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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “On the nature of politics”

In my column for the January 20th, 2007, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I was inspired by David Haddock’s “the sovereign’s paradox” to riff on the nature of politics. You can read my riff beneath the fold.

On the nature of politics

Northwestern University law professor David Haddock describes what he calls “the sovereign’s paradox.” It is this: If a government keeps its powers limited — sticking to doing those few tasks that it can do reasonably well — then it will likely do these tasks well and never threaten people’s liberties.

Such a government, therefore, will earn a reputation for being effective and trustworthy. Many of its citizens will then seek to expand the scope of this government’s activities.

But as the government does more and more — as it assumes duties further and further from those core responsibilities that it performs best — the effectiveness and trustworthiness of government will decline.

In short, genuine success at governing sows the seeds of its own failures.

Haddock’s description of the logic of politics makes sense. I am forever struck by how people, apparently almost instinctively, think of government as differing fundamentally from all of society’s other organizations and institutions.

No one, for example, thinks that Coca-Cola’s success at producing and marketing carbonated beverages is evidence that Coca-Cola should expand into home building and book publishing. The labor talent and resources at Coke are self-selected for success in the beverage industry — and the experience gained from working in that industry causes Coca-Cola’s talent and resources to become even better at producing and marketing carbonated beverages and, simultaneously, even less able to perform well in other industries.

If Coke expanded into home building and book publishing, not only would it likely fail in these industries, it also would reduce its effectiveness at supplying carbonated beverages to the thirsty masses.

For some bizarre reason, though, people think very differently about government. Because western governments have been fairly (if not universally) adept over the years at supplying “public goods” such as crime control, sewer systems and national defense, many people presume that such successes argue for government to expand into unrelated fields such as health-care provision, retirement planning and running railroads.

But why? Why would an organization whose talents lie in protecting citizens from violent aggressors, both homegrown and foreign, be especially good at operating schools and pension funds?

And why would anyone think that diverting the attention and resources of this organization from those tasks that it does best into tasks for which it has no special talent will not reduce its effectiveness in performing its core responsibilities?

The answer is the combination of wishful thinking on the part of citizens and raw, greedy power lust on the part of politicians.

Precisely because modern society is so wonderfully advanced in technology and in its ability to supply huge quantities of creature comforts, people are easily led to believe that Earth can become a paradise if only the right people are in charge and armed with power.

Do some people still dissipate their lives with narcotics? Pass a law!

Are some people less talented than others at earning income? Redistribute wealth and enact minimum-wage statutes!

Might some people foolishly refuse to save for their retirements? Force them to save!

Do the wardrobes of famous entertainers sometimes malfunction on television, giving millions of viewers glimpses of intimate body parts? Regulate broadcasters more sternly!

Why should we Americans — who, after all, enjoy cell phones, Wi-Fi, colored contact lenses and diet foods for our dogs — not have guaranteed retirement incomes and absolute assurances that our children will never, ever see or hear on television anything that we regard as offensive?

The remarkably prodigious output of the market makes people impatient for an even greater bounty. And ironically, when the market fails — as it always will — to create heaven on Earth, many citizens gullibly fall for politicians’ promises to right these “wrongs.”

Call me cynical but I doubt that most politicians who promise to solve (real and imaginary) problems by passing statutes truly believe their own rhetoric. They might not disbelieve what they say, but I’m convinced that politicians don’t ponder the complexities of reality deeply enough to convince themselves of the truth of what they proclaim. They say what they say and promise what they promise chiefly as a means of ascending to power and glory.

I suspect that people self-select into politics because they have an unusually large lust for being in the limelight and an unusually small concern for the ethics of the actions they must take to get there. And because enough voters stand ready to blame their own (real and imaginary) misfortunes on the evil doings of “the rich” or “the corporate elite,” unprincipled power-seekers are eager to ride this ignorance into office.