“Perhaps the main failure of rationality is that of the regulators themselves.” -Ted Gayer and W. Kip Viscusi, authors, Overriding Consumer Preferences with Energy Regulations
In a working paper for the Mercatus Center titled Overriding Consumer Preferences with Energy Regulations, economists Ted Gayer and W. Kip Viscusi examine several energy use regulations and the accompanying Benefit-Cost Analyses (BCAs). They find the regulations would not pass a BCA (provide net benefits) without two assumptions: first, that individuals make systematic and financially significant mistakes in their energy consumption choices, and second, that government policies can correct these mistakes.
The regulations cited in the paper include mileage requirements for vehicles and energy efficiency standards for household appliances and light bulbs. The BCA numbers are telling – the authors show, for example, that the vast majority (about 85 percent) of the estimated benefits of the mileage requirements proposed in 2011 accrue to the individual user, mostly in the form of avoided fuel costs.
Without counting these private benefits (strictly counting avoided external costs, including CO2 emissions), the regulation would fail the BCA. That is, the regulations only make economic sense if we assume consumers behave irrationally when left to their own devices.