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Command-and-control regulation

The simplest kind of regulation is to just tell people what to do. This has downsides, though.

Key points

  • Command-and-control regulation sets specific limits for pollution emissions and/or mandates that specific pollution-control technologies that must be used.
  • Although such regulations have helped to protect the environment, they have three shortcomings: they provide no incentive for going beyond the limits they set; they offer limited flexibility on where and how to reduce pollution; and they often have politically-motivated loopholes.

Command-and-control regulation

When the United States started passing comprehensive environmental laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a typical law specified how much pollution could be emitted out of a smokestack or a drainpipe. These laws also imposed penalties if pollution limits were exceeded. Other laws required the installation of certain equipment—for example, on automobile tailpipes or on smokestacks—to reduce pollution.
Both laws that specify allowable quantities of pollution and laws that detail which pollution-control technologies must be used fall under the category of command-and-control regulation. In effect, command-and-control regulation requires that firms increase their costs by installing anti-pollution equipment; firms are thus required to take the social costs of pollution into account.
Command-and-control regulation has been highly successful in protecting and cleaning up the US environment. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created to oversee all environmental laws. In the same year, the Clean Air Act was enacted to address air pollution. Just two years later, in 1972, Congress passed and the president signed the far-reaching Clean Water Act. These command-and-control environmental laws, and their amendments and updates, have been largely responsible for cleaner air and water in the United States in recent decades. However, economists have pointed out three difficulties with command-and-control environmental regulation.
First, command-and-control regulation offers no incentive to improve the quality of the environment beyond the standard set by a particular law. Once the command-and-control regulation has been satisfied, polluters have zero incentive to do better.
Second, command-and-control regulation is inflexible. It usually requires the same standard for all polluters, and often the same pollution-control technology as well. This means that command-and-control regulation draws no distinctions between firms that would find it easy and inexpensive to meet the pollution standard—or to reduce pollution even further—and firms that might find it difficult and costly to meet the standard. Firms have no reason to rethink their production methods in fundamental ways that might reduce pollution even more and at lower cost.
Third, command-and-control regulations are written by legislators and the Environmental Protection Agency, so they are subject to compromises in the political process. Existing firms often argue—and lobby—that stricter environmental standards should not apply to them, only to new firms that wish to start production. Consequently, real-world environmental laws are full of fine print, loopholes, and exceptions.
Critics of command-and-control regulation understand the goal of reducing pollution, but they question whether this type of regulation is the best way to design policy tools for accomplishing that goal.

Self-check question

Consider two approaches to reducing emissions of CO2 into the environment from manufacturing industries in the United States. In the first approach, the US government makes it a policy to use only predetermined technologies. In the second approach, the US government determines which technologies are cleaner and subsidizes their use. Of the two approaches, which is the command-and-control policy?

Review questions

  • What is command-and-control environmental regulation?
  • What are the three problems that economists have noted with regard to command-and-control regulation?

Critical-thinking questions

  • Would environmentalists favor command-and-control policies as a way to reduce pollution? Why or why not?
  • Consider two ways of protecting elephants from poachers in South Africa. In one approach, the government sets up enormous national parks that have sufficient habitat for elephants to thrive and forbids all local people from entering the parks or injuring either the elephants or their habitat in any way. In a second approach, the government sets up national parks and designates 10 villages around the edges of the park as official tourist centers that become places where tourists can stay and embark on guided tours inside the national park. Consider the different incentives to local villagers—who often are living in poverty—in each of these plans. Which plan seems more likely to help the elephant population?

Want to join the conversation?

  • mr pink red style avatar for user Rui
    In the second critical-thinking question would the first plan more likely help the elephant population since there are less people entering the area, despite harming the local villagers when compared to the second plan, or would the local villagers be more willing to protect the elephants and keep illegal poachers off the park in the second plan, therefore benefitting the elephant population even more?
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Jackson Lautier
      I personally believe an economist would say the second option (official tourist centers) would be more effective because the villagers would have an incentive (tourist income to see elephants) to protect the national parks, where as the first option yields little to no incentive to enforce protection of the elephants. As a tip, the entire science of economics comes down to self-interest as motivated by wealth/utility (or 'incentives', as the economists would say). As an example, a better approach might be to improve the living standards of the poachers/villagers such that they don't murder elephants for money -- but that isn't economics.
      (18 votes)