Archive for January 24th, 2013

Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.  –  Milton Friedman

James Buchanan (economist)Sometimes, I set out to write an essay and soon discover that it has turned into something quite different from what I intended, or at the very least grown to embrace much larger issues than the one with which I began.  Obviously, I’m not privy to the inner workings of other writers’ minds, but every so often I see an article which seems to have grown in that way.  Radley Balko’s “James Buchanan, RIP” was such a piece; though its title and opening indicate that it began as an obituary of the Nobel laureate, it contains so much more that I think even those whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of economics may find it worth their time.  Balko begins with a quote from the New York Times obituary explaining Buchanan’s importance:

Dr. Buchanan…was a leading proponent of public choice theory, which assumes that politicians and government officials, like everyone else, are motivated by self-interest — getting re-elected or gaining more power — and do not necessarily act in the public interest.  He argued that their actions could be analyzed, and even predicted, by applying the tools of economics to political science in ways that yield insights into the tendencies of governments to grow, increase spending, borrow money, run large deficits and let regulations proliferate…

He then continues by pointing out that though “conservatives” have used Buchanan’s work to attack the kind of “progressive” bureaucracy they claim to oppose, they ignore the fact that it also casts unwelcome light on the big-government programs they favor:

…When a new federal agency is created to address some social ill…there’s a strong incentive for [its] employees…to never completely solve the problem…[because] there would no longer be a need for their agency…In fact, there’s a strong incentive to exaggerate the problem, if not even exacerbate it…But when it comes to law enforcement, [conservatives]…have the same sort of blind faith in the good intentions and public-mindedness of public servants that the left has for, say, EPA bureaucrats…you could make a strong argument that it’s more important that we recognize and compensate for the incentive problems among cops and prosecutors because the consequences of bad decisions can be quite a bit more dire.  If we reward prosecutors who rack up convictions with reelection, higher office, and high-paying jobs at white-shoe law firms, and…provide no real sanction or punishment when they break the rules in pursuit of those convictions, we shouldn’t be surprised if we start to see a significant number of wrongful convictions.  If we reward cops who rack up impressive raw arrest numbers with promotions and pay raises, and…don’t punish or sanction cops who violate the civil and constitutional rights of the people…we shouldn’t be surprised if we start to see a significant number of cops more interested in detaining and arresting people than in protecting the rights of…citizens…

I hope all of you immediately thought of “trafficking” propagandists upon reading the words “strong incentive to exaggerate the problem”; if not, I’m failing at my job.  They, and all those who promote any extreme and one-dimensional view of reality, must exaggerate not only their raison d’être, but also the differences between themselves and rivals.  Furthermore, they must deride those who are skeptical of their dogma; one popular means of doing so is by equation of skeptics with some demonized group.  Prohibitionists often brand supporters of sex worker rights as “pimps” or “trafficking apologists”, social conservatives tar their critics with such epithets as “communist”, and collectivists try to equate those who advocate for liberty with others whose motivations might be considered less noble by those of “liberal” bent:

Libertarians are often derided for being unapologetically selfish.  I don’t think that’s a fair criticism of libertarian thinking.  It is a fair criticism of Randianism/Objectivism…Libertarianism is a philosophy of governing, and only of governing…the difference…is best explained this way: Randianism is a celebration of self-interest.  Libertarianism is merely the recognition of it…

MADD virgin drinksBalko further points out, as I often do, that it’s a mistake to pretend that governments are intrinsically different from all other groups of humans, for good or ill; every group will seek to further its own ends at everyone else’s expense, and the only way to stop it is to stop letting people – any people – have so much power over one another.  A few examples:

The idea…is not that public employees are terrible, selfish, horrible people…It’s that they’re merely human, like the rest of us…Mothers Against Drunk Driving was enormously successful at attaching a social stigma to drunk driving…DWI deaths plummeted, until about the late 1990s…then the numbers began to level off…rather than declare victory, MADD expanded its mission, and began taking on underage drinking, happy hour specials, alcohol advertising, and other booze-related issues…the organization’s founder eventually came around to say that MADD had outlived its original mission, and become merely an anti-alcohol group.

One more example:  private prisons and prison guard unions.  Free market types who normally believe in the power of incentives for some reason think corporations that operate prisons will somehow resist the incentive to lobby for laws that will create more prisoners, even though more prisoners means a better bottom line for the prison company.  That hasn’t happened.  At the same time, progressives seem to think that some sense of solidarity with the greater, pro-union progressive cause will prevent prison guard unions from also lobbying for laws that create more prisoners, even though more prisoners means more prison guards, which means more dues-paying members of the union.  That hasn’t happened, either...in the aggregate, it’s generally wise to be skeptical of large organizations claiming to speak on behalf of large groups of people, and especially of those who claim to be acting in the public good.  It’s a safe assumption that the primary objective of MADD is the preservation of MADD, that the primary objective of the NRA is to preserve the NRA…The policies that best serve teachers’ unions are not necessarily the policies that are in the best interest of teachers.  The best interests of students are (at least) another step removed.  The policies that are in the best interests of police unions aren’t always the policies that are in the best interests of police officers, and certainly aren’t always the policies that are in the best interests of public safety (never mind civil liberties)…

I think you get the picture.  If you have time, read the entire original; Balko is a powerful and effective writer, and so sensible that the loony HuffPo commentariat eventually recognized that attacking him only made them look stupid.  And while you’re driving today (or waiting for a computer or employee to finish a task, or taking a shower, or anything else that gives you the opportunity to ponder for a few minutes) consider how well public choice theory describes the observable behavior of governments, feminists, the rescue industry, religions, political parties, and any other large group, and ask yourself if it’s really all that different from the observable behavior of corporations.  And if you wouldn’t trust big business to control your life, happiness and property, why on Earth would you trust any of those others either?

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