Arnold Kling  

Fear Factor

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How does government grow? I offer this hypothesis:


My theory is that the political process preys on fear. A politician identifies something that constituents might perceive as a threat. Next, the politician "markets" the threat, playing up its importance. Then, the politician says, "If you are afraid of this threat, then vote for me." The politician's proposal for addressing the threat typically involves expanded government activity, which often does more harm than good. Rinse, soak, repeat.

For Discussion. How important is the "fear factor" in the growth of government?


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



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The author at d-42.com: Josh Cohen online in a related article titled the Carnival of the Capitalists for the week of September 13, 2004 writes:
    The Carnival of the Capitalists for the week of September 13, 2004 Welcome welcome welcome, to the Land of Expectations. Or, more precisely, to the Carnival of the Capitalists. Enclosed in this post, you will find interesting articles on business,... [Tracked on September 12, 2004 9:36 PM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
Sam Jew writes:

"Men love at their pleasure but fear at yours." - Niccolo Machiavelli

Jordan writes:

The fear component is important, but really funtions as a subfield of the larger impetus toward government growth in our representative democracy. Campaigns revolve around what candidates "will do for you" as a voter, so they tend to cater toward special interests.

Since being a politician has now become a profession, constituents feel compelled to vote for someone who "is doing something." This most often comes in the form of new bills for expenditures and programs. There is not yet a public perception that reducing the size of government is "doing something."

When I worked as an intern for a state representative, he wanted to be sure to introduce the maximum number of bills allowed per session, regardless of their chance of being made into law or their specificity. This would make it appear as if he was "doing something" or "earning his paycheck."

John Stossel has the idea that for every new law passed, a certain number of old laws (2 or 5 or whatever) must be repealed. This would provide a check on the size of government. For this to become feasible, however, the public would need to be convinced that getting rid of (bad) laws is just as central to the role of legislator as making new ones.

The fear component works within this system, and is used to create new interests that the lawmaker can then (conveniently) meet. This becomes necessary when the legislator runs out of ideas for new bills to fill up his or her maximal quota.

John Johnson writes:

Who was it that said that the Republic will last about as long as it takes for people to find out that they can vote to give themselves money out of the public treasury?

I think John Stossel's idea of repealing old laws for every one that's passed is an interesting idea. I especially like the deeper thesis that cutting the "dead wood" out of the body of laws is as important as adding new good laws. I myself have toyed around with the idea of sunsetting the whole U.S. code (i.e. giving all laws a period of time to be enforced before they expire, and Congress has to act to review and pass a new law if they want it to remain in effect). Furthermore, each new law would automatically have a sunset clause of no more than a few years (say, 10).

The hope is that this would encourage Congress to keep the scope of laws at a national level, since it would set a soft upper limit on the number of laws that could be in effect at one time. More important, the complexity of the U.S. code would be greatly decreased, making it more transparent to people and to the the politicians that pass the law.

Dave writes:

Your theory of fear based-politics is shared by many on the left and in fact is the heart of Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 911. His analysis of the color-coded terrorist alerts and the civil liberties we need to forfeit should be pretty interesting to your readers. Sad that market-oriented bloggers have been so enraged by Moore's deceptions and attack on the President that they haven't been able to build on the good parts of the movie. Why should it be left to a big leftist blo-hard to powerfully demonstrate that in a world of billion dollar contracts a politician who makes $400,000 may become beholden to those who pay his "real" salary?

Mats Lind writes:

Pretty much explains how G.W.Bush gov't has grown. Hyping Saddam, waging a war on terror that almost has made Iraq a training camp for terrorists.

muckdog writes:

As societies evolve, people slowly trade in their freedoms for security. Politicians just offer people more security and more safety. It takes money and effort to do this. You know the quote: Tax the rich, and feed the poor; 'til there are no rich, no more.

As soon as China decides it doesn't make financial sense to buy our debt, it's all over here.

Carpe diem.

Barry Ritholtz writes:

The Fall of The Republic

At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution, inthe year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor at The University of Edinburgh) had this to say about "The Fall of The Athenian Republic" some 2,000 years prior:

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship."

"The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.

Let's hope Tyler was wrong . . .

Lawrance George Lux writes:

The Fear factor is the wrong construction, except as pap for the masses. Politics is a business, where the Wealthy expect to make themselves wealthier by the corruption of elected officials. The growth of Government can be witnessed by the advance of Pork Barrel, always at the behest of the Wealthy, with payment coming from ordinary Taxpayers. Military contracts did not stop with the end of WWII, the military/industrial complex had found a cash cow. They also did not end with the Cold War, or the fall of the Soviet Union. Check what they are with the War on Terrorism.

This though, goes beyond the military. This Country has more Government buildings--Local, State, and Federal--than some Countries have Housing. One cannot even estimate how much farmland has been lost to concrete roads, things leading to development of City sprawl. How many Industrial Parks have been built at Government expense over the last half-Century, which have a twenty percent occupancy? How many stadiums have been built and destroyed at Government expense, when their utilization was only a quarter used?

American Business expects to use American Government to get American Taxpayers to pay for what they would otherwise deny. lgl

Glen Raphael writes:

The "Alexander Tyler" quote is bogus, an urban myth. The best theory I've heard regarding how it came to exist is that it was invented by PJ O'Rourke as a practical joke. It appears in one of his books and has been quoted hither and yon ever since.

There was a historian named "Alexander Tytler" (not "Tyler") but he didn't write a book by that name, and even if he had that quote probably wouldn't have come from it.

Note that it talks about voting for candidates that make promises. But Athens was a direct democracy, not a representative democracy; they didn't vote for candidates, they voted on the issues directly.

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