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 topic. Leif 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.