Saturday, August 13, 2011

A theory of government

At its core, the case for limited government/libertarianism is a pretty simple one: the private sector performs better than the public sector, and therefore we should have as much of our lives as possible impacted by the former instead of the latter. Examples of this phenomenon abound: private schools are typically superior to public schools, private housing is preferable to public housing, Amtrak gushes red ink while US private transport rail is among the world’s best, dealing with customer service at the Apple store is infinitely preferable to a visit to the DMV, etc.

But perhaps these are just unhappy coincidences. Is it not possible with a few tweaks and adjustments government could morph into an effective, efficient enterprise that delivers value and achieve results? The answer is no. Government is inherently flawed and systematically incapable of achieving results on par with, never mind superior to, that of the private sector. The rest of this post will be devoted to explaining why.


Democracy evokes warm fuzzies among most Americans, and why not? It ranks up there with mom and apple pie in a ranking of all that we hold to be good and wholesome. The ugly truth, however, is that democracy is a far from ideal -- it's simply the least bad system out there. While good relative to other forms of government, this does not mean it is good from an absolute standpoint. As Winston Churchill noted, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Another one of Churchill's famous saying is that the best argument against democracy was a five minute conversation with the average voter -- and who can disagree? As Newsweek noted earlier this year in a survey of 1,000 American adults:
29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights...Only 58 percent could identify who the Taliban are.
As Bryan Caplan argues in his outstanding book The Myth of the Rational Voter, voters -- arguably the foundation of democracy -- are rationally ignorant. Simply put, the costs of becoming informed outweigh the benefits. After all, given that one's odds of determining the outcome of an election are essentially zero, why go to all of the time and effort to educate oneself about all of the issues on the table? And as the government and its responsibilities grow, these issues only multiply.

Just take a look at the topics covered in the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain: the financial sector/crisis, tax policy, government appropriations, energy/oil, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and terrorism. How many Americans could follow all of those topics with any depth of understanding? How many could name the presidents of all 4 countries mentioned, explain what an earmark is, how US tax policy favors or disadvantages US corporations, prospects for alternative energy, the risks and benefits of offshore oil drilling or hold forth on the appropriate response to a financial crisis? Does anyone think it's even 20 percent?

And this is only, very broadly, what was covered at the debate. To be truly informed about issues pertinent to the federal government one should also have a working knowledge of trade policy, immigration, Medicare, farm policy, social security, health care, and a myriad of other topics. (Another problem with big government: the bigger it is, the more topics a voter's finite attention span must be divided between, ensuring they know less and less about more and more) 

A lack of knowledge, however, doesn't stop about half of us from casting ballots. Some voters simply find out how the candidates stand on one particular issue of importance to them (guns and abortion being classic examples) and vote accordingly. Maybe they vote for a certain party out of habit or because someone close to them told them to. Or perhaps because the candidate was endorsed by a bunch of celebrities.

Or maybe it's just the way the candidate looks. There is little doubt that being attractive is a major leg up, especially in the TV age. Many of us are no doubt familiar with the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in which television viewers declared JFK the winner while radio listeners gave the edge to Nixon. It's also definitely good to be tall, with 7 of our 10 presidents since 1960 measuring at least 6 feet. The other three weren't exactly midgets either, with Nixon and George W. Bush clocking in at 5' 10.5" and Carter at 5' 9.5" (in comparison the average American male was 5' 9" in 2005). 

Is it difficult to conceive that a non-trivial number of voters may have preferred Obama over Clinton in the Democratic primary for superficial reasons such as his relative youth, good looks, race or speaking ability? It certainly wasn't due to a more impressive resume or profound policy differences.

Democracy, in other words, is handing an enormous amount of power over your life to people that are about as likely as not to be either ignorant, irrational or both. Everytime I see a campaign urging people to vote a part of me cringes. And if you think voters are bad, think about the people they elect.


The next plague of government, politicians, are a strange breed indeed -- and they have to be. After all, what normal person would subject themselves to the humiliation of running for office? It's a non-stop agenda of fundraisers, debates, meetings, speeches, factory tours, tank riding, lunches at greasy spoons, door-knocking, hand-shaking and baby-kissing. It's also time spent away from the family (having a family is something voters like to see -- when is the last time we had a bachelor president?). They are forced to be, as Don Boudreaux puts it, actors in an elaborate play.

Such a system can attract only two types of people: self-promoting salesmen out for power and true believers armed with the best of intentions. Oh, and lawyers. But how long do even these true believers remain eager servants of the people? After arriving in Washington they are assigned an ever-growing staff to look after their needs, are treated like mini-celebrities, told how smart and important they are, asked to give speeches, take part in ribbon-cuttings, are fĂȘted by lobbyists and besieged like the godfather by constituents seeking favors. How on earth could that not skew someone's perspective? Does anyone really think that Sen. Patty Murray after 18 years in Washington is still just a "mom in tennis shoes?"

Is it any wonder that such a system spits out such deeply flawed candidates who seek our highest offices? And not just candidates either -- consider some of the people who actually get elected: Newt Gingrich actually used to be Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Edwards was elected Senator from North Carolina and considered a serious presidential candidate for a time while Joe Biden really is the Vice President of the United States. Although it may be clichéd to say that voters must choose between the lesser of two evils when voting for president, it's also true. Does anyone really labor under the impression that we are presented with the best the country has to offer for the highest office in the land?

Competitive elections meanwhile, the ultimate check on elected officials, are hindered by political machines, status quo bias, rampant gerrymandering (whereby politicians choose voters instead of the opposite), inherent advantages of incumbency (easy access to media, ability to dole out favors, district offices that serve as de facto campaign staff) and campaign finance laws that impede the ability of challengers to raise the funds necessary to mount an effective challenge.

Basically, ignorant voters vote for weirdos to represent them in office, and once in office the weirdos tend to stay there. What could go wrong?

The next post will examine the bureaucracy and the actual business of legislating.

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