast. And that you're someone who has both the job and the intention of reforming regulations. (An even rarer animal in any political environment!)

Economist Jon Murphy offers 3 simple questions to guide your work. And they start with Ronald Coase ...

As many economists have been pointing out since at least Ronald Coase’s famous 1960 paper 'The Problem of Social Costs,' we exist in a complex world of pre-existing social, economic, legal, and legislative arrangements. These arrangements influence our actions. Like Chesterton’s Fence, we cannot pretend they do not exist, nor discard them because we do not understand their purpose.
    And yet, many interventionists do ignore current arrangements.
Many interventionists simply load new intervention upon old intervention, assuming either the new intervention will fix the unintended consequences of the old intervention — or, worse, ignoring altogether that the old interventions exist!

But let's assume our political reformer is honest as well (an even rarer beast in politics!) Then your first question would be:
Question 1: What is the current state of affairs?

... Of course, it is impossible to articulate every single aspect of the current state of affairs. Rather, one should focus on the most salient (eg, direct laws, institutions, etc). ... There are all sorts of preexisting arrangements that influence [affairs]. These preexisting arrangements, as Coase pointed out, are crucial. If they are misunderstood, then interventions can make the situation worse.
    Answering this question also helps understand why existing patterns are what they are.
As Hernando de Soto liked to point out, if you see people doing insane things, then that's your clue there are some bad laws against which people are trying to just do their best. Talking about the developing world's shanty towns, for example, he pointed out it's no surprise that folk there tend to build their furniture before their roof: the reason being that the laws give them no chance to get secure land title, so their lounge suite will always be more secure than their shelter. People respond to incentives, even if bad law only encourages shitty ones.

Which leads us to the next question.
Question 2: Why have pre-existing arrangements failed?

If the answer to Question 1 leads one to conclude that there is indeed a failure, now we need to understand why that failure has occurred. Is there something about the current state of affairs that triggers that failure? What are the actual causes of the failure? What are the incentives people face?
Understanding those shitty incentives is the key here. And Do Soto's example is still on point: we should assume that people making apparently bad decisions are acting rationally. It's not they are irrational; it's the incentives they face that are irrational. So, in our example, our reforming political animal should examine  how poor property rights protection encourages these poor property decisions.

Here at home, he could do worse than start with the bad outcomes of the RMA and the Building Act.

And then consider ...
Question 3: Is your proposed solution the best method achievable?

Hopefully, by this point, [our enlightened political beast] has a pretty good understanding of the current state of affairs. Now is the time to start considering proper interventions. Note that this question actually has two elements to meet: 
  1. the intervention is the best method to achieve the goal, and
  2. the intervention is achievable.
... What is "best" may not be a positive intervention (meaning that one takes a new action) at all. Indeed, while investigating Questions 1 and 2, one may discover that the best thing to do is remove an existing intervention! 
Given the encrustation of existing legislation and regulation, that would be an enlightened first option.  
The second element relates back to our first question. Whether or not some intervention is achievable will depend on the current institutions. ...
And more crucially, will depend on the principles and political agility of the reformer, and the support they can garner for their goals.

My own suggestion would be to always head in the direction of more freedom, however small the increment, just as long as there is no new impediment to freedom imposed. That would be a principled, practical approach to reform. More white with no new black.

Or set off one or two small steps that would self-initiate many more, such that the liberating process might be unstoppable. (This was Hernando De Soto's approach with title registration in South America.)

We've seen more than one pinstriped "reformer" end up preening their ego rather than doing the work. But if the reformer's motivation were to remain sound, great things could be achieved even in small steps.

1 comment:

MarkT said...

Excellent post, that every politician in ACT and National should read and think about. We’re hearing again that the RMA is going to be made easier and faster to navigate, but we’ve heard these promises before whilst it’s continued to get more complicated and slower. A lack of understanding on how the existing regime plays out in practice and the incentives it encourages is the reason, particularly the incentive for Councils to apply the precautionary principle and say no to a project, combined with there being no positive incentive to say yes.

The only proviso, possibly minor correction I’d add to what you’ve said is that the Step 3 intervention doesn’t necessarily need to be the ‘best’ - provided the ratchet principle is applied and it’s a step in the right direction, as you state later on. A perfect plan is often the enemy of a good plan, and if there’s something that can be done quickly that improves things then do that - rather than hold off taking any action whilst you search for the best possible.