the modern regulatory state






Duke University
Spring 2019

Curriculum codes: EI, R, CZ, SS

Sections on Monday:  (1) 1:25 – 2:40 (2) 3:20 – 4:40
Lecture/Discussion on Tuesday/Thursday: 1:25 – 2:40

Instructor: Ashton W. Merck

Especially in the last few decades, the notion of “cutting bureaucratic red tape” has been deployed to serve various political ends, on both the left and the right.  In this course, we will “cut the red tape” of partisan rhetoric about regulation to focus on its origins, evolution, and future prospects in the twenty-first century.

Much of the policymaking that structures our world emerges not from Congress or the courts, but from regulatory institutions. From environmental standards to securities regulations, aspects of our everyday life are increasingly governed by variety of agencies, commissions, and bureaus, along with a few quasi-public and private institutions as well. Where did these institutions come from, what do they do, and why do they matter?

To address this question, this course outlines the historical origins and evolution of modern regulatory institutions, focusing on the Western European and North American experience, from the nineteenth century to the present.  For our purposes, “regulatory institutions” include not only public agencies, commissions, bureaus, and boards, but many quasi-public and private entities as well. As this course will reveal, these varied institutions have complex relationships with the businesses, organizations, and individuals whom they hope to regulate, as well as with legislatures, presidential administrations, and the courts.

While this course is based in history, course readings and discussions will incorporate a wide range of disciplinary perspectives – the role of economic analysis in regulatory action; the political economy of regulatory power; sociological assessments of organizational culture within regulatory institutions; the impact of legal ideas on the policymaking process; the role of scientific risk assessment in identifying policy problems; the impact of engineering concepts on regulatory strategies; the ethical dilemmas that arise when policy-makers confront contending interests and conflicting regulatory aspirations.

After an overview of the key ideas and chronological arc of the course, we will examine more specific cases in the following major themes:

  • public health
  • energy and the environment
  • communication (television, internet)
  • transportation (automobiles, trucking)
  • finance and banking

Within these themes, we will discuss a wide range of topics, such as: mining disasters; drug and highway safety; standards for consumer and environmental protection; labor relations; regulating online privacy; and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

In the final weeks of the course, we will explore more recent institutional developments and theoretical arguments about regulation, such as the processes of privatization and regulatory reform, as well as the proliferation of transnational and global regulation. We will conclude by returning to the current political moment of “revolt” against regulation, which will allow us to think critically about the future of regulatory governance in light of what we have collectively discovered about its past.

In this course, you will learn to read and evaluate primary and secondary sources as evidence, how to interpret the arguments of historical actors, and how to craft your own research arguments.  In a final research paper, you will have an opportunity to investigate a historical regulatory policy or issue which will then inform your understanding of a contemporary regulatory dilemma.  Along the way, you will receive extensive guidance on how to conduct historical research, how to utilize library resources to support your research inquiries, giving construction feedback on the work of your peers, and deploying that feedback to refine your own written work.

More broadly, this course promises to make you a more informed and aware citizen. If you think you might be interested in a career in public service – whether for the state or federal government or at an NGO – this course should give you a better sense of what that work might entail. If you are more generally curious about what regulation is and why it has become such an indelible part of our current political moment, this course will shed some light on those questions as well.

There are two major assignments in this course:

1. Course Journal: Throughout the semester, you will write short reflections on readings, discussion, and/or current events in regulation in a course journal, which you will submit for review and feedback three (3) times during the semester.

2. Research Paper: You will write a 15-20 page paper in which you investigate a historical regulatory issue to help inform your approach to a contemporary regulatory dilemma. You will receive support and guidance on how to complete this assignment through a series of smaller tasks, including a draft exchange with your peers. (These smaller assignments will be graded on completion.) You may choose to work with a partner on the final paper.

In addition to these assignments, class participation is extremely important in this class, and counts for a fifth of your grade.


For more information, feel free to contact me.