Agency Problems in Law Enforcement: Theory and Application to the U.S. Coast Guard
We study two issues in the enforcement of public law. The first is whether the system of inspections and penalties set by the regulator is effective. The second is whether a better system of inspections and penalties can be designed, given the institutional constraints under which the regulator must function. We study these issues in the context of oil spill prevention activities of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the agency entrusted with the enforcement of maritime pollution laws. A theoretically optimal contract that mixes penalties based on the amount of pollution ex post with penalties based on the extent of non- compliance ex ante is derived. The effectiveness of USCG inspections and penalties in reducing oil spills is then econometrically studied using micro-level data on a panel of US flag tank vessels. Whether the optimal penalty can potentially improve the effectiveness of compliance inspections in reducing oil spills is examined in the light of the empirical results and recent developments in the economics and public management literature on effective incentive contracting. Among our findings is the potential for combining unilateral incentive-based methods with cooperative methods based on reciprocity in order to solve the complex problem of law enforcement.
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