Bryan Caplan  

Limited Government as Insurance

A Wall... Poverty is a far bigger proble...
Imagine going back in time to January 20, 2009.  Obama's Inauguration Day.  You're a cheering fan.  On that day, an angel appears and makes you this offer: If you give up on Obama's best ideas, none of Trump's worst ideas will happen either.  Obamacare will never happen - but neither will Trump's immigration policies.  Would you take that deal?

I know, it's a galling hypothetical.  You want the good stuff without the bad stuff.  Why can't that be on the menu?  In theory, of course, it could be.  But in practice, it wasn't - and never has been.  If government has the power to do big good things you like, it will also have the power to do big bad things you don't like.  And in a democracy, your side's grip on the reins of power is always temporary.  (Anyone want to re-bet me on the duration of Unified Government in America?)

On reflection, the angel in my hypothetical is offering insurance.  He's guaranteeing a stable mediocre outcome, rather than the wild democratic oscillations we've been experiencing.  You'll no longer be able to get excited about great political victories, but you can stop worrying about great political defeats. 

Now consider: This insurance policy is very similar to a seemingly unrelated idea: limited government.  While it doesn't invalidate any existing government policies, it shackles government's power to do any big new thing. 

In American political culture, conservatives have traditionally praised "limited government," though libertarians are the main people who take it seriously.  But it seems like almost everyone, regardless of ideology, should be interested in getting insurance against bad future uses of government power.  What are the best reasons to spurn the angel's offer?

1. The arc of the moral universe.  If, like MLK, you believe, "The arc of the moral universe of long, but it bends towards justice," you're not just avoiding bad stuff by giving up good stuff.  You're avoiding a shrinking stock of bad stuff by giving up a growing stock of good stuff.  If you're going to eventually win anyway, insurance isn't so important.

2. Asymmetric hyperbole.  Political rhetoric normally paints your good stuff as great, and your opponents' as awful.  If you're overstating across the board, the case for insurance remains intact.  Suppose, however, that your good stuff is genuinely fantastic, but your opponents' bad stuff is only a moderate pain the neck.  Then again, accepting limited government for insurance purposes is a bad deal.  (The insurance case for limited government gets even stronger, of course, if you oversell your own policies, but accurately rate your opponents' policies).

If neither of these responses seems especially credible, you'll probably feel tempted to impatiently respond: "This is a stupid hypothetical, because there are no angels."  Sure, it would be nice to contain the oscillations of democracy.  But there's no way to do it.  Limited government has to be enforced by someone - and the "someone" is democratically determined, too, right?

Wrong!  If you want the insurance of limited government, there are well-tested mechanisms to deliver it.  You all know them.  Supermajority rules require more than a majority to act.  Division of powers makes it hard for government bodies to accomplish anything on their own.  Judicial review allows judges to invalidate acts of government.  Federalism greatly reduces the cost of "voting with your feet."  If you think these institutions aren't working, the obvious solution is to strengthen them.  Impose more supermajority requirements.  Divide more powers.  Overturn legislation that fails to get support from six, seven, eight, or all nine Supreme Court Justices.  Make states pay for their own spending with their own taxes, not federal grants.

So why are the limits on government so weak?  I blame myopia.  Limited government helps everyone in the long-run, but immediately hurts the ruling party.  They fought hard to win power; now that they have it, they yearn to flex their muscles.  Logically, they could support limited government starting ten years from now ("Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet"), but that's not very exciting compared to riding the wave today.  The insurance of limited government would make most of our lives better, but sadly, it's not sexy.

COMMENTS (17 to date)
jonny957 writes:

"The arc of the moral universe of long..."

"of long" should read "is long"

Hunter writes:

Supermajority rules require more than a majority to act.
The problem is supermajority rules also restrict the ability to remove bad legislation.

RPLong writes:

Hunter - that's the point. We'd be giving up some good in order to insure against some terrible. I don't think anyone in their right mind would argue that the American system is perfect just the way it is, but what would you be willing to accept in order to ensure it never gets much worse?

Jeremy writes:

It reminds me of the proposed government body in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where one chamber of the legislation would just repeal bad laws, and wouldn't even need a majority to do it.

I'd be all up for that.

0j0knose writes:

Never read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I suppose that's possibly where Huemer found policy inspiration for reforming the U.S. Constitution.

Matthias Görgens writes:

Apart from some typos, this is a hard post to argue against. Well done!

Maniel writes:

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have.” Barry Goldwater

Liam writes:

Another good idea is what Michael Huemer calls a "negative legislature" where an elected body votes to remove current laws and regulations.

BC writes:

Another good way to limit government would be automatic sunsetting of laws. A bill would need to pass Congress and a Presidential veto not just to become law but to remain law after each sunset.

Regarding why limits are so weak, perhaps adverse selection is another explanation? Perhaps, people that run for office tend to seek power rather than want to limit it. Limiting power may not be enough of a motivation. Also, interest groups may find it easier to gain concentrated benefits from a powerful government but the insurance benefits from a limited government may be more dispersed across the general population. Those in power also benefit in a concentrated way from a powerful government, where interest groups compete in seeking favor by approaching those in power. Sure, these elected officials suffer when they lose power, along with everyone else, but only in a dispersed way.

A final reason may be overestimation of one's own ability to get elected or re-elected. I am always amazed by how both Republicans and Democrats are sure that there exists a dormant silent majority that is poised to elevate their own party to power for generations.

BC writes:

I wonder what kind of limits would emerge if we held a Constitutional Convention where every delegate knew they would subsequently be banned from holding public office (elected or appointed) for life. Would they endow the government with great powers because they believed that their political allies would win office or would they limit the government's powers because they would not view themselves as part of the post-convention political class.

Caplan frames Democrats and Republicans as opponents and, thus, each would want to limit the other's powers. Perhaps, both Democrats and Republicans are on the same side --- the political class --- and their interests compete against those of ordinary citizens. From this perspective, it would be of no surprise that neither Democrats nor Republicans wish to limit the political class's powers.

Brian W writes:

What do these two policies—Obamacare and Trump's immigration policy—have in common?

They're both very good for the average American, but they will cost plutocrats a little bit of their fortunes.

It's hardly surprising that a libertarian would oppose both of them on that basis. But Americans voted for both men because we wanted policies that would benefit us and our country.

A supermajority rule plotted out to block both policies would privilege that small sliver of the very rich against the rest of the nation. We should speak frankly about what we're seeking here and not hide behind a veneer of liberty. The proposed policy would harm the American people to make the rich richer.

mariorossi writes:

Personally I find the arc of the moral universe a convincing argument. The arc of history so far seems to move towards a better future. That doesn't mean there are no periods of regression, but I just don't believe in gardens of Eden myths.

While I really dislike Trump, my dislike is somewhat irrational and overblownn. He doesn't seem to value rationality and analysis as much as much as I do. As an immigrant myself, I sympathize with people in the same condition, and I struggle to believe that by just working and living our lives we are damaging anyone...

But he has a long way to go before getting as bad as George W. Bush. While I think rejecting all refugees is morally wrong, at least he is not actively creating them.

So even in this, I see the positive arc of history. I might be wrong and he might be even worse than the previous Repubblican president (and starting massive trade wars certainly has the potential to create more misery than even the Iraq war).

Or I might just be irrationally optmimistic...

dwb writes:

"So why are the limits on government so weak? I blame myopia. Limited government helps everyone in the long-run, but immediately hurts the ruling party."

That is not myopia, it is the definition of moral hazard.

Yaakov Schatz writes:

Brian, would you bet on California?

Michael Stack writes:

I love this thought experiment. To me, it is the essence of libertarianism - even if you think you know what the right government policies are, you'll never successfully convince everyone, so the best we can hope for is a Grand Truce. I won't inflict my preferred government policies on you, and you won't inflict yours on me. Yes, individually we can all imagine policies that would be even better, but they're not as better as your opposition's are worse.

The issue is that people don't like thinking in terms of trade-offs. They want all the good, and none of the bad, and don't understand why that's impossible.

Woodrow McClure writes:

There could be an additional safeguard built into the system. Along with super majorities or consensus, repeal should be a simple majority. I would like this in addition to sunsets and single issue bills/legislation. All of this would limit the gaming the system and force the governing to only adapt legislation that is needed.

Right now we get a fair amount of vote trading with these super complex bills that are filled with special interests. It seems that we need single issue bills. Two ways would I think get us there. First, a line item veto given to the president changes the political math without to many problems. A second would require a fair amount of constitutional change, and would give the power to the president and the judiciary. Of course in an ideal world you would have both and they would act as checks to each other.

One area where is doesn't help is executive power and executive orders. The regulations currently made by the executive branch would need to be brought back into congress, and be forced through this process.

However, if we are pipe dreaming; what about a government with no sitting legislator and only a sitting head of state, but no sitting head of government. Instead those positions would be filled in times of crisis. They would be called by the underlying state governments or in events of invasion or a foreign power declaring war. It would then also need the sunset, super majorities, and single issue bills as well, but I want to further devolution of power to maximize the amount of time it takes politicians to undo the system again. The strength of this system would be the huge roll afforded to the common law system to settle disputes and establish property rights. It is super pie in the sky, but one that I would welcome.

Zach Jacobi writes:

My hot take (with more justification available here) is that what you're arguing for is closer to ineffective government than limited government per se. I see ineffective government as particularly dangerous because it incentivizes politicians to seek work-arounds, ultimately resulting in fewer restraints on government power than if they'd been able to easily implement some limited form of their agendas without the hassle of byzantine checks and balances.

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