“Regulatory capture” occurs when special interests co-opt policymakers or political bodies — regulatory agencies, in particular — to further their own ends. Capture theory is closely related to the “rent-seeking” and “political failure” theories developed by the public choice school of economics. Another term for regulatory capture is “client politics,” which according to James Q. Wilson, “occurs when most or all of the benefits of a program go to some single, reasonably small interest (and industry, profession, or locality) but most or all of the costs will be borne by a large number of people (for example, all taxpayers).” (James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy, 1989, at 76).
While capture theory cannot explain all regulatory policies or developments, it does provide an explanation for the actions of political actors with dismaying regularity. Because regulatory capture theory conflicts mightily with romanticized notions of “independent” regulatory agencies or “scientific” bureaucracy, it often evokes a visceral reaction and a fair bit of denialism. (See, for example, the reaction of New Republic’s Jonathan Chait to Will Wilkinson’s recent Economist column about the prevalence of corporatism in our modern political system.) Yet, countless studies have shown that regulatory capture has been at work in various arenas: transportation and telecommunications; energy and environmental policy; farming and financial services; and many others.