An analysis of the testimony given before the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on auditors' independence requirements indicates that users of financial statements generally favored increased restrictions on the scope of nonaudit services provided by external auditors to their audit clients, while corporate management and public accounting (professional service) firms providing nonaudit services did not. Moreover, users of the financial statements generally favored the more extensive ban on nonaudit services over the SEC's proposed list of proscriptions. The principle of user primacy, a principle that has been espoused by regulatory and accounting standard‐setting bodies, holds that the interests of the users of financial reports take precedence over the interests of the report preparers. However, the SEC's final ruling on auditor independence requirements was more closely aligned with the position taken by the preparers.
An analysis of the arguments presented in the transcripts and the regulations promulgated suggests that positive accounting theory predicated on instrumental economic and political power better explains the SEC's behavior than do considerations relative to the public interest reflected in the principle of user primacy. Positive accounting theory provides the theoretical model for the empirical research supporting nonregulation of nonaudit services and represents a theoretical model that explains the actions of the SEC as reflected in the final ruling on auditor independence requirements. Further, while positive accounting theory represents the underlying dogma upon which rhetorical arguments against increased regulation are grounded, the arguments themselves are framed and justified using the rhetoric of user primacy, which suggests either a nai¨ve belief in the ultimate generalized good of the neoclassical assumption of instrumental, self‐interested behavior (ethical egoism), or a juxtaposition of incompatible theoretical frameworks. The discussion and analysis suggests, and subsequent events seem to confirm, the incompatibility of the two perspectives and, thus, the inability of positive accounting theory‐based arguments to provide adequate grounds for acting in the public interest. The principle of user primacy affords legitimate grounds for evaluating regulatory alternatives and should provide the theoretical and empirical basis upon which to evaluate regulatory proposals.