Arnold Kling  

Political Cynicism

About What Am I Optimistic and... Opportunity Cost and the Publi...

From Russ Roberts.

And the next president, Republican or Democrat, will spend less than we've been spending. But not a lot less. So those Tea Partiers are in for disappointment. Oh, we might go back to the level of government spending way back in the Dark Ages of 2007. But you have to go back to Calvin Coolidge to find a Republican president who presided over a smaller government when he left office than when he arrived - Congress doesn't like taking away things from voters who've become accustomed to free lunches paid for by other taxpayers.

The first sentence might actually have to read "will grow spending less than we've been growing spending."

Why do seemingly dramatic elections have relatively minor consequences? Three hypotheses:

1. The institutional arrangements of the Constitution make change difficult.

2. The median voter theorem: the two party system naturally gravitates toward satisfying the median voter, who wants little change.

3. The median insider theorem: the political process is run by insiders, whose interests remain relatively stable. Voters can change who gets to exercise power, but they have no influence over how it is exercised or for whom it is exercised.

Roberts does not indicate which factor he considers important, although the paragraph quoted suggests (2). I put most of the weight on (3). Moreover, I regard this as un-fixable. Attempts to "take money out of politics" will, at most, reduce the influence of some elites and increase the influence of others. Politics will remain a game where insiders battle over resources while outsiders are manipulated.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Duane writes:

I've just recently finished watching the British television show "Yes Minister" (known as "Yes Prime Minister" in later seasons). It's a very funny piece of entertainment but also quite accurate from what I have read. Assuming it is accurate, it strongly supports (3) above, even if the setting is a parliamentary system versus a presidential system like ours.

david nh writes:

Two words: Ron Paul.

Gavin Andresen writes:

I'm more optimistic-- I think the answer is "take the power out of politics," and I think long-term technology will have the effect of redistributing power away from elites.

Maybe the Internet and technology will just give them more efficient ways of manipulating us, or maybe they'll be able to adapt quickly enough to maintain power.

But I don't think so; I'm betting on the power of the Crowd.

kyle8 writes:

The only thing that makes me slightly optimistic is a little bit of the technological changes that Gavin talks about and also the sad fact that we are actually quite broke.

Therefore some change will happen simply because we lack the resources to pay for this level of government anymore.

David: Ron Paul? I like that Dr. Paul has raised awareness of certain concerns to the general public but he has no chance of being elected president.

His son, on the other hand might be a future president someday.

Todd Fletcher writes:

Also it's a common historical pattern that large bureaucracies become unwieldy and unresponsive even to those who supposedly command them.

steve writes:

Just how cynical are you?

Are the politicians actually fooling the majority of voters? Or are the Republican/Democratic core voters in on the con hoping for government windfalls. Maybe the independent voters are in on it to but simply work in a non-subsidized industry and are simply hoping to sell their votes to the highest bidder.

After all, if you can't beat them join them.

Robert Fellner writes:

I don't think you give enough attention to how restricted the choice is in terms of who exercises the power. Certainly of the 3 options listed, I am most closely in agreement with item # 3. I just think there is much more to it, such as the change of incentives once in power, the limited range of candidates to choose from, the incentives of unelected, virtually impossible to remove bureaucrats whom compose most of the government, and so forth.

One of the best analyses I've come across that addresses some of these things, especially the incentives, is The Enterprise of Law by Professor Bruce L. Benson.

joecushing writes:

I thin Ron Paul would shrink the size of government--not by much but I think it would shrink. This is because the govenment is spending so much on the military and he could cut a lot of that without help from congress.

Philo writes:

"Politics [is and] will remain a game where insiders battle over resources while outsiders are manipulated." Another fine entry in the collection of pithy Klingisms!

Mike Rulle writes:

Also, voters sometimes dont realize they are on both sides of government largess. This creates political cognitive dissonance. On the margin, it tends to net out to small change when specific proposals are made that gourds their on Ox as well.

But sometimes Govt action becomes black swanish---where its policies move too many standard deviations off the norm. We are close to that now----yet a return to even 2007 levels seems virtually impossible. I would love to give the US a chance to see what it can acccomplish for 8 years or so without the continuous attacks and constant absurd proposals by this administration. A housing bubble caused all this? It just does not seem plausible.

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