There’s a very powerful statement, variously attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Tytler, that basically warns that democracy is doomed when people figure out they can vote themselves money.
There’s no evidence that any of them actually spoke or wrote those words, though I guess it doesn’t matter that the quote didn’t originate with someone like Franklin. What does matter is that it accurately captures something very important, which is the tendency for governments to over-tax and over-spend once people decide that it’s okay to use government coercion to take other people’s money.
But it’s still nice to be able to cite something accurate. With this in mind, I came up with my Theorem of Societal Collapse. And I think it’s actually more accurate than the vote-themselves-money quote because democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to statism. What leads to bad outcomes is democracy combined with bad values.
And a pervasive belief in redistributionism is a bad value. Heck, it’s a self-destructive value. Consider Greece. When you add together the people getting welfare and disability to the people getting pension payments to the people on the government payroll, it turns out that a majority of people in the country are riding in the wagon of government dependency.
That’s bad. But what makes the Greek situation so hopeless is that those are the same people who vote. Which means there’s very little chance of getting a government that would implement good policy.
After all, why would the recipients of other people’s money vote for politicians who support limits on redistribution?
But I’m not just blaming voters. Politicians also deserve scorn and disdain because they are the ones who often seek votes by promising to take other people’s money.
Some observers would like to believe that these politicians will use their supposed superior expertise and knowledge about public policy to make appropriate tradeoffs and prevent the system from becoming over-burdened.
But that’s somewhat naive.
Indeed, there’s an entire school of thought in economics, known as “public choice,” which is based on making real-world assumptions about the self-interested behavior of politicians and interest groups. Here’s a partial description from the Library of Economics and Liberty.
As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. …public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” …public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests… As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics. …collective decision-making processes allow the majority to impose its preferences on the minority.
In other words, both voters and politicians can have an incentive for ever-larger government, even if the end result is Greek-style fiscal chaos because taxes and spending reach ruinous levels.
I call this “Goldfish Government” because some think that a goldfish lacks the ability to control its appetite and therefore will eat itself to death when presented with unlimited food.
Indeed, public choice scholars explicitly recognize that unconstrained democracy can lead to bad results.
Public choice scholars have identified…deep…problems with democratic decision-making processes.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that their research suggests ways to compensate for the natural tendency of ever-expanding government.
Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules… If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective.
Hmmm…., a rule that limits the government so it doesn’t grow faster than the private sector.
Sounds like an idea worth embracing.
But while I like anything that builds support for the Golden Rule, I’m not sure it’s a sufficient condition for good policy.
Simply stated, we have too many examples of nations that followed the Golden Rule for several years, only to then fall off the wagon with a new splurge of spending.
There are two ways to deal with this problem. First, make the spending restraint part of a jurisdiction’s constitution, as we see in Switzerland and Hong Kong.
Second, augment the internal constraint of a spending cap with the external constraint of tax competition. Bluntly stated, destructive tax policies will be less likely when politicians are afraid that taxpayers will move across borders.
I spoke about this topic at a recent conference in Slovakia.
I also discuss the critical role of demographic change toward the end of my speech.
P.S. America’s Founding Fathers had the right solution. They set up a democratic form of government, but they strictly limited the powers of the central government. This system worked remarkably well for a long period, but then the Supreme Court decided that the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution were just a suggestion.
P.P.S. While it’s bad news to combine democracy with bad value, I want to emphasize that the problem is bad values. Most non-democratic societies have policies that are so evil and destructive (think Cuba and North Korea) that they make France seem like a beacon of economic liberty.