Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2010

Regulating for Legitimacy: Consumer Credit Access in France and America

by J. Gunnar Trumbull

Abstract

Theories of legitimate regulation have emphasized the role of governments either in fixing market failures to promote greater efficiency or in restricting the efficient functioning of markets in order to pursue public welfare goals. In either case, features of markets serve to justify regulatory intervention. I argue that this causal logic must sometimes be reversed. For certain areas of regulation, its function must be understood as making markets legitimate. Based on a comparative historical analysis of consumer lending in the United States and France, I argue that national differences in the regulation of consumer credit had their roots in the historical conditions by which the small loan sector came to be legitimized. Americans have supported a liberal regulation of credit because they have been taught that access to credit is welfare promoting. This perception emerged from a historical coalition between commercial banks and NGOs that promoted credit as the solution to a range of social ills. The French regulate credit tightly because they came to see credit as both economically risky and a source of reduced purchasing power. This attitude has its roots in the early postwar lending environment, in which loans were seen to be beneficial only if they were accompanied by strong government protections. These cases suggest that national differences in regulation may trace to historically contingent conditions under which markets are constructed as legitimate.

Keywords: Borrowing and Debt; Credit; Financial Markets; Personal Finance; Governing Rules, Regulations, and Reforms; Business History; Business and Government Relations; Welfare or Wellbeing; France; United States;

Citation:

Trumbull, J. Gunnar. "Regulating for Legitimacy: Consumer Credit Access in France and America." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 11-047, November 2010.