Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I'm shocked, shocked there's vote-trading in Casablanca 

Say then, my friend, in what manner does tyranny arise? --that it has a democratic origin is evident. -- Plato, The Republic.

I guess I had thought it was pretty well known that legislators trade votes and seek favors. Rentseeking has been around for centuries. Ever since James Madison wrote of factions in Federalist #10, we have known that we cannot remove the causes of special interests without removing liberty itself, so we have to control its effects.

Madison wrote, "When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens." This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. The majority in the Senate prefers to gain control of the health industry, as it would any other if it found a pretense. This is the tyranny of the majority. So why did Madison think this would be nevertheless a good form of government? This is why he preferred a republic to a democracy, because a republic could better infuse the minority position into the legislative process:
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.

It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.

That last bit, "State legislatures", of course refers to the fact that Senators at that time were to be appointed by the state legislatures and not by popular, direct election. It seems highly unlikely that, if they were so elected today, that Sen. Ben Nelson would have an opportunity to be vote #60. But that's not how we pick them today, even though I believe it means senators do not have enough "acquaintance with all their local circumstances." A couple of paragraphs later,

It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.
Madison clearly understood the ability of legislative leaders to vote-trade, as Harry Reid and Ben Nelson and the rest of the Democrats have now done. I don't think we should be surprised by it. Colbert King tells us to simply get over it: "My friends, dry your eyes, suck it up, and get on with it." And truly, Mr. King is right that the temptation to trade votes and to place pork in legislation is a temptation to which their has been bipartisan surrender and failure. This shock that Sen. Nelson has engaged in vote trading is a bit disingenuous. Challenge the constitutionality of the language of Nelson's bribe, or that of the binding of future Senates not to change the actions of the Independent Medicare Advisory Board. And sure you can point out who got which thirty pieces of silver. But let's not pretend this doesn't happen. It is the nature of government to logroll and always has been. (More on this in the preceding post.) James Joyner concurs:
This doesn�t mean we shouldn�t shine a light on these abuses. By all means, we should. But let�s not pretend that they�re a recent invention.
But it would be a good outcome if his most brazen legislative language -- how often do we explicitly name the state who gets the goodies? how often do we get a Senate Majority Leader so unashamed that he accuses those who don't get pork as having failed? at least Dodd had enough shame to drag a stick behind his tracks as he snuck off with $100 million for U Con -- reminded our populace of how voting out one set of pork-consumers doesn't mean you get clean government. Sometimes you get hungrier pork-consumers.

Boettke and Rogers, in a wonderful (and wonderfully thin) volume The Beginners Guide to Liberty (whole thing at that link), remind us of a story:
There is an old tale that many economists use to set up the discussion of how well the market works in comparison to government policy. A Roman Emperor is asked to judge a contest between two singers. After hearing the first contestant sing, the Emperor awards the prize to the second singer under the assumption that surely the second cannot be worse than the first.
The point of the story is that even when markets fail -- and the authors acknowledge that they do -- governments can fail too. When government failed in the second Bush Administration, people chose a different government. Perhaps next time they'll realize that when markets fail, the answer is to use markets to solve the failure.

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