Expert Capture as a Constraint on Policy Debate

Elizabeth Popp Berman, University of Michigan

How do experts and their ideas actually matter in public policy? Much of the existing literature focuses on adjudicating the relative importance of ideas and interests in politics. Yet less attention has been paid to the ways that particular forms of expertise become locked into particular policy domains, shaping the space of subsequent political debate. This paper examines a “strong” case of expert capture—U.S. antitrust policy—to show how institutionalization of a particular form of expertise can produce lasting constraints on the range of political possibilities. Between 1965 and 1985 the influence of economists on antitrust policy grew dramatically, with economists taking more prominent roles in both of the federal antitrust agencies, and lawyers adopting an economic style of reasoning about antitrust. While political interests helped produce this shift, the new style of reasoning gained considerable persistence as the result of organizational and legal changes that institutionalized it. As a result, the space of political debate within antitrust policy was narrowed considerably, and this narrowing persisted even as broader political conditions changed. While, as the present moment suggests, sufficient mobilization has the potential to disrupt expert capture and open up the space of political possibility, the institutionalization of a particular form of expertise can prove a formidable hurdle.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 188. Expertise III: The Politics of Policy Ideas