Tag Archives: Constitution

Democracy and Political Ignorance

I’m in the process of reading a fascinating book on the political process, and the lack of rationality in democracies. The book is Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, by Ilya Somin. While the American experiment in democratic government has always recognized the dangers of mob rule and populist manipulation, our understanding of these issues has sharpened in recent years as political scientists dissect the issues of education, influence, class, gender, and race on voting – the core act of creating a government.

For many Americans, there is no more apt time than now to be thinking about these issues. Well, perhaps two years ago would have been more apt.

I can tell you in advance that I find the subtitle provocative. I don’t ‘believe’ in small government or big government, I want a right-sized government for its expected function. “Smaller” government can be like “thinner” for an anorexic – you can always be thinner.

Nor is smaller government fully compatible with limited or decentralized government, other qualities that the book (and its author) advocates. The experience of the capital market is that there really is such a thing as ‘economies of scale.’ If you want make organizations smaller for the same set of functions, merge them and fire the middle management, that is the lesson of corporate raiders, outsourcers, and shared service centers.

It’s great to read a well-written book on an important topic, and even better if you don’t agree with the author 100%. I’m looking forward to sharing more of those disagreements here.

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What government can learn from Einstein

A scientific theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

In some sense, a government is a theory, or at least a hypothesis, about human behavior. Louis XIV had a theory of government that  maximized the benefits to him. The Kim family of North Korea has a theory of government that maximizes the benefit to their family. And the United States has a Constitution which maximizes the benefit to all Americans.

Right on the tin

How do I know this? Well, it says so right on the tin. “…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, etc. etc. etc.” The hypothesis of the US Constitution is that, among other things, the job of government and in specific the Federal government, is to promote welfare. This promotion is not aimed at the benefit of any single person, family or class. It is the general welfare, and it is not limited in time any more than space. The Federal government is supposed to maximize the total welfare of all Americans extending indefinitely into the future.

That is a big job. There are some of a libertarian bent that would like to pretend these phrases don’t exist. Certainly the other phrases they tend to focus on are important as well. Establishing justice through a court system and legal system. Providing for the common defense against all enemies foreign and domestic. Also central to the hypothesis, but not to the exclusion of the general welfare.

The best government

I prefer a government theory that follows the Einsteinian maxim. The best government is one that is as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Why is the transport infrastructure of the country mainly owned and maintained by the government? Roads and bridges, subways and trolleys, ports and airports – they all used to be private. And then they went bankrupt, often because of delayed maintenance expenses. It appears that there are some things that private enterprise does not do better than government.

Food and drug safety, occupational safety, transport safety. Clean water and air. Support for education and a social safety net. All of them, clearly the job of the Federal government under the theory laid out in the Constitution. The Constitution does not exist to simply clear the ground for competition. It does not say that the only recovery to a wrong is through the courts. An ounce of regulatory prevention (that benefits everyone) is better than the pound of cure( that only benefits that specific person). The government itself has an active role to play, certainly within spaces where private enterprise does not work.

Private enterprise may fail for many reasons. Profits may be uncertain, or the payback period too long. As with all the failed private infrastructure companies throughout the years, the short-term profit focus starves maintenance, or investment in innovation. Companies fall victim to tyrants, to demagogues, as often as countries do. One has voters, the other has shareholders, each can be lied to. The mere existence of the corporate structure is no guaranty of efficiency or virtue. “And our Posterity” is rarely if ever part of the corporate shareholder value equation.

So, yes! I am in favor of a small government! As small as possible, but not smaller.