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Cynicism. Pessimism. These are the words that the media constantly uses to describe the public’s attitude towards politics and politicians. Voter turnout is low, campaigns are driven by money rather than policy, and Congress remains helplessly gridlocked on important national issues such as energy and social security reform. There is more than a grain of truth to this description of politics. But what is unclear, however, is whether the voters are wrong. Should they be optimistic? Should they view politics as a positive force that can better their lives? In many ways, voter sentiments are right in line with the tenets of limited government that frame our constitutional democracy.
Indeed, much of the frustration found in the media over the state of politics may arise from different expectations for the political system. Journalists and political analysts are consumed with government, the object of their study, and how to make it better. Voters on the other hand, are consumed with their daily lives, and how to improve their lot in life. Politics is a luxury that is squeezed in where possible. Consequently, journalists and other students of government are constantly looking for ways to improve government and place a high demand on making it better, or more effective. Most voters have lower expectations for government that are continuously confirmed by the performance of the politicians.
This dichotomy between the public and the media sheds light on our understanding of government. Indeed, it lays bare some intractable problems with the way government operates; it also provides insights that allow us to gain a better understanding of why governments behave the way they do. Much of the confusion between the two sides may be traced to our views of how governments work. The political science that informs the media’s view of government typically assumes that the government is an institution that can be used to address failings that we have in our daily lives. Everything from unemployment to what we eat and drink can be improved through government oversight. Government becomes a positive force that costlessly tinkers with policy to provide a better outcome for consumers.
Yet when we look at the product of government actions, we see they are far from perfect: Hammers that cost $400, a social security system on the brink of bankruptcy, and taxes that can make it more expensive to marry than remain single. When looking at the results of government, it’s not surprising that voters are cynics. Journalists and others often spend their efforts seeking out market failures, yet rarely do they consider the potential for government failure, or the limits on the government’s ability to improve upon market outcomes.
On the other hand, the “apathetic” public simply may be realists, with an intuitive grasp of how the political process works. Recent work in economics and political science confirm much of what the public thinks about government. In fact, in 1986 Professor James M. Buchanan of George Mason University received a Nobel Prize for pioneering work in public choice, a branch of economics that analyzes the political behavior.
One of the foundations of public choice theory is that there is no distinction between individuals in the private sector and individuals in the public sector. They have the same wants, needs, and pursuits in either the public or private sector. If all this is true, why expect people in one setting to be selfish and in the other selfless? In fact, individuals are for the most part rational and act accordingly in both the public and private sector. However, the institutional settings of markets and government are significantly different, which means rational behavior can lead to critically different outcomes.
Voters are very familiar with the limitations of government and the burden of a large bureaucracy. Visiting the post office, renewing a driver’s license, or almost any other transaction with a government agency is more arduous than dealing with businesses in the private sector, which demonstrates a fundamental distinction between markets and government. Competition and choice drive markets toward efficiency and consumer satisfaction, while government agencies are monopolists not subject to consumer pressure. In the bureaucracy, customer service does not necessarily increase profits or build careers; what matters is pleasing the appropriators in Congress who set the budgets for the agencies.
Public choice also provides insights into the behavior of Congress. Politicians need some mixture of votes and money to remain in office, and they respond to groups who can provide these inputs. Individual politicians pursue legislation that will maximize their chances of remaining in office. This translates into laws or spending programs that benefit important constituents, not necessarily the general public.
In this sense, the primary job of Congress is to redistribute income. The government collects almost $2 trillion in taxes from the public, which is then used to fund government programs and projects. While some spending, such as national defense, may provide a degree of benefit to everyone, much of the discretionary spending by Congress goes to projects and programs that benefit important constituents or industries. Another important insight from public choice suggests that smaller groups with narrowly defined interests find it easier to organize and lobby than do large, widely diverse groups. Groups with narrow interests pursue programs that provide benefits for their members while dispersing the costs over the rest of the population. Because costs are widely dispersed, it is difficult to organize opposition. In the end, the narrow special interests have more incentive to act than do the broader groups bearing the cost. How many consumers, for example, rally against sugar price supports, which cost $1.9 billion in 1998? Consumers see relatively small increases in the price of candy bars or cookies, while the small group of American sugar producers sees billion-dollar profits.
This describes much of the lobbying efforts in Washington, as special interests seek laws or programs that provide benefits to their members while dispersing the costs across all consumers. Recent efforts to protect the steel industry provide an ideal example, with new tariffs proposed to protect a declining industry, despite the fact that costs for consumers will rise.
The Founding Fathers were well aware of these tendencies for government to grow at the expense of individual liberty and created a constitutional system of government to limit the growth of the state and centralized power. Yet there is no foolproof way to limit the size and scope of government. Over time, interest groups and others have learned to manipulate the various branches of government, seeking advantages for themselves that they could not obtain in the marketplace.
Unfortunately, narrower special interests that benefit from redistribution continue to pressure government to increase the benefits they can glean. It is said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and voters do exist who are concerned about the expansion of government. Through the Internet, e-mail, and other forms of communication, it is becoming easier to organize those who oppose big government. Citizens for a Sound Economy plays a vital role in this process, bringing a fresh voice to Washington that is demanding less, not more, from government.
Through technology, education, and organization, CSE makes it easier to become involved in efforts to rein in government. In the end, it is important to remember that voters are consumers as well. The low voter turnout and healthy skepticism about politics often bemoaned by the media suggests Washington may have little to offer the typical voter. By easing the costs of collective action and educating our members on important issues, CSE reduces the costs of political involvement and makes it feasible for those voters who believe in the Founders’ vision to be heard in the policy battles in Washington. When Washington starts offering real alternatives to big government, the media may be surprised to hear a positive response from those voters who believe in limited government.