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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

All politicians do bad things

It’s not a matter of getting the “right” person in place; it’s a matter of refusing to give ANY person the amount of power politicians and bureaucrats currently enjoy. There is no way someone can “do good” in a position where they are expected to make certain groups happy and to do so with one tool and one tool only, force. That is government. We are stupid to think good intentions can somehow make coercion a “nice” and effective way to achieve social progress and harmony.  (I recommend reading chapter 10 of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to see why there are systematic reasons that “bad” people end up in high levels of government. It’s not by chance.)

Here’s a great post on the topic by the The Austrian Economists’ Steve Horwitz:

So the big news today is  that the governor of Illinois has been caught doing explicitly what most politicians do with more subtlety every single day: selling off their power to the highest bidder. I can’t help but note that yet another politician is indicted on corruption charges at the very same time we are handing over unprecedented power to the political class as we partially nationalize the banking system and, apparently, the Big Three auto companies.

I simply do not understand how those who are in favor of giving government all of these new powers because they sincerely believe that doing so will work out the way their blackboard designs intended can keep a straight face. What kind of cognitive dissonance must it take to believe that the people YOU are handing power over to are “not like” Ted Stevens or Rod Blagojevich? How deeply must one be in denial or engage in rationalization to believe that they are “different?” How blind must one be to think that trillions of dollars in bailout money won’t go to the highest bidder (as the lobbyists line up on K Street…) in a process different only in its wink-and-a-nod courtesies than Blagojevich’s auctioning off of a Senate seat?

For me, the key insight of public choice is the same insight that underlies Austrian economics:  it is the institutional framework that is the key to understanding the choices people make and the unintended outcomes they produce. As I said to a class last week: “Governments can’t act like businesses because businesses only act like businesses because they operate in the institutional environment of private property, monetary exchange, and competition.” In the same way, getting politicians to stop selling off their power isn’t a matter of ethics or psychology, rather it’s about changing the rules of the game such that they do not have as much power to sell. Unfortunately, the current bailout mania is changing those rules in utterly the wrong direction.

Look at it this way: the bailouts are already becoming just a legal form of essentially the same behavior for which the governor has been indicted.

Why should we ever accept “Oh, but he’s different” as an answer to the claim that explicit bribery and selling off power are just a less subtle form of politics as usual?

(Cross-posted at the SFEblog)

Posted by Isaac Morehouse on December 10, 2008 in International Politics | Permalink


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Public choice is "politics without romance." Sounds good to me.

Why do people seem to think politicians -- any of 'em -- are knights in shining armor?

Over at Democratic Underground, some lefties are claiming Blagojevich was set up for a fall because of his recent opposition to Bank of America.

Yes, really.

Blagojevich is a hero and the bourgeois villains are persecuting him. It must be nice to subscribe to such an all-encompassing narrative.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-12-10 8:57:30 AM

Steve is absolutely spot on. Yet so many refuse to open their eyes and continue to clammer for bigger government and more government power which has always been the recipe for disaster.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-12-10 1:04:07 PM

This Isaac Morehouse is, at best, a fool. More likely he is an anarchist. I can't seem to read his drivel any other way. What NEED elected officials that represent clear-cut, limited government, religious values. Morehouse may not believe that there can be good men, inspired properly, that can and will and DO do the correct things as elected officoals.

Morehouse is probably an atheist

Posted by: carl | 2008-12-10 1:32:16 PM


I appreciate you giving me the benefit of the doubt and allowing that I may be no worse than a "fool". I am sorry that my drivel isn't easier to understand. The above post says nothing of what my personal religious or even political beliefs are. It is a statement regarding a reality of political institutions - as real as the laws of supply and demand or the laws of gravity. I am highlighting the fact that political systems, by there very nature, will attract people of certain persuasions and that people in political positions will tend to do certain things (otherwise they end up out of office, or they don't get there in the first place). If I fail to make sense on this count, I suggest reading the chapter in Hayek suggested above, or Gordon Tullock or James Buchanan on "public choice" economics. This is not a negative statement or value judgment about politicians, but merely a reality.

And I do think having "good" politicians is a good thing. My point is that if we have them it will only be because public sentiment has shifted to a point where they are able to succeed. They are lagging, not leading, indicators of public sentiment. Ideas are what matter, politicians will follow. I hope that theme is consistent in my posts.

As to my religious beliefs, I leave you to read my past posts on the topic.

Posted by: Isaac | 2008-12-10 1:42:44 PM

This Isaac Morehouse is, at best, a fool. More likely he is an anarchist. I can't seem to read his drivel any other way. What NEED elected officials that represent clear-cut, limited government, religious values. Morehouse may not believe that there can be good men, inspired properly, that can and will and DO do the correct things as elected officoals.

Morehouse is probably an atheist

Posted by: carl | 10-Dec-08 1:32:16 PM

Ok, so if indeed there are good men and women in politics...where are they? And in a system that is corrupt beyond repair how do these "good" politicians do anything effectively? They can't.
They are simply overwhelmed.

Which leads to the obvious conclusion that politics is corrupt. What we need are statesmen who's mandate is gaurding our rights and interests as a nation, not a bunch of back room rats dealing our futures away.

And you can call me an athiest too for all I care.

Posted by: JC | 2008-12-10 1:56:17 PM

We must remember before we look to good politicians to be our salvation that what we (the majority of the public) ask politicians to do is BAD. Good men do not do bad things. If the job description is, "do bad things", good men will either not apply, apply and fail, get the job and be lost as to the fact that what they're doing is bad, or get the job and learn to succeed by deciding the bad really isn't so bad after all.

It is what we ask of politicians and what we want and expect that is the problem. No good man can meet our expectations for politicians and remain a good man and good politician. Unless what we demand is limited government and principled action, we will not get it.

What we currently want is to be lied to (we elect based on promises no human could ever fulfill, and if people don't make them we get mad and don't vote for them), to have a personal bully/santa clause who will take from others and give to our causes, and a non-principled selectively enforced idea of freedom wherein we are allowed to do what we like, but we want others to be prohibited from doing what they like. No human being could ever fulfill what we demand. The best they can do is fulfill it for the most powerful interests and lie and keep pretending to fulfill it for the rest.

OUR ideas must change if good politicians are to succeed.

"What determines the course of a nation's economic policies is always the economic ideas held by public opinion. No government, whether democratic or dictatorial, can free itself from the sway of the generally accepted ideology." - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action Ch. 35, section 3

I would include all ideas, not just economic.

Posted by: Isaac | 2008-12-10 4:10:37 PM

What is wrong with anarchists? Even if you can find some good men (though as Issac points out, it is very rare, especially if you are familiar with public choice economics), they still don't have the knowledge required to BE good politicians. In fact, in a democracy it is oftentimes the politicians with the best of intentions that screw up the economy the most.

Posted by: Dan Smith | 2008-12-10 4:43:45 PM

That some have interpreted all politicians do bad things as all politicians are bad is rather extraordinary. Under the present system politicians are encouraged to do bad or wrong things in order to win or to remain in office. The saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely remains true. To ignore such facts is to ignore human nature.

Isaac is spot on in stating that for this to change Canadians must change their ideas. Frankly I fear that we may have to hit rock bottom for most people to wake up and to end the entitlement mentality along with a blind love for big government.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-12-10 5:58:52 PM

What is wrong with anarchists?
Posted by: Dan Smith | 10-Dec-08 4:43:45 PM

That's an interesting question Dan. As far as I'm concerned the word anarchist has suffered a major injustice. It has over time come to mean "Chaos" and used in sentences in places where the word chaos would work just as well. Even the dictionary defines "anarchy" as a system of lawlessness:

1 a: absence of government b: a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority c: a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government
2 a: absence or denial of any authority or established order b: absence of order

I can't help but think its meaning has been bent away from its original intent, which in my mind does not include political disorder or lawlessness. I think what the word means is this:
It is simply the opposite of heirarchy.
"anarchy vs. heirarchy". Kind of makes sense doesn't it? But since the word means "no government" in pretty much anyone's mind, its a short walk to assuming it would result in chaos.
I don't believe that's necessarily so.

But that's for anarchist's to work out.
I'm a Libertarian and we advocate limited government, not "no" government.

Posted by: JC | 2008-12-10 6:09:34 PM

I like to use Hoppe's "Ordered anarchy." It takes the wind out of the "chaos" slur.

JC: Good libertarians espouse limited gov't publicly, but we all know that no gov't is good gov't.

Posted by: Duder | 2008-12-10 7:54:05 PM


Posted by: Dan Smith | 2008-12-10 9:17:55 PM

JC: Good libertarians espouse limited gov't publicly, but we all know that no gov't is good gov't.

Posted by: Duder | 10-Dec-08 7:54:05 PM

Duder, I'll take that with a grain of salt (w)

As a Libertarian I believe in limited government.
Actually I believe in an administration, not a government. And the duties of that administration are to protect our abilty to enjoy:

Individual Rights
We hold that each individual has the right to exercise sole dominion over her/his life, and to live in whatever manner she/he may choose, so long as she/he does not violate the equal rights of others.

Government's Role
We hold that where governments exist, they should be stringently limited both in their structure and in their operations.

Civil Order
No conflict exists between the individual's rights to life, liberty, and property, and the government's obligation to maintain civil order.

Social Concerns
Government interference in current social concerns such as pollution, consumer protection, health care delivery, and poverty exceeds the level required for the protection of individual rights.

Defence & Foreign Policy
A Libertarian government would adopt a policy of non-intervention, abstaining totally from foreign quarrels and imperialist adventures.

Trade & Economy
The only proper role of government, in this context, is to protect property rights, enforce contracts, and adjudicate disputes, providing a legal framework for the protection of voluntary trade.

And like any political philosophy its living, evolving concept. But as it stands, it beats hell out of what we presently have.

Posted by: JC | 2008-12-10 9:52:15 PM

While many politicians are unacceptably bad so still is our PM Stephen Harper. It is clearly still Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself who is undemocratic when he tries to run his government as a majority government, when he is an minority government.

Opposition, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff rightfully warned Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the Conservatives will be defeated if the Prime Minister doesn't shelve partisan attacks or if he fails to compromise on the budget. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also had said he'd be willing to meet with the Prime Minister. "I made it clear I don't want to get into secret negotiations or backdoor deals," Mr. Ignatieff said. "I'm there to listen to the Prime Minister because he's the Prime Minister of Canada. And then we'll decide what we have to do from there." Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff maintained that the coalition option is still viable while also criticizing the Prime Minister for raising national tensions in a fall economic statement that, among other things, proposed to remove voter subsidies from political parties. “I am prepared to vote non-confidence in this government. And I am prepared to enter into a coalition government with our partners if that is what the Governor-General asks me to do,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “But I also made it clear to the caucus this morning that no party can have the confidence of the country if it decides to vote now against a budget it hasn't even read.” Mr. Ignatieff told his caucus he was committed to the coalition but also wanted to make sure that Liberals take care of Canadians' concerns about their jobs. Mr. Ignatieff took a standoffish approach to meeting Mr. Harper, first suggesting he has no plans to negotiate with the Prime Minister, but ultimately leaving the door open. “I think that after having lost the confidence of the House, after having triggered a national crisis, after having raised tensions between groups in Canada, it's not up to me to reach out a hand. It's more up to the Prime Minister,” he said. “But I want to add something: I'm a responsible elected official, and I want to do the best for my country. I will do all that I can to get my country out of this crisis.” He also called the Prime Minister's earlier actions “divisive, spiteful and unproductive.” Mr. Ignatieff warned Mr. Harper not to run a negative ad campaign, as the Tories did when Mr. Dion was elected party leader two years ago. “It would seem to me … a very, very serious mistake to engage in partisan attacks against a party leader at this moment. I hope I make myself clear,” he said. “We're in the middle of a parliamentary crisis. It's not conducive to engage in partisan political attacks against me or any other member of the House of Commons. Look where it's got him.” Mr. Ignatieff said he believes the recent crisis, and the Prime Minister's strong attack on the Bloc Québécois may have opened the door for the Liberals in Quebec. “I am convinced that after last week, we have become the credible federalist option in Quebec. Mr. Harper has lost a lot of credibility with Quebec voters in recent weeks, and recent months,” he said.

Newly appointed interim Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he had a "short" and "businesslike" conversation with Stephen Harper on Wednesday night, adding he would be willing to meet with the prime minister ahead of next month's federal budget being tabled. "I've made it clear to the caucus and to the country that if Mr. Harper has put us in this situation, he's lost the confidence of the House of Commons, and it's up to him to find a way to regain that confidence, and we've seen no evidence that he can or will," Ignatieff said Ignatieff also said it is "essential" that the government "comes clean" with its budget estimates, so Canadians can understand the true picture of the country's fiscal position in the wake of the global economic crisis. "I don’t want to torque up the rhetoric here, but the prime minister, I think, has a problem with truthfulness," he said. "During the election campaign, he said, you know, no deficit. During the election campaign, he said no recession. Now we’ve got both a recession and a deficit. It’s time to level. It’s time to talk turkey together." http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2008/12/10/ignatieff-harper.html

Posted by: thenonconformer | 2008-12-11 12:00:48 AM

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