Every year at camp, one question is bound to come up during the course of the presidential debates – is government a necessary evil or a positive good? Scripture demands one response to this question – governors are sent by God for the sake of punishing wrongdoers and praising those who do good, and are God’s servants for our good. The necessity of rule of law in creating a just society is so important that philosophers and economists have noted it as the most important precondition for a developing economy. Order in society reflects order in the soul, as Plato tells us, and it is only through the rule of law that man can secure a genuine, robust liberty.
Yet mankind, and all his political and social institutions, remains afflicted by the fall and partakes in multifarious vices and perversities. Government, as the astute conservative philosopher notes, cannot help but regard that soaring vision espoused by Toby on the West Wing with skepticism – “that government, no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind.”
Back in the good ol’ days of centralized planning, wealth redistribution schemes, New Dealing and Keynesian economics, many leading academics and political hacks espoused a rather naïve conception of politicians. These politicians, being the virtuous statesmen and trustees delegated for the preservation of the public good were incorruptible, or, at least, generally well-motivated, altruistic, and most definitely not concerned with anything as lowly as re-election, gamesmanship, and showboating.
But a cursory course in economics teaches us that men are motivated by incentives and self-interest. Powerful men are still men, and still succumb to the temptations common to all. Understanding these layers of self-interest and their corresponding incentives are essential in understanding the limits of power that are practical and proper for government to respect.
In 1988, a pair of economists, James Gwartney and Richard Wagner, published an article entitled “Public Choice and the Conduct of Representative Government,” laying out a number of principles of economic theory that provide challenges to representative government. In the course of the article, Gwartney and Wagner argue that the representative government inherently tends towards several major problems: 1). Rational ignorance amongst voters, 2). Short-sightedness in government, 3). Bureaucratic waste, 4). A preponderance of special interest groups. All of these effects are a direct result of politicians acting as vote-getting suppliers of a package of political positions, and voters acting like self-interested consumers.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be unpacking a few of these tensions with representative government and I’ll try to see if we can find a reasonable conservative solution to some of the troubles they pose.
Posted by Nick Barden