‘Legalised plunder’ warps electoral morals

Britons attentive to political affairs in Canada will be aware of its latest political scandal: allegations abound of electioneering shenanigans involving annoying telephone calls in the late of night and ‘robocalls’ on election day meant to divert voters to non-existent polling stations.

At best, nothing more is involved than some isolated pranks in a few constituencies; at worst, a concerted nation-wide effort to commit fraud through vote suppression.  There is talk of the need to hold by-elections where in some tight races mischief was committed but, for the moment, we await an Elections Canada investigation and to see whether a Royal Commission of Inquiry will be called.

Regardless of one’s political affiliations, this is a worrisome development. Though the government is targeted primarily as the offending party, the opposition itself is not immune from accusations of committing its own share of dirty tricks. As can be imagined, the commentariat has overwhelmed the air-waves, wringing its collective hands at this abuse of the democratic process and admonishing that steps be taken to punish the guilty to deter such malversation in the future. As far as it goes, this is a reasonable response. Especially in this age of the welfare state - which is, in the words of Frédéric Bastiat, ‘the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else’ — political corruption hurts us all.

Yet, from the perspective of public choice theory, a cynic may well ask, ‘What did you expect?’ Though we are taught that politics calls forth the best in us, public choice argues that there is very little difference between our public and private personas. In each, we are motivated by self-interest, turning our attention to our fellow citizens once our own needs have been satisfied. According to Arthur Seldon, this is the ‘dilemma of democracy’:

‘Academics who have long taught that government, composed of selfless, public-spirited saints and seers, must replace the market, must have by-passed the newest branch of economics, ‘public choice’, that studies politicians as individuals who are no less self-interested than the people in whose name they govern. The persistent error, one of many underlying the continued faith in government, has been to suppose that individuals appointed as public servants have been transformed into public benefactors.’

Thus it has always been; only the scope for temptation has increased in the modern age of interventionist government where free-market capitalism has been replaced by state capitalism: where governments are lobbied for protection and subsidies, and in return grateful business interests make lavish contributions to political parties.           

Bastiat called this perversion of government ‘legalised plunder’, and made this prophecy:

‘...when plunder is organised by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter - by peaceful or revolutionary means - into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.’

Seldon puts the finger of blame on political leaders of all stripes, who ‘have been interminably invited or incited to expand government, its powers, functions and services, beyond their necessity, beyond their innate low quality, and, not least for the lowest-income families, beyond their sheer cost.’

‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man’, exhorts the Psalmist; then we should surely be sceptical of the political class. Public choice economics should enlighten us and, rather than succumb to cynicism - and worse, to opportunism - demand that the defence of our rights and liberties remain the true aim of politics.

It doesn't matter if those who distribute the plunder are saints or sinners. Plundering is just plain wrong, and you don't need fancy public choice theory to tell you so. The people are to blame, not the politicisns. As long as the people demand plunder, politicians will line up to give it to them.

In broad terms, I agree that public choice theory is simply a restatement of how the State and those whom it favours can abuse the rights of the people. Yet, by focussing on the self-interest of politicians and bureaucrats, or by comparing the experience of so-called market failure against the realities of ‘government failure’, public choice can expand our awareness, promote greater vigilance, and, for those not blinded by partisanship, be an educational avenue.

Someone once said that the fight for personal liberty must be fought in every generation against the dangers of complacency; public choice is just one tool, a salutary one, in that struggle.

It is good to marshal every argument, yes. But sometimes highly knowledgeable people forget that the core argument is very simple and should always be presented alongside, and so they make inaccessible the simple solutions that everyone can understand. (This article was better than most.)

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