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Regulatory capture and the dynamics of interventionism: the case of power utilities in Quebec and Ontario to 1944

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Abstract

To what extent are the outcomes of economic regulation intended and desired by its proponents? To address that question, we combine Stigler’s theory of regulatory capture with the Austrian theory of the dynamics of interventionism. We reframe Stigler’s theory of regulatory capture as an analytical starting point for a dynamic theory of interventionism, one accounting for the unintended consequences that emerge from regulation, even if the origins of such regulation were designed to benefit a particular industry or special interest group. Therefore, we argue that regulatory capture is not necessarily inconsistent with a dynamic theory of intervention. We illustrate our theoretical point by applying it to an econometric case study of electric utility regulation and its eventual nationalization in both Ontario and Quebec in the early twentieth century, resulting in unintended and undesirable consequences that deviated from the interests of the regulation’s intended beneficiaries.

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Fig. 1

Source: Data obtained from Geloso and Belzile (2018, p. 113)

Fig. 2

Source: Dominion Bureau of Statistics (1935, pp. 2–3)

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Notes

  1. Considering the time dimensions of regulation is an additional side benefit of our analysis in that we are adding to the small, but burgeoning empirical literature on the dynamics of interventionism (Benson, 2002; Holcombe, 2002; Czeglédi, 2014; Boettke et al., forthcoming; Candela & Geloso, 2020; Geloso, 2020a, b).

  2. The consequences can be illustrated in myriad ways, one of the most potent of which is provided by Lucas and Fuller (2018) in their study of “cobra effects”, a term coined from anecdotes of a regulatory policy that the British colonial authorities in India. The policy was implemented with the benevolent motive of eliminating venomous cobras. By offering bounties for cobra tails, the unintended result of the regulation was to increase the cobra population. By commodifying cobra tails, Britain’s regulatory officials introduced a profit opportunity from raising cobras for bounties. Whereas entrepreneurs learned to identify profits and losses arising form that intervention, regulators operating outside the market context could not anticipate all of regulation’s effects. Other examples include the effect of the US war on drugs (Redford & Powell, 2016), airline fare regulation (Douglas & Miller, 1974), anti-money laundering and demonetization rules in India (Rajagopalan, 2020), flour regulation in nineteenth century Canada (Geloso, 2020b), land-use planning in Britain (Pennington, 2005) and the nationalization of lighthouses in nineteenth century Britain (Candela & Geloso, 2020). Examples can be found in which a series of unintended consequences forced deregulation (Benson, 2002; Hirshleifer, Glazer & Hirshleifer, 2005, p. 265).

  3. As Stigler (1975a, p. x) states bluntly, to “say that such policies are mistaken is to say that one cannot explain them.”.

  4. A corollary is that the theory of the dynamics of interventionism can relax its assumption of benevolence on the part of regulators. That assumption, adopted for the analytical purpose of preserving value-free economic analysis, does not alter the conclusion. Indeed, the key component of the Austrian theory of the dynamics of interventionism is the problem of structural ignorance (i.e., the lack of residual claimancy in regulatory decision-making). Adding or removing the benevolence assumption entails “little or no loss of methodological integrity” (Ikeda 2005, p. 49).

  5. Perhaps the most overlap between Stigler’s theory of economic regulation and the Austrian tradition of political economy has been identified by H. E. Frech III (1973), in his review of Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market (1970), entitled “The Public Choice Theory of Murray N. Rothbard, a Modern Anarchist”. As Frech (1973, p. 148) states, Rothbard’s “view of economic regulation as a method of using the power of the State to exclude competitors anticipates Stigler’s theory of regulation (1971a)”.

  6. The City of Montreal alone represented 41% of total Canadian industrial employment during the 1950s. Adding the neighboring towns on the island of Montreal itself brings the percentage well above 50%. In contrast, Ontario’s largest city (Toronto) accounted only for 21% of total national industrial employment at the same time (Raynauld, 1961, p. 241).

  7. As we will see below, by including the reported rates for cities in Ontario (shown in red), the figure understates the low market price nature of Quebec’s electrical market.

  8. It should be noted that nationalization occurred during World War II. However, historians assign little to no importance to war considerations in the decision to nationalize the industry (Bellavance, 2003; Giguère, 2018). The historians emphasize that impetus for nationalization had more to do with consumer discontent.

  9. For the United States, Neufeld (2016, p. 21) points out that self-generation “initially dominated the demand for electrical equipment and remained important for decades.” And while large industrial manufacturers would have consumed the lion’s share of self-generated energy, “hotels and retailers”, “transit companies” and “wealthy individuals” also engaged in self-generation. Little evidence exists that those electrical utilities charged “standby fees” for self-generating industrial clients. The only sources available (Gelly, 2003, 2010) do not go into details.

  10. Early criticisms of Ontario’s publicly owned system (when it was municipalized) pointed to the fact that taxes were considerably higher in Ontarian cities than Quebec cities (Murray and Flood 1922), so that that when both taxes and rates were considered jointly, Quebecois enjoyed the lowest costs of electricity. That is why, in footnote 9, we argued that Fig. 1 understates Quebec’s low electricity prices.

  11. As Nelles (2003, p. 119) writes, “Until recently, in Canada, the word Hydro was synonymous with electricity.”.

  12. Nelles (1976, p 472) points out “that under its statutory authority [HPEC] wielded tremendous power over the private companies. It had access to their books, could examine their contracts, and could even requisition power from them for its own customers…. Beck used his regulatory power to enhance the competitive position of his company whenever possible. In effect, he used his discretionary authority and his superior legal position to limit as much as possible the growth prospects of the private companies. When he was taken to court, he won all his cases, for his power rested upon the bedrock of provincial jurisdiction over property and civil rights.”.

  13. The reductions were sizable, between 7 and 40% depending on the city (Murray and Flood 1922, pp. 43–45).

  14. Crown corporations are exempt from federal taxation, but private firms were not.

  15. Technically, a fourth option to deal with excess demand was to increase rates to reflect market clearing prices. However, that option never was on the table politically, which meant that some form of income redistribution—through taxation—was necessary to meet excess demand.

  16. The numbers for exports out of Quebec include those to the province of New Brunswick but they appear to have been minimal.

  17. The Great Depression caused the Ontario government to try to renege on its purchase promises in 1935. However, after numerous court proceedings, new agreements were signed that continued power transmissions from private firms (Hogue et al., 1979, pp. 179–180). However, when adjusting for the sharp deflation of the Great Depression, the renegotiated price was roughly equal in real terms to the prices agreed to in the initial contracts.

  18. Whereas prior to HEPC’s response, the same price trends would have been observed. It likewise should be noted that the major networks in Quebec were connected and could purchase power from one another. However, energy was lost along transmission lines between the different regional firms in Quebec (Piché 1937). Those losses isolated markets that did not share a direct connection with Ontario’s HEPC.

  19. Some cities were added to the later editions, so that by 1941, 33 cities in Quebec provided price quotations for residential electrical services.

  20. Our results hold whether we deflate prices or not.

  21. The manufacturing productivity data are constructed from value added in manufacturing and the number of employees reported in Part II of the different annual Canadian censuses of manufacturing (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1921 to 1941). Their inclusion is motivated by the fact that value added and employment control for the type of industry dominating urban economies. High productivity industries also were capital intensive and high-energy consumers (Raynauld 1961). Thus, our variables speak to the industrial sector that utilities serviced in market i. Because industrial demand was more elastic and electric utilities engaged in price discrimination, we expect higher industrial productivity to be associated with higher prices for residential consumers. In other words, productivity is entered as a proxy (for lack of a better variable) for market structure. Population is a rough measure of the extent of economies of scale in delivering power to a city.

  22. Some firms, such as Montreal Light, Montreal Heat and Power, and Southern Canada Power, served more than two cities in our assembled sample.

  23. We pointed out above that many cities had privatized their services. But most of them were small ones that did not make it into the DBS’s Index Numbers of Rates publications. The exception was the power company serving the city of Verdun (a suburb of Montreal), which started as a publicly owned enterprise, but which had been privatized after 1928 (the exact year could not be identified but it was between 1928 and 1933).

  24. We relied on Magnan (1925) to match city names between directories because of several iterations of Quebec’s placenames, resulting from differences in the French-Canadian names of religious parishes, which not always were consistent. For example, census officials assigned the more accurate placename, while the survey of electrical stations chose a slightly different name or opted for one of its diminutives (e.g., Hemmingford versus Saint-Romain d’Hemmingford).

  25. Some very small municipalities shared connections with Ontarian cities but not through the HEPC. That is the case for cities like Hawkesbury and Vankleek Hill. which were served by the Quebec-based Gatineau Electric Light Company and thus were unaffected by the HEPC’s subsidization of consumption (Dominion Bureau of Statistics 1929, pp. 255, 374).

  26. The rising share of total production that is exported, depicted in Fig. 2, coincides with rising total production. The total quantity exported actually tripled and it would have been concentrated on those eight municipalities.

  27. Another directory was published in 1919, but the rate information contained in it is sparse.

  28. The Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company and the Gatineau Power Company both refused to provide the values of their capital investments to the DBS in 1929. However, the directories from other years and other sources allow us to impute approximate values based on their stock issues (Hogue et al., 1979).

  29. In reality, nominal prices had remained the same throughout the period in most cities. The perception of rising prices was the result of the deflation observed for other goods and services during the Depression. Thus, real prices were increasing (Geloso & Belzile, 2018).

  30. While the UN reneged on its promise to nationalize the industry, it did create the Régie de l’Énergie to regulate energy prices. It was the Liberal Party, upon returning to power in 1939, that initiated the industry’s nationalization.

  31. However, in two electoral districts, liberal members were elected by acclamation in 1936.

  32. The data are available online at https://www.donneesquebec.ca/recherche/dataset/atlas-des-elections-au-quebec

  33. We were unable to find rates for two additional subdistricts in the 1928 directory (Magdalen Islands and Roberval).

  34. However, Drouilly was unable to compute the francophone share for four electoral districts.

  35. We estimated additional sets of results, such as staggered entry of fixed effects. Without year-fixed effects but with city-fixed effects, the connection with Ontario is significant and positive in both types of specification. However, when year-fixed effects are entered, connection still has a positive effect on prices, but its precision is slightly above the 10% threshold of significance. When firm-fixed effects (to control for the features of the power companies servicing the different cities) are introduced, one obtains the results depicted in Table 4. At the request of a referee, we also estimated our model without manufacturing productivity—the result was unchanged.

  36. The mean price in 1928 (8.53 cents per kWh) was lower than in 1922 (9.17 cents per kWh).

  37. It is relevant to note that eight of the ten largest swings against the liberal party took place in districts that were connected to the HEPC.

  38. On this distinction between optimization and equilibrium, see Hirshleifer, Glazer, and Hirshleifer (2005, p. 94, fn. 1).

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Acknowledgements

We thank Jean-Thomas Bernard, Gérard Bélanger, Peter Boettke, Alexandra Foucher, Benjamin Powell, Diana Thomas, Kacey Reeves West and three anonymous referees for their helpful comments and feedback, which greatly improved an earlier draft of this paper. Special thanks are due to William Shughart II for both his editorial and substantive feedback. We also want to note that, in the process of writing this paper, Germain Belzile passed away. His input was vital to this paper and we will sorely miss him. Any remaining errors are entirely our own.

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Belzile, G., Candela, R.A. & Geloso, V. Regulatory capture and the dynamics of interventionism: the case of power utilities in Quebec and Ontario to 1944. Public Choice 193, 35–61 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-022-00966-6

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