We should only adopt government programs that work well with real-world politicians and ignorant voters in charge

Economist Art Carden has some excellent advice about how to assess proposed new government programs. The point seems obvious, but it is often overlooked in debates over government and public policy:

At a Jack Miller Center event a few years ago, [political scientist] Mike Munger said that whenever we say “the state should…” we should replace “the state” with “the politicians we see who actually get elected.” That changes the game somewhat as when we’re thinking about public policy, we aren’t thinking about policies enacted by disinterested, wise, virtuous, technocrat-advised-autocrats. Rather, we’re thinking about policies enacted by real people with real flaws and real limitations who are responding in real time to real incentives…..

Hence, I propose a heuristic: If it requires policymakers of above-average intelligence and virtue who are willing to act contrary to their incentives in order to work, then it is a bad policy.

It seems pretty obvious, and I’m sure it isn’t original. And yet: how often do you hear people saying that we need to vote the bums out and replace them with the wise, the virtuous, and the incorruptible? How often are people shocked (SHOCKED!) that politicians respond to incentives? How often do people treat systemic institutional failures as if they are individual moral failings by people who are of virtue insufficient for their office? How often do we blame bad outcomes on “bad people” rather than “bad institutions”?

Many people are tempted to resist this insight, because they hope that we can elect better and more virtuous political leaders. But politicians who prioritize principle over staying in power are not likely to stay in power for long – or even get there in the first place. For that reason, most successful political leaders are people who are willing to sacrifice the public interest when it conflicts with their own interesting in seeking power.

Carden’s point can be further extended in at least two ways. First, we not only have to adopt policies that will will work with real-world politicians, but ones that will work when the real-world politicians are responding to an electorate that is highly ignorant about most policy issues. Therefore, we often can’t count on the voters effectively rewarding good policies and punishing bad ones at the ballot box. In all but the most obvious and highly visible cases, the public may not even be aware of what is going on. In some situations, ignorant public opinion not only fails to punish bad policies, but actively promotes them.

Second, some partisans argue that their preferred policy only likely to fail when their opponents are in power. For example, some Democrats claim that Obamacare would work well if only Republican governors and members of Congress would get with the programs and help the Democrats implement the law properly. Some Republicans claim that the Iraq War was was unsuccessful only because President Obama and the Democrats could not be trusted to avoid frittering away the gains achieved by the “surge” of 2007-2008.

The problem with such arguments is that, in a multi-party democracy, any policy that can only work when one particular party is in power is probably a policy that cannot work at all. As Mike Rappaport puts it with regards to the Iraq War, “[t]hat one of the two parties cannot be trusted to participate in long term policies for which they will inevitably have some responsibility suggests that those policies should not be undertaken.” Some partisan pundits like to imagine that their party can win a decisive enough victory that they no longer have to worry about the possibility that the opposition will return to power in the near future. But history shows that such triumphs are extremely rare.

To summarize, an effective government program must 1) work well when implemented by real-world politicians, 2) be capable of monitoring by a generally ignorant electorate (or, alternatively, not require public monitoring at all), and 3) continue to work well regardless of which major party is in power. I don’t believe this definitively proves that libertarianism is right, or even that government should necessarily be a lot smaller than it is today. Although I am skeptical, perhaps these three requirements can be met by a much wider range of programs than most libertarians imagine. Regardless, our debates over public policy would be improved if more of the participants kept these criteria in mind.

UPDATE: I should emphasize that the definition of what counts as a program that “works well” may vary from case. In some cases, even a very poorly functioning program may be acceptable if the available alternatives are even worse. But if you want to defend your preferred program on such grounds, you have to provide proof that both the status quo and other realistically feasible alternatives to it really are that bad.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."

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Eugene Volokh · August 10, 2014