Tuesday, April 5, 2011

morality myth

Every single article on government debt laments the lack of courageous politicians willing to fight for unpopular reforms that are crucial in the long run. If only we could elect some politicians with integrity...

Blame the system, not the participants. The nature of public office is that it attracts those who want to hold public office, not necessarily those who want to save the country from fiscal ruin. And the nature of legislation is that even the politicians who truly want to do the right thing are immediately crucified and silenced, even when nearly everyone agrees that a particular action is required. And the nature of legislation is also that no matter how much agreement there is on the overarching issues, the hashing out details will divide and encourage finger-pointing and sabotage the larger goal. And the nature of government is that the short-term is more relevant, in terms of visibility and accountability and enforceability and CBO analysis and legislative commitment devices* and anything else you can think of pretty much, than the long term.

To reiterate an overused point as an analogy, soviet Russia did not fail because the wrong people were in charge and the wrong people participated. Politicians will always respond to political incentives: that power structure will always attract those who are most likely to abuse power and will systematically bring out the worst in the best of them. And citizens will always respond to economic incentives: communism will always lead to a collapse in production. Pining for more integrity is utterly beside the point.

Of course, I have no idea how to change the system to improve the incentives. But that's what we should be worrying about! Not the lack of political integrity.

*That is, why deal with a longterm problem when any agreement will be reneged by the next Congress? This destroys both political will (why kill myself for a futile cause) and feasibility (it might be politically much easier to legislate reform that takes effect tomorrow, which is what I mean by a commitment device, but it'll just be delayed again when we get there.)