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George Will’s Public Choice Contradiction

Summary:
I recently listened to Juliette Sellgren’s 36-minute interview of Washington Post columnist George Will. Juliette does an excellent job of briefly stating Will’s argument about the growth of presidential power at the expense of Congress. Her statement starts at 5:15 and ends at 5:52. Will says that she has “efficiently and accurately” distilled his argument about the presidency. I agree. From about 5:52 on to about 8:15, Will lays out his argument in more detail. In doing so, though, he presents a puzzle and it’s not clear that Will sees it as a puzzle. Here’s what he says, starting at about 7:45: Congress, out of careerist interests, job security interests, and the sheer press of time has hollowed itself out. We constantly hear people complaining that presidents

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George Will’s Public Choice Contradiction

I recently listened to Juliette Sellgren’s 36-minute interview of Washington Post columnist George Will. Juliette does an excellent job of briefly stating Will’s argument about the growth of presidential power at the expense of Congress. Her statement starts at 5:15 and ends at 5:52. Will says that she has “efficiently and accurately” distilled his argument about the presidency. I agree.

From about 5:52 on to about 8:15, Will lays out his argument in more detail.

In doing so, though, he presents a puzzle and it’s not clear that Will sees it as a puzzle.

Here’s what he says, starting at about 7:45:

Congress, out of careerist interests, job security interests, and the sheer press of time has hollowed itself out. We constantly hear people complaining that presidents are usurping powers. Well of course they do. The Founders understand that all people in power try to usurp more power. But, to say that Congress’s powers have been usurped is too kind to Congress. Congress has all too willingly given them up.

I agree with Will about the factual issue: Congress has all too willingly given up its power.

But notice the contradiction in the last three sentences. All people in power try to usurp more power. Surely that would include members of Congress. Yet Congress has willingly given up power.

So it’s not true that all people in power, or, at least in the case of Congress, even most people in power, try to usurp more power.

So Will has contradicted himself. But possibly more important, he’s presented a puzzle. Why does Congress give up power? Is it just that they want the job and the perks that go with it–the first 2 of the 3 reasons Will gives in the quote above?

I don’t know.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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