All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 2001

Monopoly Politics by James C. Miller III

Hoover Institution Press • 1999 • 157 pages • $17.95

The Founding Fathers were well aware that it takes more than ideas, as important as they are, to permit freedom to flourish. It takes institutions—private property, foremost, and political institutions that will protect rather than plunder it. Thus the political system they established was designed with an intricate system of checks and balances. Their intent was to create competition among the branches of government (legislative, executive, and judiciary) as well as between various levels of government (central, state, and local) to keep any one of them from amassing too much power.

When this competition breaks down, all our freedoms are in jeopardy. Likewise, a breakdown in the competition between current government officeholders and would-be officeholders can also make citizens’ lives and property less secure. James Miller ably analyzes this breakdown and its consequences in his book Monopoly Politics.

To make his case Miller compares “commercial markets” and “political markets” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). He draws analogies between these methods of satisfying human wants, likening voters to consumers. More telling are the differences he describes between the commercial and the political realms. The key is that commercial decisions are made individually and political decisions are made collectively. This guarantees dissatisfaction with the latter, since many, perhaps even the majority, do not get what they selected. Such dissatisfaction is compounded by the virtual impossibility of removing an unsatisfactory government official until his term is up. In contrast, suppliers of commercial services can usually be terminated in short order.

Monopoly Politics is at its most convincing when it demonstrates the lengths to which politicos go to squelch competition. “They pass ambiguous laws and promote complicated regulations in part to increase the demand for constituent service—which only they can provide.” They also vote themselves free mailings to constituents, limit ballot access to third-party candidates, and buy votes with tax dollars.

Miller puts his expertise as a public-choice economist to good use as he shows how proposed campaign-finance “reforms” currently being bandied about would make the problem he describes even worse, piling more obstacles on those which already make it difficult for outsiders to successfully challenge entrenched incumbents. He counters with his own solutions. Since he sees the contrived advantages of incumbency as playing the major role in weakening political competition, his logical cure is to remove those advantages. He would do that by ending the congressional privileges of unrequested franked mail and free access to Capitol TV and radio studios, restricting officials’ ability to collect “protection” money by controlling the proliferation of legislation and limiting the discretion of regulatory agencies, and making it more difficult to buy votes by eliminating budgetary “pork” and replacing the current tax code with a flat tax. He would also repeal all laws limiting campaign contributions.

Just as competition within free markets leads to economic efficiency, Miller claims that more political competition would generate “political efficiency.” And that is the main problem I have with the book—its obeisance to political efficiency. What Miller means by that phrase is meeting the demands of voters, specifically the “median voter.” This is a dubious goal in my mind. If the “median voter” wanted to protect domestic industry by high tariffs, or to guarantee “fairness” by taxing away all incomes over $200,000, then the enactment of such meretricious policies would be construed as efficient. This is not to imply that the author favors any of those policies, merely that raising “political efficiency” to an ideal does nothing to defend us against them.

To the extent that they constrain the ability of current officeholders to exercise power and increase political competition, Miller’s ideas are sound, but unfortunately they only deal with some of the symptoms of our underlying illness. A greater degree of political competition might make things marginally better from the standpoint of those of us who believe in liberty and limited government. As long as people feel themselves entitled to handouts from the state, however, politicians will find ways to cater to them. Only if people were to become as mindful of their liberties as the Founding Fathers were will we restore the proper relationship between government and individual.

Robert Batemarco is a vice president of a marketing research firm in New York City and teaches economics at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York.

  • Robert Batemarco teaches economics on an adjunct basis at Fordham University and Manhattan College. He was formerly book review editor of The Freeman. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.