Uncovering Hidden Sources of Regulatory Power
Scholarship by Professor Alex Geisinger
Professor Alex Geisinger employs insights about social norms to develop a theory about the capacity that even unenforced regulations have to influence the behavior of individuals and corporate entities.
In a forthcoming symposium article in Loyola University Chicago’s Journal of Regulatory Compliance, “Expressive Effects of Traditionally Unenforced Regulation,” Geisinger expands upon existing assumptions about the ways that regulations shape behavior.
Traditionally, Geisinger explains, theorists have attributed regulatory influence to two sources: deterrence and legitimacy. Under this view, individuals and industries adhere to regulations in order to avoid adverse consequences and/or because they respect the process by which the rules were put in place. And under this view, efforts to weaken regulation or discourage enforcement will inevitably bring previously adopted practices to a halt.
Employing theories of how law influences the social meaning of behavior, Geisinger argues that both a quest for esteem and self interest can influence the behavior of both individuals and corporations in powerful ways. Behaviors that garner the esteem of others or protect one’s well-being can influence actions, independent of regulatory enforcement, Geisinger says.
Laws – and publicity surrounding them – convey information that can influence beliefs, attitudes and behavioral preferences, Geisinger observes, noting that public knowledge about the hazards of placing babies in cars without safety seats spurs parents to use them, regardless of regulatory enforcement.
“By changing the social meaning of an activity, law can influence the probability that a regulated behavior is undertaken by an individual,” he writes. “The same is likely true for corporations and firms. Empirical evidence supports the claim that corporate entities also act in response to social pressure. Scholars have also recognized that law can educate and be internalized.”
Citing his own experience in the practice of environmental law, Geisinger recalls that companies that commonly discarded hazardous waste without a care acknowledged that they had adopted better disposal methods after the passage of laws, even when those laws were not consistently enforced.
Geisinger’s theory provides empiricists a means for testing the effects of regulation on individuals and corporate entities at time when regulatory enforcement is on the decline.