Until recently, the term regulatory capture seemed stale, a mid-20th century academic construct incapable of describing the latest manifestations of special interest influence. At the opportune time, new empirical work by academics, featured in Daniel Carpenter’s and David Moss’s book Preventing Regulatory Capture, refines the concept to discern and measure capture more accurately, and, in that matter, engender plausible, contextual solutions. Many of the novel forms capture now takes and the projected remedies, are covered in the essays in this RegBlog series. At this point, a brief history of the concept of capture, in particular its antecedents in political thought, may inform, if not entertain.
It is possible to find the provenance of regulatory capture in classical republican thought. Slinking alongside the self-sacrificing virtue needed to sustain the political community was the concept of corruption. Corruption, of course, is a vague pejorative encompassing everything from graft to moral depravity. There is, however, a particular historical use of the term that contains the key element of capture, specifically the concern that private interests are intruding in the public sphere—a boundary has been crossed. In earliest incarnations, we find it in the classical anxiety over the tyrant, who swallows government entirely, depriving citizens of access to the public realm and the chance to participate in political affairs. For Plato, this confinement to the private sphere of the domestic was the most baleful and dehumanizing effect of tyrannical government. By way of a gloss, Aristotle added that the tyrant reduces to his own personal self-interest the common good, which rightly is the product of shared deliberation in assemblies.