Public Choice 101

by Don Boudreaux on January 10, 2007

in Politics

My colleague Walter Williams reminds us that rules of the game — and the incentives that these rules create — matter far more than do personalities:

Many [people] think things can be changed by electing different politicians. But
I ask: Given the incentives politicians face, why should we expect one
politician to differ significantly from another? We should focus less
on personalities and more on rules.

He explains further in this column.

And Robert Samuelson, in his column today, makes the complementary observation that in politics "There is a consensus against candor, because there is no constituency for candor."

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True_Liberal January 10, 2007 at 9:00 am


Of the several TV interviews I've seen with newly-elected congressmen & senators, and their new leaders, much is said about "what the people want" and "what the people need". I have not heard one word about "Upholding and defending the Constitution", i.e. their oath of office.

Adam Malone January 10, 2007 at 10:58 am

Combined, the two articles give quite a bit of insight.

Wether it conscious all of the time or subconscious part of that time, politicians have one goal that always colors the way in which they vote: they must be reelected. Without reelection they lose their power.

This translates into a "showdown" between the voters, not the politicians. Currently the most powerful group of voters in the USA is that group of Baby Boomers that is set to retire in the near future and those that are already receiving SSA benefits. As a result, politicians who want to be reelected are fearful of estranging that group of voters. IF those of us (I am 23) who do not believe that current benefits are justified wish to change the system we have to get a larger constituency of voters. Invariably politicians will be more likely to vote to decrease benefits if they have a body of constituents that will support them (ie vote for them)

The problem here is comparable to that of congressional pay raises. When a group of people is given the ability to affect the amount they are paid we should expect that they will vote to give themselves a raise at every possible chance. In the same way, it should not surprise us that since the most powerful group of voters is currently, or will soon be, paid by the government to retire they prefer to vote in politicians that will "preserve" and "protect" the status quo for retirement benefits.

Sam January 10, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Some people think the unwritten rules can be negated by the written rules. Often they aren't even aware that there are unwritten rules.

undergroundman January 11, 2007 at 8:19 am

The Walter Williams article is not really very insightful (his analogy is crude), but I'm happy to see that he's concerned with the excessive lobbying in Congress. Both parties are guilty of it – though it seems that the conservative party is much more guilty of it.

I find it astonishing that now that the Democrats are in Congress and fighting for ethics and spending control, the President and the Republicans are trying to pretend that they came up with the idea. Two of the strongest proponents of ethics reform and spending reform are two of the most liberal Senators: Russ Feingold and Barack Obama. That's just a fact. If you want to learn more, check out their Wikipedia articles.

Another key element to fixing the thing is Campaign Finance Reform – do you oppose it? Our productivity has multiplied but we still can't afford to spend money on making sure our elections are clean and fair?

I posted a few of my thoughts on democracy on my blog a week ago or so:

John Powers January 16, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Obama, the leader of the Democratic push in the Senate for the Bridge to Nowhere is pushing for spending reform?

What is he trying to accomplish? Is he trying to restrain himself from his mindless support of pork?


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