What is “norming” and what does it have to do with regulation?

It’s a style of regulation that has received very little comment. It may be troubling. You can read an article I wrote about it, with Jonathan Masur. Abstract below.

How do regulatory agencies decide how strictly to regulate an industry? They sometimes use cost-benefit analysis or claim to, but more often the standards they invoke are so vague as to be meaningless. This raises the question whether the agencies use an implicit standard or instead regulate in an ad hoc fashion. We argue that agencies frequently use an approach that we call “norming.” They survey the practices of firms in a regulated industry and choose a standard somewhere within the distribution of existing practices, often no higher than the median. Such a standard burdens only the firms whose practices lag the industry. We then evaluate this approach. While a case can be made that norming is appropriate when a regulatory agency operates in an environment of extreme uncertainty, we argue that on balance norming is an unwise form of regulation. Its major attraction for agencies is that it minimizes political opposition to regulation. Norming does not serve the public interest as well as a more robust standard like cost-benefit analysis.