George F. Will: A case to bind the spenders

Published: February 7, 2013
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Critics have dismissed as mere anti-government ideology the injection by public choice theory of realism into the analysis of collective action through politics. Such critics cling to a comforting — and, for advocates of ever-bigger government, a convenient — theory. It is that in politics and government, people, acting as voters or legislators or administrators, do not behave as people do in markets — they supposedly are not responsive to incentives for personal aggrandizement.

Actually, Buchanan's theory supplanted an ideology — the faith in government as omniscient and benevolent. It replaced it with realism about the sociology of government and the logic of collective action. The theory's explanatory and predictive power, Buchanan wrote, derives from its “presumption that persons do not readily become economic eunuchs as they shift from market to political participation.”

Concerning the cold logic of power maximization, Buchanan was as unsentimental as Machiavelli, whose “The Prince,” the primer on realism that announced political modernity, appeared exactly half a millennium ago, in 1513. Concerning the naturalness of self-interested behavior — its foundation in unchanging human nature — Buchanan stood in a line of thinkers that includes James Madison, the foremost realist among the cohort of realists we call the Founders.

Six days after Buchanan died, House Republicans provided dismal (and redundant) validation of public choice theory. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., supported by Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, proposed offsetting just $17 billion of the $60 billion aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy, and doing so by cutting just 1.63 percent from discretionary government spending. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said this would “slash and burn” important programs, and the measure failed because 71 Republicans opposed it.

The political class is incorrigible because it is composed of — let us say the worst — human beings. They respond to incentives of self-interest. Their acquisitiveness is not for money but for the currency of power, which they act to retain and enlarge. This class can be constrained, if at all, not by exhorting them to become disinterested but by binding them with a constitutional amendment.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP