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Imagine trying to impose an income tax at current rates on a dispersed rural population, where each household was virtually a self-contained integrated production/consumption unit which kept no written records, and the chief means of transportation was the horse. Or, imagine under the same conditions just trying to disseminate-much less enforce-the regulations which now appear annually in the Federal Register.
The evolution of large organizations that paid employees and suppliers by check or cash and kept detailed accounting records; the development of telecommunications, of rail, motor vehicle, and air transportation systems, and more recently of computers and copiers, have all made it much easier for Big Brother to watch over us-that is, they have radically reduced the cost of enforcing laws.
Far more important than this reduction in enforcement costs, however, is the reduction that has taken place in the costs of marketing the police powers. One hundred years ago it was not possible for a congressman to communicate regularly with any significant fraction of his constituency, much less other constituencies. Newspapers, which were the nearest thing to mass media, were more like suburban weeklies than the metropolitan dailies we now know. It was not easy to get timely news out of Washington.
By contrast, the Washington scene now appears as a serialized soap opera entertaining millions of viewers at 6:00 P.M. every evening. An entire channel on cable television is devoted to congressional hearings and floor actions. Congress has built a television studio for its members, allegedly so they can report back to their constituents.
Improvements in telecommunications and transportation, in new printing technology and the growing concentration of the newspaper industry-all have made it much less costly for congressmen to communicate with all the folks back home. The revolution in mass media that has taken place, particularly since the advent of the radio in the 1920s, has converted Congress into an association of hucksters who employ a simple marketing strategy. First, they interpret the current state of affairs for their clientele. The interpretation always points to the existence of evil or of imminent disaster or both. In any case, congressional action is required. A prescription is offered which will remedy the problem. All of the prescriptions tend to have one thing in common. The role of government, and Congress particularly, is expanded. In their marketing endeavors, congressmen are given support and comfort by the journalism community. The latter has long understood that evil and disaster attract viewers and sell newspapers.
Both Congress and the media in presenting their stories exploit "the rationality of ignorance" on the part of the public.
Like an electronic computer, the human mind has limited storage and processing capability. Moreover, the average citizen realizes that he is virtually powerless to do anything substantially to affect public policy. So if he is rational, he will resist devoting his limited storage and processing capability to learning about such issues. It pays the average citizen to be politically ignorant.
Thus, by systematically employing this marketing strategy and obviating citizen dissent, Congress has essentially taken over the federal government. And it has been assisted in this endeavor by the congruence of its interests and those of the press.
This brings us to the bottom line. The opportunity to sell the use of the police powers is a problem inherent in the structure of our political democracy. How could it be remedied? Not by electing the right people. If there is any lesson to be learned from the dismal performance of our government since the 1980 elections, it is certainly that.
My first preference for repairing this structural defect is to get rid of representatives in the legislative process by abolishing Congress and the state legislatures.
This is an option most people would dismiss as too radical. I know. I responded the same way 30 years ago the first time I heard an eminent British jurist propose it.
But I ask you to think about the possibility seriously before you reject it. There is no reason why all statutes, including budgets, couldn't be submitted to a popular vote; that is, to a referendum.
My second choice would be something along the lines of the Swiss political system, where any law passed by the federal parliament can be brought to a referendum if a modest number of citizens so petition. Moreover, the right to tax in Switzerland is limited to the cantons.
I believe the prosperity of the Swiss is in no small measure due to these advantages they have in the structure of their democracy. They are worth emulation.
William Meckling is dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Management, and James E. Gleason Distinguished Research Scholar in Management and Government Policy, at the University of Rochester. This article is adapted from a speech delivered in March 1983 at the University of Idaho.