Post-Election Wisdom

by Russ Roberts on November 30, 2006

in Politics

Wisdom from Arnold Kling in TCS:

We have to expect mediocrity from political leaders. They are
selected by a very unreliable process. In general, I try to avoid
contact with narcissists who spend their time pleading for money. Those
are hardly the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make
someone admirable, yet they are the traits of people who go into
politics.

Could election reforms help? None of the election reforms currently
under discussion would make much difference, in my view. I once pointed
out that in order to reproduce the degree of accountability that
existed at the time of the nation’s founding, we would need 250 states, but (a) I am not sure that would work and (b) it is not going to be tried.

The libertarian view is that private institutions, both for-profit
and non-profit, are better at problem-solving than government
institutions. Regardless of whether political leadership is wise or
mediocre, our goal should be to limit the damage that public officials
can do. Do not demand that they "solve" health care, "fix"
education, or launch a "Manhattan project" for energy independence.
Even for experts, those are impossible tasks. The harder we press our
existing leaders to address these issues, the more trouble they are
going to cause.

The belief that the problem with government is the particular
individuals in power is dangerous. The myth is that somewhere out there
we could find great leaders who could use government to solve all of
our problems. Instead, we need to be vigilant against the enlargement
of government, by either mediocre or expert leaders.

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{ 6 comments }

T.R. Elliott November 30, 2006 at 2:12 pm

Arnold Kling writes:"We have to expect mediocrity from political leaders. They are selected by a very unreliable process."

If I look at the political process over the past 200 years in this country, I see greater efforts at equality–Jews and Blacks were not allowed or dissuaded from living in Del Mar and La Jolla here in San Diego as little as 30 years ago. I see greater efforts to solve externalities–the air in Los Angeles, when I was a kid, was unbreathable many days of the year.

I get the feeling Mr Kling lives in a Utopian libertarian world that little resembles the one we live in.

Arnold Kling writes: "In general, I try to avoid contact with narcissists who spend their time pleading for money. Those are hardly the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make someone admirable, yet they are the traits of people who go into politics."

Apparently Arnold Kling is not familiar with the concept of advertising as an important aspect of capitalism. Most advertising is little more than a plea for someone with dollars to part with them. True, something is exchanged for those dollars, but the same logic applies to politicians.

Arnold Kling writes: "The libertarian view is that private institutions, both for-profit and non-profit, are better at problem-solving than government institutions."

This is a largely meaningless statement. He does not define "better." One purpose of government, through regulation, is to have some control over "better."

Arnold Kling writes: "The myth is that somewhere out there we could find great leaders who could use government to solve all of our problems."

This myth seems to largely exist in Mr Kling's rhetoric. To be fare, I've sat next to people on airplanes who whined and complained that the airlines should have in inordinate number of spare airplanes when the plane they were sitting on had a mechanical failure. The culture of complaint, the culture of whining, is not directed solely towards the nanny state. It's also directed towards the nanny airline, or the nanny corporation in general.

That said, I find few people who want Government to fix problems. I do find many who want government to help create a level playing field. And to assist with redistribution when necessary or morally desirable.

Government is a form of community. Community has always been important to human society, both in terms of informal community that exists within neighborhoods and larger areas, and the more formal community that exists within government.

ben November 30, 2006 at 5:21 pm

TR Elliot is grumbling in the margins. WHat part of "better at problem solving" isn't clear?

And, good grief, just because there are other things to complain about says nothing at all about the quality of Kling's argument. And just because government is a community (is it?) doesn't say anything about superiority to other types of community, such as markets. Markets at least have the benefit of lacking coercion.

T.R. Elliott December 1, 2006 at 12:23 am

Mike says: "What part of "better at problem solving" isn't clear?"

Kling's argument is so broad that it is meaningless. Government has the power to regulate and that provides a counterbalance to the market. Government plays an important role. When the problem is any type of externality, Government can step in to regulate that behavior.

Regarding communities: In the past, communities were in fact very coercive. It is only with numbers and the anonimity provided by mass culture that people are able to evade that pressure. That is a good thing. Some of those coervice pressures included the prohibition against Jews and African Americans living in Del Mar and La Jolla. Somehow I don't consider this to be an issue in the margins. I'm sorry that others think differently.

Russell Nelson December 1, 2006 at 2:15 am

T.R. Elliott says "Government is a form of community." Sure, just like the Mafia is a form of community. That doesn't mean that all communities are good for the people!

Alas, he's also wrong when he says "When the problem is any type of externality, Government can step in to regulate that behavior." The problem is that government is also subject to the tragedy of the commons. Some problems are simply hard to solve. It is a gross error to assume that when a market has a hard time solving a problem, that a government can solve it any easier.

Caliban Darklock December 2, 2006 at 7:18 am

T.R. Elliott seems to have a problem with reading comprehension. While he doesn't see people who want government to fix problems, he does see people who want government to create a level playing field and assist with redistribution. On what planet are these not solutions to perceived problems?

It's clear to pretty much everyone who pays attention that whenever government is perceived as not doing enough, the general consensus is that we have the wrong people in office, while the reality is more likely to be that government isn't the right "community" to be solving this particular problem. In fact, historically, there are very few problems government can solve at all.

Racism is an excellent example. Government has not actually provided equality and freedom from racism; it has only forced racists to lie about their racism. The racist must find a different reason to discriminate, but the discrimination doesn't stop. The government has simply coerced new behavior from racists by penalizing the old behaviors.

ben December 4, 2006 at 3:16 pm

T.R. Elliot

Thanks for taking a comment about communities and somehow inferring from it I am indifferent about racism.

In case you hadn't noticed, the US government has been a backer of racist policies for a good deal of its history.

Gary Becker showed discrimination reduces the real income of discriminators i.e. the market does not reward that behaviour.

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