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Politics Without Romance

Summary:
The public-choice school of economics, developed since the mid-20th century, assumes an individual who moves from the private sector to the public sector, whether as a government bureaucrat or a politician, remains the same mostly self-interested individual. He does not metamorphose into an altruist angel. This view of “politics without romance” (to quote James Buchanan) led to new and fruitful explanations of government actions. We should expect that a president (or another top ruler) will, if not effectively constrained by institutions (constitution, laws, and other sets of established rules), redefine his own self-interest as the “public interest.” Even if he wanted to do good for all citizens, he would typically be unable to do so because not all of them have

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The public-choice school of economics, developed since the mid-20th century, assumes an individual who moves from the private sector to the public sector, whether as a government bureaucrat or a politician, remains the same mostly self-interested individual. He does not metamorphose into an altruist angel. This view of “politics without romance” (to quote James Buchanan) led to new and fruitful explanations of government actions.

We should expect that a president (or another top ruler) will, if not effectively constrained by institutions (constitution, laws, and other sets of established rules), redefine his own self-interest as the “public interest.” Even if he wanted to do good for all citizens, he would typically be unable to do so because not all of them have the same preferences about what is good for them; so he better promote the public interest that is good for him.

Viewed in this perspective, the actions of either Joe Biden or Donald Trump are not surprising. Each of them has been able to use the incredible power accumulated in the presidency for the pursuit of his own interest–for example, to be adulated by his supporters and 51% of the voters, to exercise power over people and show it, and (if age permits) to be reelected. Other motivations may play a role, but it is unrealistic and dangerous to ignore self-interest.

If you are a Democrat and hated Trump, you should realize that he is, some idiosyncracies aside, the sort of ruler you are likely to suffer under the Leviathan you are calling for. If you are a Republican and hate Biden, you should understand that he is, some idiosyncracies aside, the sort of ruler you are likely to get under the Leviathan you long for. Mutatis mutandis if you are not living in America: that’s what you will get if you don’t already have it. Hence the argument, in “constitutional political economy” (or “constitutions economics”), for constraining government, that is, chaining Leviathan. (The featured image of this post reproduces Gustave Doré’s “The Destruction of Leviathan,” in reference to the original bible monster.)

Chaining Leviathan is a goal that goes back to the source of classical liberalism. For example, David Hume wrote:

In constraining any system of government and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, each man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all of his actions, than private interest.

Similarly, John Stuart Mill:

The very principle of constitutional government requires it to be assumed that political power will be abused to promote the particular purposes of the holder; not because it is always so, but because such is thenatural tendency of things, to guard against which is the special use of free institutions.

These two quotes were reproduced by Buchanan in his article on constitutional economics in the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics.

Buchanan wanted to reconcile “politics as exchange,” that is, the implicit exchange involved in the government’s production of unanimously desired public goods, with the need to constrain its exploitative power. Those who, like Anthony de Jasay, believe that public goods can be produced privately or that it is not possible to chain Leviathan opt instead for anarchy. The existence of a continuum between anarchy and Leviathan may provide some intermediary options, but this opens a Pandora box.

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