Viewpoint: Seeing Political Invisibles


Recently, in a sporting goods store, I saw a display advertising polarized glasses for fishermen. It sat on the shelf near bottles of Tom Mann's Blueberry Jelly Worm Oil. Put the glasses on and prestoyou see the fish on the display. Take them off, and their lined forms disappear into the cardboard stream. A bit of magic that probably sells a few sunglasses. There is also a metaphor there for life, especially political life. By filtering out some of what we would otherwise see, the invisible can become apparent.

I think about this because I have been frustrated for years in trying to develop and convey a theory about why politics malfunctions. In its essence, this theory is as simple as a line drawing of a fish in water. Political outcomes are largely determined by selfish behaviora reasonable notion. Adam Smith said something very similar more than two centuries ago. It is a view for which gobs of confirmation can be found in any morning's newspaper. Yet even very bright people apparently cannot or will not grasp what it implies.

Test yourself. Do you believe that, had the public been better informed 50 years ago, government would not have grown as it has? I don't. Do you believe that it would be rational for the members of Congress to vote to balance the budget under current circumstances? I don't. Do you imagine that it will ever be possible for the Libertarian Party to attract support of more than a bare chemical trace of the electorate? I don't.

The reason, in every case, is that I expect selfish behavior to dominate public-spirited behavior. I expect individuals to prefer more to less. And, that being so, they are no more likely to sacrifice their own utility in order to raise that of others than a businessman is to routinely give away his services and merchandise. Remember what Adam Smith said. He wrote that everyone has many opportunities to dispense bounty, but the butcher, the baker, and the brewer routinely don't. If you expect to have your supper, you cannot depend upon them to dish it out to you "from benevolence alone."

Yet the same untenable assumptionthat outcomes are determined by benevolenceprevails to this very moment in our attitude toward political arrangements. It prevails among advocates of big government; it also predominates even among those who are committed to the preservation of a free society. Time and again, market-oriented groups have adopted strategies that depend for their success upon a theory of behavior that we know is totally unreliable in the economic realm.

This is so with the Libertarian Party. Its vote totals are probably a good indicator of the degree of charitable spirit and fellow-feeling in the constituencies where it runs. It can command respectable, but still tiny, fractions of the vote in some areas of the West; but in the East, where the politics of selfishness is furthest advanced, a Libertarian candidate has no more hope of success than a Prohibition candidate.

Before any "Libertarian Party" achieves success, it would necessarily have to conform to the existing configuration of economic interests and selfish demands, which would make its success a matter of small moment for most of its current supporters. Not that this sort of frustration is unique to Libertarians. Conservatives, too, are prone to believe that ideology or good judgment (theirs) can determine policies on a much wider range of issues than is actually the case. Witness the pronouncements of the Conservative Leadership Conference of a few months ago. The conservatives were burned up because the Reagan administration was doing things that are "wrong."

I would share some of their concerns in the areas where I agreed with them, principally on the questions of the economy. But I certainly wasn't surprised. They were. On issue after issue, speakers pointed out that Ronald Reagan the candidate had indicated one thing, while Ronald Reagan the president had been obliged to do another. I say "had been obliged." They really did not see it that way. The prevailing view seemed to be that the problems with the Reagan administration could be traced to the malicious work of White House aides who keep the president from reading his weekly copy of Human Events. No one seemed to notice that the decisions in question involved economic interests that were likely to assert themselves.

Midge Decter gave a particularly silly speech about foreign policy in which she explicitly said that she was not interested in examining the influences that informed the decisions with which she disagreed. And why not? She simply did not care. What bothered her was not who made the decisions, or why they were made, but simply that they had been made incorrectly (in her view).

I couldn't believe it. Tens of billions of dollars were at stake, and otherwise intelligent people were refusing to draw a connection between the outcome and the incentives of well-organized groups to protect their own interests. How would anything so obvious be so invisible? Yet it was. A room full of intelligent people sat there and applauded speech after speech implying that profit-seeking is so insignificant in politics as to be ignored.

We need polarized glassessomething to enable us to see the "invisible hand" at work determining political outcomes. If we would only lay bare its hidden logic, we could see that politics, too, has its law of supply and demand. And the counterproductive policies of government that are driving this and other societies to ruin, are not, precisely speaking, mistakes. They are rational responses to perverse incentives for which the only possible cures lie at the constitutional level.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and author of The Squeeze.