Our friend Colin at To Get Rich Is Glorious posted a two-part blog (one and two) over the weekend encapsulating his theory of governance. It is remarkable both for its scope and for its relative brevity, coming in at just about 2,600 words it addresses everything from democracy (the least bad option of governance) to politicians (which come in two varieties: malevolent or incompetent) to legislation (sausage) to bureaucracy (in gross, worse than politicians; in detail, victims of their own occupation). It is worth a read. It is also worthy of response. Because my own theory of government is not as fully developed as Colin’s, I will try only to respond to a few points.
Voters are Irrational. Colin adheres to this well worn trope of wisdom and subscribes to its insipid logic: voters are irrational ergo democracy is fatally flawed. He then points to all sorts of phenomena as evidence that voters are irrational—for instance, Barack Obama was endorsed by celebrities, therefore voters are irrational; Kennedy looked better than Nixon on TV and that influenced the election, therefore voters are irrational; and concludes that Obama’s victory over Sec. Clinton in the 2007–08 Democratic Primaries is attributable to youth, good looks, race, or oration (and, therefore, voters are irrational).
As someone who has spent a rather large amount of time interacting with voters and attempting to persuade them—and worked against the Sen. Obama in those very same primaries—I am sympathetic to the notion that voters are sometimes influenced by what we more policy-oriented folks view as insubstantial factors. But this being true for some voters does not render it so for other voters. In fact, a Project Vote analysis of the 2008 electorate found that the electorate that pushed Sen. Obama into the White House was more strongly progressive than the normal electorate, explaining both the gains of Democrats in 2008 and the retrenchment in 2010 when this electorate stayed home. In fact, these voters, by casting a ballot for the most progressive candidate in the race, acted rationally. (Notably, the same survey reveals that Tea Party adherents represent an extraordinarily small portion of the electorate—a true outlier community: lily white, well educated and fully employed or retired, upper middle-class to upper class, generally older and possessed of the notion that the poor or unemployed should be left to fend for themselves).
Nor is it true that a voter who votes based on a single issue is irrational—Colin may disagree with that particular voter’s calculus but the voter has surveyed the field of issues, weighted those issues, and accorded an overwhelming weight to the single issue that moves him or her to the polls. If one selects as the baseline of rationality doing something that garners to you the outcome you desire, then single-issue voting is not assailable as irrational.
Putting aside whether voters are or are not rational, and whether their relative rationality is uniform or even a fair characterization in gross, let us assume that they are all irrational. In this respect, Colin’s theory of government is the most curious. He argues (generally) that the market is the salve for all problems. Yet the free market is premised on the idea that economic actors (let us call them consumers) are rational. Who are these consumers? Well, by and large, they are the same as the voters. Why then would an individual behave rationally when making consumer decisions but not rationally when making electoral decisions? Is it any accident that political campaigns and products manufacturers both use advertising firms—sometimes the very same advertising firms—to win over consumers (voters) to their products (candidates)? Does this then suggest that consumer are not rational actors because they purchase Crest (Kennedy) over Arm & Hammer (Nixon)?
Worse, the market is premised on the notion that there is no information disparity between economic actors. This is of course ridiculous—it is, after all, an ideal; I will leave to another day the discussion of whether this particular ideal is more ridiculous than ideals in general. Democracy requires no such premise to function but, of course, prefers well-informed (although not fully-informed) voters.
Bureaucracy and Legislation. I will lump these two topics together because it is worth noting that the bureaucracy developed to fill the very gaps in the efficacy of legislation that Colin highlights. However, rather than acknowledging this, he unironically trots out progressive critiques of legislatures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used to argue for the administrative state. He then attacks bureaucracy with stereotypes that mostly ignore how the administrative state functions or how administrative law operates.
Bureaucracy may indeed connote those adjectives Colin ascribes it, however it denotes the specialization of government. It is intended to rectify the very problems Colin points out by alleviating the legislature’s burden of grappling with complex, technical questions beyond the ken of most if not all legislators. Is it perfect? No, of course not. No human construct is perfect, not even the market. But does it do a good job? By and large, the answer to that question is yes, it does do a good job. You may disagree—Colin certainly does—with the policy choices made by various administrations and the administrative state they have managed but is water and air cleaner today than it was 40 years ago? Yes. Are our cars safer to drive? Yes. Has malaria been effectively driven out of the United States? Yes. Do thousands of farmers rely on—and appreciate—the USDA’s Extension Service? Is our military the most advanced in the world? Yes. Have we explored more of the cosmos than the any other state—or collection of states—on the planet? Yes. What about land-grant universities, like Nebraska? Or a university established for the education of civil servants, like George Washington? These are all products of the administrative state. In fact, your ability to read this blog post right now is a product of the administrative state.
Now, because I’m a fair minded person, and because I’m committed to using this space not merely to advance progressive ideas but to actually engage in debate, I must acknowledge that there have been failures of the administrative state. Indeed, the failure of the enforcement side of the administrative state has played a significant role in the most egregious domestic crises we have witnessed over the last 10 years. But of these, several—Deepwater Horizon, Katrina, the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster—are not the product of the administrative state per se but a product of an administration committed to the destruction of bureaucracy. Unable to achieve that de jure it set about to do so in a de facto manner. And in so doing it was quite successful. And in its success we have had terrible results.
Quibbles. Finally, I must quibble with a few characterizations. First, the government to Apple analogy—though it never gets tired despite its patent baselessness—is flawed. The various departments of Apple are not akin to Congress. Rather, they are like the administrative agencies within the Executive Branch. Instead, the Board of Directors plays a more Congress-like roll (though this is still imperfect). And while Jobs need not get the buy-in of every department in Apple to pursue a new product, neither does the President need to get the buy-in of all the agencies. But as surely as the President needs the support of Congress to carryout those things that are not accorded to him, so does Jobs need the support of the Board of Directors to do those thing for which he is not solely empowered. Let us not forget, however, that ultimately both the Directors and Jobs are accountable to the shareholders. Who vote. Like in a democracy.
Second, the incentives argument, though persuasive on its face, ignores how the FDA (or most bureaucracies) actually function. There are numerous good lay and casebooks on this subject.
Third, the empire building critique can be leveled at anything. At literally any entity. Should we expect administrative agencies or corporation to commit suicide? Should this be valued? Or should we instead leave it to voters (and their agents) and shareholders (and their agents) to render these decisions. Ah, the very essence of democracy.
Finally, the critique of politicians—and the broader critiques leveled in the “Theory of Government”—is generally directed at the federal government but seems to cherry pick bad examples from local government, leaving the reader with the impression that 1) the federal government shutdown a lemonade stand; and 2) that bureaucracy across levels of government is somehow monolithic. More worrisome, though, is that the critique seems to conflate flawed politicians with flawed elections. The two certainly exist. But it is overbroad to say that all politicians are bad or incompetent—but, if you truly believe that, then perhaps you should run for office or at least find and go work for a candidate in whom you believe. As for elections, one solution to the problem of competitive elections would be to institute national election standards rather than allowing each state to parochially tweak its election code to suit established interests.