≡ Menu

Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 51 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan’s 1978 paper “From Private Preferences to Public Philosophy,” as this paper is reprinted in James M. Buchanan, Politics as Public Choice (2000), which is volume 13 of the Collected Works of James M. Buchanan; the original published version of this paper is available here):

Little or none of the empirical work on regulation suggests that the pre-public choice hypotheses of regulation in the “public interest” is corroborated.

DBx: More than four decades later this observation remains descriptive.

This reality is – or ought to be – unsurprising. Everyone who graduates from kindergarten understands that incentives matter: if the ease of gaining at the expense of strangers rises relative to the costs of seeking such gains, we expect that more people will attempt to gain at the expense of others. Widespread understanding of this reality is why there is universal support for laws against slavery, theft, fraudulent conveyance, and other attempts to gain at the expense of those who do not consent to being exploited. Put differently, no one would be surprised to learn that empirical studies of a society in which people are free to steal each other’s stuff will be a society filled with an unusually large number of attempts by people to steal each other’s stuff.

And yet very many people toss this common sense aside when pondering regulation by government. (Many people who do this tossing aside of common sense call themselves “progressive.” Strange, that.) Empowered to proscribe and to prescribe actions by strangers, government officials should be expected routinely to exercise this power in ways aimed at seizing private benefits for themselves at the expense of the strangers whom these officials ‘regulate.’ Why is anyone surprised by this reality? Why do so many people assume that the holding of office called “public” or “government” somehow changes individuals fundamentally?

Or perhaps even more realistically: why are so many people blind to the fact that if there are available in society opportunities to gain at the expense of others, individuals who are especially interested in, and adept at, gaining at the expense of others will generally succeed in filling those positions?

By telling ourselves the tale that government, if it is democratic, is at least semi-divine, we dupe ourselves into being duped and pillaged by others. The fact that we humans can imagine matters turning out otherwise – that we can imagine public officials somehow gathering godlike knowledge and then using that knowledge as angels would us it – is not (contrary to popular presumption) a sufficient reason to trust government officials with a great deal of power to “regulate” the affairs of peaceful people.