Saturday, January 28, 2006

Statism as religion

I've started this blog to address what I believe are important questions in the field of political economy. My academic research so far has been focused on the economics of belief, and specifically the roles played by education and intelligence in belief and preference formation. A related subject is how people perceive the state, and their beliefs about the role of government. For many, there is no question: the role of government is simply to act in the public interest; whatever it takes to promote the public interest is a legitimate function of government. For those versed in the language of economics, the role of government is to step in where markets fail, and "market failures" are everywhere. Therefore, the reasoning goes, state intervention is necessary to correct market failure: to provide public goods, and to internalize externalities.

The problem, though, is that government failure is easily as big a problem as market failure. Public goods provision has unintended consequences; the "tragedy of the commons" being one of the more notable ones. At its worst, government serves as a tool for oppressive tyrants and mass-murderers, and provides more public "bads" than "goods."

Consider the Mencken quote at the top of this page. Public Choice argues that people holding public office are no more noble and no less self-interested than private citizens; Mencken argues (correctly, I believe) that they are typically worse.