How Do Regulators Regulate? Enforcement of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, 1907-38

44 Pages Posted: 17 Nov 2005

See all articles by Marc T. Law

Marc T. Law

University of Vermont - Department of Economics


Economists have devoted relatively little attention to analyzing how government officials actually enforce regulation. This is a significant omission since the efficacy of regulatory enforcement and the effects of regulation on economic outcomes may depend on how regulators regulate. This paper sheds light on these issues by examining how the fledgling Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforced the Pure Food and Drugs Act from 1907 to 1938. I argue that because the FDA's ability to enforce this law through deterrence was limited, effective enforcement could only be obtained in those instances where the agency had the capacity to offer benefits to compliant firms in the way of quality certification or direct assistance in improving product quality. The available evidence on the FDA's enforcement activities is consistent with this prediction. The analysis presented may help to explain why contemporary regulatory agencies spend considerable resources on advisory enforcement activities.

Keywords: Regulation, enforcement, bureaucracy, FDA

JEL Classification: D7, K4, L5, N4

Suggested Citation

Law, Marc T., How Do Regulators Regulate? Enforcement of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, 1907-38. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall 2006. Available at SSRN:

Marc T. Law (Contact Author)

University of Vermont - Department of Economics ( email )

Old Mill Building
94 University Place
Burlington, VT 05405-0114
United States
802-656-0240 (Phone)

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