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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Democracy & responsibility”

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In my August 29th, 2006, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review [2], I argue that democratic decision-making is very often irresponsible decision-making [3]. You can read the column beneath the fold.

Democracy & responsibility

Government brings out the kid in all of us.

Nanny-state activities are government’s best-known way of babying us. Government commands us to buckle up when we’re in automobiles. It scolds us (and punitively taxes us) when we smoke tobacco. It forces us to pay special taxes allegedly for the purpose of making our retirements financially secure. And it forever is telling us that we will be abused, humiliated and impoverished by big bad businesses were it not for the state’s benevolent intervention.

But the nanny state’s consequences go beyond these particular insults. In particular, the more we relinquish decision-making responsibility to government, the more childlike we become.

Consider the response of a New Jersey woman to my suggestion that the Garden State’s prohibition on self-service gasoline stations be lifted. “Oh, no!” she cried, “that would be disastrous! People here don’t know how to pump their own gasoline. They’d spill it all over the place!”

As it happens, my wife is from New Jersey. Until she moved to Virginia as an adult, she had never before filled her own gasoline tank. Sure enough, the first time she tried to gas up at a self-service pump in Virginia, she squeezed the pump handle before inserting it into the gasoline tank. The result was a flammable mess.

My wife learned how to pump gasoline the hard way. Had she grown up in a state that trusted its citizens to pump their own gasoline, she would never have squeezed the pump handle before inserting its nozzle into her tank. New Jersey’s prohibition on self-service gasoline stations prevents people from gaining useful experience. In its own small way, this prohibition keeps people from fully growing up.

While the nanny state stunts personal growth, the political process encourages childlike behavior in a less obvious way. A mark of immaturity is the inability or unwillingness to make sound decisions — failure to weigh carefully the current and future benefits and costs of available alternatives. Because children cannot be trusted to make sound decisions, adults don’t give them much decision-making responsibility.

Why don’t parents let 10-year-olds decide how to spend the family income? Because with 10-year-olds in charge, the family would vacation for months on end at Disney World and be broke in short order. When spending their parents’ money, young children ignore the full consequences of extended visits to amusement parks, focusing only on the immediate thrills. People who consistently ignore long-run consequences are correctly called “childish.”

By this criterion most voters are childish. Citizens in voting booths help decide a multitude of issues. Should Congress increase subsidies to farmers? Should the state government pay for a domed stadium to attract an NFL franchise? The idea of democracy is that citizens, by voting, collectively decide such things.

But citizens have no incentives to make mature decisions in the voting booth.

First, voters are typically asked to decide how to spend other people’s money. Just as children have no trouble spending mom’s and dad’s money, voters have no trouble voting for pet projects to be financed mostly by others.

Second, no single vote decides an election’s outcome. So regardless how a voter votes — regardless how unrealistic or even destructive a voter’s wish might be — the fact that no vote is decisive means that no individual voter incurs any material cost of voting in whatever way strikes his fancy.

As I’ve written in these pages before, citizens in voting booths are like children on Sen. Santa’s knee. Enter the voting booth and vote for the candidate promising the greatest amount of wizardry. Because your vote isn’t decisive, you suffer no personal repercussions of casting your ballot to express all sorts of fantasies. Of course, every other voter is in an identical position.

Thus, democratic elections encourage voters to behave irresponsibly, just as sitting on Santa’s knee encourages children to rattle off long wish lists of toys. But unlike shopping-mall Santas, voting booths tally up voters’ dream-world requests and pass them on to government. Politicians try in vain to satisfy these unsatisfiable requests.

Compare democratic voting with private decision-making. Perhaps a car buyer dreams of owning a car that gets 150 mpg, packs herds of horsepower and is safe as a tank. Automakers will supply such cars to buyers willing to pay the price. But because such cars must be paid for by each individual buyer, no buyer indulges these costly fantasies. Each buyer settles for a less fanciful car because each buyer prefers to save the extra money it would cost to buy the fantasy automobile.

Such rational weighing of costs and benefits is the mark of maturity. Pathetically, democratic voting encourages too many otherwise mature adults to behave like spoiled brats propped on Santa’s knee.