Should we make it politically profitable for policymakers to do the right thing

Should we make it politically profitable for policymakers to do the right thing, or should we make it less profitable for policymakers to do anything?

Abigail Hall, writing a pair of posts for the Independent Institute blog The Beacon, urges liberty-minded people not to get too excited about electing the “right people.” (First post, second) The focus of her attention are Rand Paul supporters, but her argument is more general. Drawing on ideas of F.A. Hayek and James Buchanan, she notes that political actors are people like anyone else:

They respond to the incentives they face. These incentives are determined by the institutional context in which they operate. The incentives facing politicians do not necessarily align with those of the population as a whole. As a result, we wind up with pork barrel spending and policies that benefit special interests at the expense of the average American taxpayer.

She concludes by recommending engaging with ideas rather than politics. I thought her message lined up with that in a popular Milton Friedman quote, but Hall’s goal is more ambitious. Here is Friedman:

I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.

Hall, rather than trying to get politicians to do the right thing, wants to cut the power of politicians to do any thing.

How? She admits she does not know, but says, “we cannot rely on the current system to be the genesis of these changes” and “our battleground is one of ideas, not politics.”

Success in the world of ideas–what does it look like?

Hall is after more than nodding agreement among the tenured faculty, so the question arises: what would success in the world of ideas look like?

I think it looks like the growth of so-called “lifestyle libertarians” (a derisive term coined by book-based libertarians for the hemp-oil loving, rainbow wearing, do-your-own-thing kids in campus clubs who won’t read anything written before Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard). I think it looks like Glenn Beck donning glasses and calling himself libertarian, even if …. It could even include Donald Trump speaking at a freedom festival in Las Vegas (just kidding, that could never ever ever ever happendoh!). I think progress in the world of ideas means a thousand badly argued articles in opposition to libertarianism and perhaps as many bad articles in support. I think it means politicians claiming to fight for liberty, even if they are not consistent, because they think the claim buys support.

Success in the world of ideas would, unavoidably, produce millions of liberty-supporters who can only defend their views badly. Not everyone persuaded of liberty will refine their beliefs by exploring Rothbard or Friedman (or Bastiat or Spooner or Wilder Lane). Success in the world of ideas will result in voters more likely to support politicians who say libertarian-ish things. Further success will result in voters more discerning in their support for politicians who say libertarian-ish things.

Hall is right to warn that institutions matter, and political institutions by their nature tend to disappoint. Some of the best work in political economy gives us good reason to think so. But part of what success in the world of ideas looks like is an uptake of the ideas among politicians and campaigns and voters. It is not clear that progress requires squelching these political outgrowths.

Should we make it politically profitable for policymakers to do the right thing, or should we make it less profitable for policymakers to do anything? We do not need a once-for-all answer — the returns are likely positive for efforts on both margins.

Note: Also see David Henderson’s “Abigail Hall’s Case Against Supporting Politicians” at EconLog.

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