David R. Henderson  

Two Cheers at Least for Some Politicians

I Keep Returning to This Book.... On the Complexity of the World...

I rarely disagree with Don Boudreaux about any economic, political, or moral issue and so in those rare cases where I do disagree, it's probably worth noting. Here's one.

In a post in September, I talked about which U.S. presidents belong on Mount Rushmore. In a comment, Don wrote:

I'd remove from Mt. Rushmore all people who are most famous for holding political office - which is to say, I'd blast off all four of the currently sculpted faces. I'd replace them with images of the faces of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Gustavus Swift, J.J. Hill (even though he was Canadian!), and either Gail Borden or Steve Jobs - people who really define, and who helped in notable and noticeable ways to sculpt, what is good about America. (If obliged to include a non-entrepreneur among the four, there's no question that the person whose visage I would choose is that wisest of all Americans, H.L. Mencken.)

I agree with Don about the merits of Rockefeller, Swift, Hill, and Jobs. And I hadn't known about Gail Borden, but now I do, and I see Don's point.

But I want to make my case for putting only Presidents on Mt. Rushmore. It's an application of public goods theory. As David Friedman has pointed out so eloquently (see his "The Right Side of the Public Good Trap" in The Machinery of Freedom), in a society with government, good law is a public good. It is non-excludable: If someone provides good law, even those who don't pay benefit from it because it is hard to keep them from free-riding. It is non-rival in consumption: my benefiting from good law doesn't prevent you from doing so.

The fact that good law is a public good means that it will be under provided. There are many incentives for politicians to provide the opposite of good law: they benefit and their cronies benefit. And no one knows this better than Don. Read his great letters to politicians and you'll see him excoriating politicians for pushing bad laws. That, sigh, is where the incentives typically are.

So when a politician comes along who pushes good laws or vetoes bad ones, that's a big deal. How do we get better law, on the margin? By praising politicians who push for good laws and excoriating politicians for pushing bad ones. (Don does really well at the latter.) Do I want praise of entrepreneurs too, for the immense good they do for society? Yes, I do. But here's the neat thing: keep regulations to a minimum and don't tax them heavily, and the large financial incentives for entrepreneurship will get us lots of entrepreneurs and lots of benefits for society.

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CATEGORIES: Public Goods

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Woodrow writes:

I really liked the well reasoned, and well written final paragraph of your post.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

So which politicians would you put on Mt. Rushmore?

BTW, it should be noted that for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission, President Coolidge insisted that, along with Washington, two Republicans and one Democrat be portrayed.

vikingvista writes:

If they must be politicians, Jefferson, Mason, Crockett, and Ford. Or perhaps George III, given that all his colonies that did NOT violently secede are today freer than the USA.

BTW, I'm not sure I can think of any good legislation that isn't good solely for pushing back prior bad legislation. Legislation is a terrible way to attempt to deliver public goods.

Greg Heslop writes:

But has not Professor Henderson himself shown that historians tend to regard as great those presidents who got America into wars of high death tolls? Would not this fact tend to pervert political incentives?

Andrew_FL writes:

I seem to recall even Mencken had nice things to say about Grover Cleveland.

Things I seem to recall Don quoting. So I found that a little bit extreme, as well.

Hm, actually, he just cited the essay, "A Good Man in A Bad Trade."

Andrew_FL writes:

@Greg-That's an argument for not letting historians decide who to put on Mount Rushmore.

And for not listening to their advice on the matter, either.

@vikingvista-Surely you don't mean Gerald Ford?

Greg Heslop writes:


"@Greg-That's an argument for not letting historians decide who to put on Mount Rushmore.

And for not listening to their advice on the matter, either."

Indeed it is. But there is an obvious connection between what the bulk of historians believe and what people at large end up believing about history, say, after reading history books. Maybe this connection is not practically very important. But then again maybe it is.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Replacing politicians by entrepreneurs (and by an intelectual famous by political and social opinions), instead of, for example, scientists (well, perhaps Gail Borden counts), seems an indication that, even if we want to ignore politicians, we are atracted by people with some kind of power and authority.

vikingvista writes:


I do. Ford's distinguishing characteristic as President was his heavy use of the veto. That may very well be the *most* we can expect in good Presidential action.

Andrew_FL writes:

@vikingvista-If there ever was a Congress that passed a large number of bills aimed at repealing a large number of laws whose effects had been deleterious to liberty, I would ask more from a President than racking up a high veto count. So I don't see using the veto power as a virtue in and off itself.

But when I think of Ford, I think of "Whip Inflation Now," moral cowardice towards the Soviet Union (think of the '76 debates with Reagan) and, although I suspect most libertarians would consider it a positive, the fall of Saigon.

I suspect many more Americans think of his pardon of Nixon, although I personally think the country is better off not having had to endure several more years of Watergate.

If anything, Ford's greatest achievement was losing to Carter, thereby allowing Carter to so ineptly handle the job as to discredit his party in Presidential politics for ten years.

JKB writes:
For example : The question being propounded, What is the value of the combined services to man of Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli, as compared with those of Sir Henry Bessemer? Ninety-nine out of a hundred men of sound judgment would doubtless say, " The value of the services of the two statesmen is quite unimportant, while the value of the services of Mr. Bessemer is enormous, incalculable." But how many of these ninety-nine men of sound judgment could resist the fascination of the applause accorded to the statesmen ? How many of them would have the moral courage to educate their sons for the career of Mr. Bessemer instead of for the career of Mr. Disraeli or of Mr. Gladstone?* Not many in the present state of public sentiment. It will be a great day for man, the day that ushers in the dawn of more sober views of life, the day that inaugurates the era of the mastership of things in the place of the mastership of words.

That is from a book published in 1880 pushing training both the mind and the hand. But the point is well taken. We tend to push children and reward with accolades those who are good with words rather than creating useful stuff.

Even in the list of entrepreneurs those good with words are highlighted. What of Nikolai Tesla? Or Malcom McLean and Keith Tantlinger? All of whom, like Bessemer quietly transformed the world, bringing billions out of poverty, and are largely unknown.

David R. Henderson writes:

Well argued, JKB. I think you’ve given the strongest case against my argument.

dullgeek writes:

Piling on, after DRH already conceded (sorta) to JKB, I would add Norman Borlaug to the list of non-politicians who deserve to be better remembered than they are.

Jay writes:

Agree with dullgeek, saving a billion people, even non-Americans, from starvation should probably be lauded ever so slightly above the Apple CEO though I guess it depends on what the goals of the monument are.

vikingvista writes:


If there ever was a Congress that passed a large number of bills aimed at repealing a large number of laws

Dream on.

Andrew_FL writes:

@vikingvista-Will do.

David Condon writes:

If the goal is to include government officials who substantially improved the quality of life, here are some suggestions:

Simeon North - key contributor to the American system of manufacturing
DeWitt Clinton - Erie Canal
Bob Taylor - ARPAnet

Of course, only one of these was a politician. One was a bureaucrat. The other was a government contractor.

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