What Is Regulatory Capture? Explained: How It Works, Types, and Examples


Regulatory capture is an economic theory that suggests regulatory agencies can be influenced by the industries they are meant to oversee, potentially causing them to act in the interests of those they regulate rather than in the public’s best interest. This concept, introduced by economist George Stigler, highlights the power of industry influence over regulators and the implications of this phenomenon on policymaking. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the world of regulatory capture, exploring its causes, examples, and criticisms.

Understanding regulatory capture

Regulatory capture, often referred to as “the economic theory of regulation” or “capture theory,” was introduced by Nobel laureate economist George Stigler in the 1970s. Stigler’s theory emphasizes that regulated industries hold a significant advantage in influencing regulatory decisions compared to individual citizens. As a result, regulatory agencies can end up serving the interests of the industries they are supposed to oversee rather than acting in the public’s best interest.

Industries with a vested interest in regulation, including federal, state, and local levels, allocate substantial resources to influence regulators. In contrast, individual citizens have limited means to advocate for their rights in the same manner. This dynamic is an extension of the concept of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs in regulation and collective action, as explained by economist Mancur Olsen.

Notably, individuals who serve as regulators often have backgrounds in the industries they oversee, owing to the specialized knowledge required to regulate effectively. Some regulators may even return to work in the industries after their government service, a phenomenon known as the “revolving door” between government and special interests. In some cases, industry leaders offer future job prospects to regulators in exchange for favorable regulatory decisions, blurring the line between public service and industry interests.

When regulatory agencies become dominated by the industries they are meant to regulate, they are termed “captured agencies.” In these instances, the agency operates as an advocate for the regulated industries, even if there’s no explicit corruption involved. Rather, regulators begin to adopt the perspective and priorities of the industries they oversee due to intense lobbying efforts.

Examples of regulatory capture

Regulatory capture is a pervasive issue across various industries and throughout history. It tends to occur whenever an industry becomes subject to regulation, as these regulations often create barriers to entry for new businesses. The cost of compliance and the various prerequisites, such as licenses and permits, can discourage new entrants. Incumbent firms may even enjoy regulatory privileges not extended to newcomers.

One classic example of regulatory capture can be found in the U.S. transportation industry, particularly in the late 19th century. As the country underwent significant industrialization, government regulators openly advocated for the industries they oversaw, including the railroad industry. Large railroad companies actively pushed for regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) under the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, effectively allowing the industry to function as a cartel.

Modern financial regulation also grapples with regulatory capture. Regulatory bodies in the financial sector often consist predominantly of industry insiders who share interests with the firms they regulate. This can lead to decisions that align with industry preferences, as seen in the financial market deregulation leading up to the late 2000s financial crisis. The retention of taxpayer guarantees for banks and a series of monetary and fiscal bailouts are believed to have contributed significantly to the U.S. housing bubble and the ensuing Great Recession.

Criticism of regulatory capture

While regulatory capture is a well-documented issue, some economists argue that its significance is overstated. They point to examples in the fossil fuel sector and other industries where lobbying efforts haven’t necessarily translated into higher profits due to regulation. In these cases, the regulatory capture may not have been as successful as in other industries, highlighting the complexities of this phenomenon.


Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks to consider.

  • Increased industry expertise in regulatory agencies
  • Efficient decision-making within regulated sectors
  • Potential for industry self-regulation
  • Risk of policies favoring industry interests over the public
  • Lack of transparency in regulatory processes
  • Potential for regulatory capture leading to market distortions

Frequently asked questions

What is the impact of regulatory capture on the public?

Regulatory capture can lead to policies and regulations that primarily benefit the industries they regulate, potentially to the detriment of the public. It can result in lax oversight, reduced competition, and skewed decision-making that doesn’t align with the broader public interest.

How can regulatory capture be prevented?

Preventing regulatory capture requires transparency, accountability, and a commitment to the public interest within regulatory agencies. Measures such as strict conflict of interest rules, regular audits, and public input can help mitigate the risk of capture.

Are there instances of successful efforts to combat regulatory capture?

While regulatory capture remains a challenge, some instances have seen successful efforts to combat it. These often involve increased public awareness, legal actions, and regulatory reforms aimed at reducing industry influence over regulators.

Key takeaways

  • Regulatory capture is an economic theory suggesting that regulatory agencies can become influenced by the industries they regulate.
  • This influence can result in policies and decisions that favor the interests of regulated industries over the public interest.
  • Examples of regulatory capture can be found in various sectors, from transportation to finance.
  • Preventing regulatory capture requires transparency, accountability, and measures to limit industry influence on regulatory agencies.
  • While regulatory capture is a recognized issue, its impact can vary, and not all industries experience the same degree of capture.
View article sources
  1. What is regulatory capture? – Brookings Institution
  2. “Regulatory Capture”: Sources and Solutions – Emory University School of Law
  3. Technical progress or cycle of regulatory capture? – PubMed
  4. Financial Accounting Meaning, Principles, and Why It Matters – SuperMoney