a1 Department of Government Harvard University
a2 Department of Political Science University of Illinois
It is now a commonplace assertion among scholars of regulation to say that new regulatory statutes follow “crises,” “tragedies,” or “scandals.” The content and form of these critical events varies considerably. They include acts of journalism or research such as the publication of the Nader Report (which purportedly led to new federal automobile safety regulations) or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (which eased the path for the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906). They include instantaneous disasters such as the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India, as well as slowly materializing epidemics like the thousands of horrific birth defects that resulted from widespread use of the sedative thalidomide in Europe and Australia in the late 1950s. As Lawrence Rothenberg describes this argument, it amounts to a meta-narrative of the origins of regulation, an alternative to capture theory. In the tragedy narrative of regulation, “public opinion becomes energized by some dramatic event or condition illustrating the pitfalls of a market's unobstructed operation; the outcry spurs elected officials to promulgate governmental regulation.” This story, as he notes, is at least as old as the work of Marver Bernstein and Anthony Downs.
We are grateful to Nancy Bermeo, Amy Bridges, Barry Burden, Ballard Campbell, Brandice Canes-Wrone, Margaret Carr, Mark Graber, Patricia Keenan, Ken Kersch, Marc Law, Michael Neblo, Tom Romer, Stephen Skowronek, Keith Whittington and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. We also profited from engaging, in-depth conversations with Rick Hall, Scott James and Theda Skocpol, and we thank Scott James for providing us with relevant congressional voting data and district- and state-level measures for the 1930s. We thank audiences at the University of Michigan RWJ Health Policy Seminar Series (January 2002), the Harvard University American Politics Research Workshop (September 2002), the Social Science History Association meetings (October 2002), the Midwest Political Science Association and the Princeton University APD Conference. Carpenter thanks the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Program, and the National Science Foundation (SES-0076452) for research support. All errors and interpretations are our own.