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The State as it Is, Not as it Should Be

Summary:
Many people think that the state is benevolent and wise or, if not, that it would be if it were run by people like them or, more exactly, like the person expressing this opinion. This is “politics with romance,” to paraphrase economist James Buchanan. Although a government sometimes succeeds in doing something with apparent efficiency, it usually fails by its own standards and, irrespective of its success, creates as much discontent as contentment. One problem is that the state is made of, and influenced by, many persons with different interests, opinions, preferences, and values. Another problem is that an electorate is demonstrably irrational. Still another problem is that the state suffers from built-in inefficiencies due to the politicians’ and bureaucrats’

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Many people think that the state is benevolent and wise or, if not, that it would be if it were run by people like them or, more exactly, like the person expressing this opinion. This is “politics with romance,” to paraphrase economist James Buchanan. Although a government sometimes succeeds in doing something with apparent efficiency, it usually fails by its own standards and, irrespective of its success, creates as much discontent as contentment.

One problem is that the state is made of, and influenced by, many persons with different interests, opinions, preferences, and values. Another problem is that an electorate is demonstrably irrational. Still another problem is that the state suffers from built-in inefficiencies due to the politicians’ and bureaucrats’ misaligned incentives, a phenomenon well analyzed by public-choice economics. The result is that government failures are usually worse than market failures.

In short, the real state is necessarily very different from what virtually any of its worshippers thinks it should be. Philosopher Michael Huemer’s 2013 book, The Problem of Political Authority (Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 196-197; a Kindle version can be rented from Amazon) contains a host of related ideas:

It is widely recognized that anarchists face a significant challenge of avoiding utopianism. It is widely recognized, as well, that some nonanarchist theories, such as certain forms of socialism, face charges of utopianism. What is less well recognized is that even very conventional, moderate political theories can be utopian. …

Advocates of liberal democracy face the same strictures against utopianism as advocates of more radical positions, such as anarchism or socialism. …

The state is treated as if it stood above the empirical human world, transcending not only the moral constraints but also the psychological forces that apply to individual human beings.

This book is well worth reading. I plan a review in the Winter issue of Regulation, together with a short presentation of his most recent book, Knowledge, Reality, and Value (reviewed here in five parts by co-blogger Bryan Caplan).

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