Most legal writers are implicitly or explicitly critical of the use of threats as an alternative to rulemaking or adjudication. The general presumption is that the use of threats is a kind of symptom of an underlying malady - a broken rulemaking or adjudication process. For example, Professor Lars Noah describes the use of threats as an “intractable problem,” given the difficulty of “controlling the exercise of such wide-ranging discretionary power.” In this brief Essay, I write in defense of regulatory threats in particular contexts.
The use of threats instead of law can be a useful choice - not simply a procedural end run. My argument is that the merits of any regulative modality cannot be determined without reference to the state of the industry being regulated. Threat regimes, I suggest, are important and are best justified when the industry is undergoing rapid change - under conditions of “high uncertainty.” Highly informal regimes are most useful, that is, when the agency faces a problem in an environment in which facts are highly unclear and evolving. Examples include periods surrounding a newly invented technology or business model, or a practice about which little is known. Conversely, in mature, settled industries, use of informal procedures is much harder to justify.
60 Duke Law Journal
Available at: http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol60/iss8/4