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Friday, February 18, 2011

There’s Got to Be a Better Way

What do the people of the Middle East know that Americans have yet to learn?

What’s so remarkable about events in the Middle East is that a significant number of people who had felt powerless looked around at what they’d seen every day of their lives and thought for the first time: “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

When will Americans do that?

I know the standard response: Americans don’t need to because unlike the citizens of those countries, Americans choose their “leaders” – I despise that word — democratically. Therefore they have no cause to do what Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yeminis, Libyans, or Iranians are doing.

I don’t think that answer is right.

True, we get to trudge to the polls every two, four, and six years, if that’s what we want to do. But what happens when you get there? You cast your one vote for one of the ballot choices. But one vote in a hundred million or millions or hundreds of thousands or even thousands is mathematically insignificant. Any given individual’s decision to stay home on election day would not change the outcome. The majority of voters will usually get its choice (electoral college anomalies aside), yet the individuals who comprise that majority (like the minority) cast their votes knowing it’s an exercise with virtually no cost to them personally. Even if one’s candidate wins, that voter will bear only a minuscule percentage of whatever burden that candidate imposes when assuming office.

So … why should a voter — who’s already swamped with things he or she can actually influence, such as career and family — invest time and money seriously deliberating on an electoral decision that will have no perceptible cost or consequence to her? That’s why decisions are made superficially, on the basis, say, of which candidate makes one feel better or which one would be a better dinner companion.

Officially Approved Menu

Need I bring up that by the time the voters go to the polls, the respectable two-candidate menu has already been prepared, the “undesirables” having been weeded out by the combined efforts of party bosses, big contributors, and the mass media? The approved choices typically represent a spectrum views ranging from one shade of gray to an adjacent shade of gray.

“Good government” activists facilely claim that voters could make better choices if they really wanted to, but that answer betrays an ignorance of economics, or the logic of human action. For most people, an additional increment of time spent trying to change the government through an election is that much less time for something in which they can actually make a difference. Scarcity, marginal utility, and opportunity cost pervade life.

Yes, there are a few political junkies who see candidate research as a consumer good – an end in itself. Of course, candidate research without understanding basic economics is illusory. How could one accurately judge the consequences of any proposal? And, then, even the junkies can’t be sure their candidates will act as they promise.

A further complication is that any candidate is a smorgasbord of positions. You might like Jones’s position on issues A, C, and E but Smith’s on B, D, and F. What to do? It would be like a supermarket that required you to choose between two pre-stocked carts. You see the items in each cart, but you can’t change them; you vote for the one that has more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. Then you wait until the end of the day to see which cart won the vote. That’s the one you take home – except that when you get there, you find that some of the items have been switched.

Thank goodness supermarkets aren’t run like democracies.

And this description would not be complete if I failed to mention that once the candidates get into office they have a million ways to 1) obscure what they actually do and 2) discourage resistance if the people should find out. Charlotte Twight calls this “raising political transactions costs.” The result is rule by an elite, which more often than not serves the interests of those with a comparative advantage in gaining access to and manipulating the system. It’s called the corporate state or, these days, crony capitalism.

What I’m saying is that while it is better to have officeholders chosen by election rather than by military coup, it’s not that much better, despite the official political dogma we’re taught in school and by the mass media. True, democratic officeholders want to be reelected and so have to appear to be doing what a majority of voters likes — and the fiction of representation gives the appearance of legitimacy to the whole game. But even military dictators ultimately hold office at the pleasure of the people. Ask Hosni Mubarak.

All “Lawful”

It’s not that democratic republics are no different from dictatorships but that, all things considered, the dominant political systems are more alike than different — which is why we should strive to leave as little to them as possible. The problem is that constitutions have proven to make weak cages. Jefferson, who warned of “elective despotism,” talked about binding the government, but as Steppenwolf sang years ago, “There’s a monster on the loose.” There was no coup. It was all “lawful.” Constitutions don’t interpret themselves.

So here we are, apparently heading for an economic abyss, compliments of the political class. Government borrowing is out of control because spending (fueled by militarism and cronyism) keeps growing and (thank goodness) there’s a limit to how much revenue can be wrung out of the productive classes. Perverse incentives built into the system preclude serious cutbacks. There’s an influential constituency for every program, no matter how ridiculous, and legislative logrolling assures that most of them are safe. Blue-ribbon commissions meet and issue somber reports. Politicians ritualistically call for sacrifice. But things continue along as before. Agendas may change at the margin, depending on which party holds power, but the landscape looks pretty much the same year after year.

And the sense of powerlessness increases as people realize that elections (and tea parties) don’t really change anything and that their fates are more and more in the hands of large organizations beyond their control. (Graffiti once seen on a bridge: “If voting could change things, it would be against the law.”)

So the question is: When does a critical mass of the American population say, “There’s got to be a better way,” and decide that the answer is not just a change in party, not just a new face, and not just the same old wine in a new bottle?

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.