Primaries, Public Interest and Angels

February 3, 2012

by Chidem Kurdas

The Republican primaries have been all-out fights, with a series of contenders showing strength in polls and challenging the establishment favorite Mitt Romney, only to fall back after the initial success. Newt Gingrich is the latest to rise and, after his loss in the Florida primary, presumably to fall. It is not a nice process, causing complaints of mudslinging that will continue in the coming presidential election. Pundits eager to display their wisdom call on politicians to set aside the differences and do what’s best for America.

Public choice theory tells us that politicians, like most people most of the time, tend to focus on their self interest. This view has been challenged—the recent Critical Review has several articles on the topicLeif Lewin repeats his claim, first put forth in a book 20 years ago, that studies from various countries show politicians and voters to be largely public spirited. One reply comes from Dennis Mueller, who suggests looking at the results of the political process to see the evidence of self-interested behavior, rather than the “inputs” of democracy.

Another response, from Clark Durant and Michael Weintraub, is that moral and social forces push individuals to selfless behavior but also make them righteous and indifferent to distant consequences. This mix of altruism, righteousness and myopia just feeds the desire to win the next election.

In the 1940s Joseph Schumpeter made a fundamental point. There is no way to agree on what the public interest is and how it is to be furthered. What appears to one part of the population as the obvious policy for the good of the country strikes another part of the population as a terrible idea.

The politicians we get are winners of horse races. Saying they are public spirited helps them win the race.  What candidate tells voters that he will do something bad to his country?  What President announces that he plans to ruin the Republic?

The notion of  public interest is circular, in the sense that for each group and politician, it is whatever they want to do. Neither is this just a pretense. I have no doubt that Joseph Stalin believed he was doing what was best for Russia. Comforting as such pap must have been to him and the Russian people, it is meaningless. Elections help discourage wannabe Stalin figures and are necessary for this reason, but by themselves they don’t do much. A recent demonstration of this was the election in Russia and Putin’s continuing hold on power.

The framers of the US Constitution made sure it embodied fundamental values, in particular the value of individual liberty, independently of centuries of political horse races to come. They had no illusion as to the public spiritedness of rulers. In James Madison’s timeless words, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Controls, in particular the Constitution, were necessary because the government is not run by angels.  Political fights are dirty affairs no matter what the system; no angel would survive.

17 Responses to “Primaries, Public Interest and Angels”

  1. Bill Stepp Says:

    I have read the Con., but I don’t see how it embodies individual liberty. in brief,
    Art. 1–Powers of Congress. Mark Twain was too kind to it when he referred to it as America’s only native criminal class.
    Art. 2–Executive branch. See “The Imperial Presidency” and its spinoffs.
    Art. 3–Judicial branch. Rothbard referred to the Supreme Court as “an unchecked and unlimited tyrant.” The lower courts are just retainer sycophants, and for the most part enemies of justice.
    Art. 4–the States. They’re just junior criminal entities.
    Art. 5–How to alter the Constitution. See comments on Arts. 1-4. I could alter it better with a blowtorch.
    Art. 6–Laws and treaties of the U.S. Three words from Spooner describing a statute: “absurdity,” “crime,” “usurpation.”
    Art. 7–States, relations between them and with the Feds.
    See description of Art. 4.
    The Bill of Rights–rights exist in nature and are neither granted nor protected by the State.
    For ex. the second amendment doesn’t grant anyone the right to own a gun, which existed long before it was written.
    The Con. also endorses all sorts of monopolies, including so-called intellectual “property.”
    Rothbard argued that because men are not angels, government can’t work. The State has failed. Time to move on to stateless society.

  2. Bill Stepp Says:

    “The situation of our public debts and the very great embarrassments which attended all our concerns on that account, were the *principal* causes, of that revolution which has given us the Constitution.”

    –Letter on Hamilton’s funding Proposals dated New York,
    Feb. 3, 1790

    quoted in E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse,
    p. xiii.

    It was part and parcel of a big bailout job.

  3. Lee Waaks Says:

    Excellent post. What you said about Stalin could easily be said about Hitler or any other dictator. And I agree. Public Choice Theory is vulnerable to the charge that it ignores ideology as a strong motivating factor. But it is far from useless. Ideologues like power — even “public spirited” ones — and they must do what it takes to get it. This opens the door to corruption and special interests. But the real problem is that public spirited politicians trample on liberty. Who cares if they are public spirited if their ideas are terrible?

  4. Lee Waaks Says:

    I was once a huge fan of Bryan Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. But after reading Jeffrey Friedman’s essay, Search vs. Browse, I believe that Caplan is mistaken: voters (and politicians) are not irrational; they are just ignorant and prone to error. Yes, Lenin/Hitler/Stalin were passionate in their beliefs, but that passion was not irrational — it was born of error married to a particular personality type. Under Stalin a reign of error can lead to a reign of terror; under democracy, a reign of error leads to financial crises, economic stagnation, inflation and the lesser trampling of liberty. While it is not nearly as bad as living under Stalin, there are many who pay servere prices, e.g. the Third World poor who are prohibited from coming the the U.S. due to “public spirited” folks who don’t like immigrants or believe they lower the welfare of natives. Like Bill Stepp, I believe anarchy is superior to democracy.

  5. Roger McKinney Says:

    Lee, I never cared for Caplan’s book for the same reason: he conflates ignorance and rationality. Most people do something like that. They define rational action as wise or well-informed or just doing what I do. I like the definition of rational that one of my econ texts uses: rational people won’t knowingly do something that harms them. However, people can do something that doesn’t harm them in the short run that causes them harm in the long run and still be rational if they don’t consider the long run or don’t value it.

    Like Bill I think anarchy is superior, but it has the same weakness that afflicts democracy or any other way of organizing society: it only works if the majority of people hold to the same anarchic values. If the majority held to McCloskey’s bourgeois values, a constitutional republic would work just fine. Anarchy will work only as long as the majority holds the values that support it.

  6. Bill Stepp Says:

    Roger,
    Most people do hold the values that would support anarchy, namely a desire for liberty and property rights. I assume this is consistent with McCloskey’s bourgeois values.
    The difference between anarchy and statism is not so much in the values held by the people in these systems, but rather in the interests supported by, and opportunities afforded to, the State and its rent seeking retainer parasites. These afflict any state, and would corrupt DM’s con. republic, a con job if ever there were one.
    Don’t be conned by the Con. As Charles Beard pointed out, it supports the nationalistic interests that eventually lead to demands for bigger government.
    As a mini ex. of this, Charles Schwab in today’s WSJ calls for the Fed to “allow the free-market system to do its job.” It’s not going to happen as long as central planners are allowed to plan the money supply. The solution, as I’m thinking about writing in in a letter to the ed., is to abolish the Fed, and let free banking work.


  7. The founding fahers certainly did not rely on the benevolence of either politicians or the public. They did not believe that men could be depended on to pursue the public interest. They believed in checks and balances, and the clash of private interests in politics.

    It was only out of that process that they hoped the public interest would be served. Perhaps they were wrong, but it is naive in the extreme to believe that we can hope for good coming from the disinterested behavior of political figures.

  8. chidemkurdas Says:

    Bill Stepp–
    You seem to assume that if there were no Constitution, then there would have emerged a stateless community of freely associating individuals. This is so unlikely as to be utopian. So you are comparing the Constitution with utopia. That is not a valid comparison.

    It is true the proponents of greater state intervention compare the way real markets operate to a non-existent perfectly beneficial government–as I think Buchanan pointed out. So this is a common problem.

  9. chidemkurdas Says:

    In other words, real world constructs like actual markets or the Constitution, warts and all, necessarily seem bad when compared to imaginary constructs– since these are a figment of the imagination, they of course seem perfect.

  10. Bill Stepp Says:

    Better the utopia of anarchy than the dystopia of the State.

  11. chidemkurdas Says:

    Lee Waaks–
    With a figure like Stalin, it is not clear that error or ignorance mattered for him. After all, the consequences were great as far as he was concerned. He did fine–an absolute despot is absolutely free to do whatever he wishes, and he did. It’s everybody else who suffered and died. He appears to have been a rationally self seeking political operator in a society that — at that time — put no limits on the power of government.

  12. chidemkurdas Says:

    I’m trying to make the point that a self-serving and successful politician may achieve the ends he pursues. His ignorance and errors may not matter for him. It is a different matter for the citizens who are harmed by his policies. Those who supported the politician and his policies suffer for that mistake.

  13. Allan Walstad Says:

    “Public choice theory tells us that politicians, like most people most of the time, tend to focus on their self interest.”

    Whereas, Austrian theory tells us people pursue their individually chosen goals and purposes. And those goals and purposes my involve a mix of things, from wealth to power for its own sake to idealistic goals. So the point is not that all pols are necessarily crassly self-aggrandizing, but that politics does provide scope for pursuing less-than-idealistic goals through coercive means. And I would add that the incentive to dissemble is so great that it’s hard for an honest person to make it in politics, or for a person in politics to remain very honest. What happens at the margin, where more decisions are entrusted to the state?

  14. Bill Stepp Says:

    Who/where is the libertarian Michael Moore?

  15. chidemkurdas Says:

    Allan Walstad–
    Mostly I agree with you. But the point is that policies are justified as being for the public interest. Nobody says we’re going to redistribute income to favor our backers; they say this is for the good of America. Recall the run-up to the ObamaCare Act.

  16. Lee Waaks Says:

    @Chidemkurdas:
    Re: Stalin
    It’s true that Soviet citizens suffered from Stalin’s reign of terror, but my point was that Stalin, regardless of any actions stemming purely from self-interest, most certainly was a true believer. There is evidence for this. He wasn’t merely a thug; he was a Marxist/Leninist thug. But these beliefs were based on ignorance and errors. And the Soviet citizens suffered for this too.

  17. chidemkurdas Says:

    Complicated notion, “a Marxist/Leninist thug”. Your garden variety thug typically has no political view & takes advantage of whatever opportunity he finds. Exhibiting a political view can be very useful in certain situations, of course, as it was for Stalin. Lenin and many of his comrades were certainly true believers. But the next generation of Bolsheviks less so, until you get toward the end of the regime and probably nobody was a believer.


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