Analysis of Governance and the Regulatory State: Back to Politics as Politicians

Since the mid-1990s, specialists of regulation have come to the fore within political science mostly via a background in public policy or ‘governance’ analysis. Rather than use the term regulation to encapsulate all societal mechanisms of control as the French Ecole de la Regulation of Economics has endeavoured to do (Boyer & Saillard, 2002), these political scientists define it either as ‘aggregate efforts by state agencies to steer the economy’ or, more precisely still, as a specific type of ‘governance’ wherein socio-economic sectors are structured by detailed rules accompanied by an administrative agency charged with enforcing them (Jordana & Levi-Faur, 2004: 3). As the title of the journal initiated by these specialists suggests—Regulation and Governance—at least within political science, enthusiasm for the concept of regulation is therefore linked firstly to what many see as a general shift from state-led government to more pluralistic, multi-actor ‘governance’.

Secondly, the take-up of the concept of regulation matches developments within this very governance whereby increasingly, and throughout the world, it has been delegated to agencies, such as the European Medicines Agency or the French Competition Authority. Although still ‘public’ from the point of view of their mandate and much of their financing, these bodies are ostensibly independent and therefore no longer part of national or international civil services. Moreover, the transnational dimension of the growth of regulation as a governmental practice has been highlighted by numerous authors. Consequently, regulation specialists share some of the conclusions of Rationalist International Relations about the importance of rules, but this time without relying upon neo-classical economics for theoretical support (Bfithe & Mattli, 2011).

However, and notwithstanding its undoubted merits, in underlining that the shift to regulation is much more than just the endorsement of neo-liberal ideology, representatives of the regulation perspective have yet to define with precision the ‘political forces’ they consider have driven this shift (e.g. Jordana & Levi-Faur, 2004: 2; Braithwaite, 2008). This constitutes a serious analytical handicap. Indeed, when examined more closely, the implicit definition of politics used here is centred upon political parties and how they intervene in the economy when in government (Molina & Rhodes, 2006). Such a definition leaves this approach with virtually nothing to say about change in industries such as wine where the variable of party competition has hardly any analytical purchase. More fundamentally, elections and changes in the composition and electoral legitimacy of national executives are invariably posited as key drivers of regulatory, and thus institutional, change. This reduction of politics to politicians therefore ends up mirroring the definition held by neo-classical economists and rational choice theorists.

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