Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Self-guarding guardians

Plato (inventor of the plate!) suggested that society's safety and virtue be preserved by a class of powerful "guardians," enlightened souls entrusted with a monopoly on violence. "But," someone asks, "
Who will guard the guardians?" Plato's answer was that the guardians will guard themselves, being persons of superior moral fiber. This, incidentally, was Confucius' answer to the same question.

James Madison begged to differ. In
The Federalist #51, he argued that self-interest was too powerful a force for virtue to overcome. This may be because power corrupts, or because power attracts the already-corrupt, or simply because the corrupt are more aggressive about pursuing their self-interest. Madison suggests a new solution: checks and balances. Through good institutional design, different self-interested individuals could be pitted against each other; these individuals, working within the system, would balance each other out to approximately represent the will of the nation at large. Thus, we have democratic elections; we have a division of powers between levels of government; we have the three branches of the federal government; etc.

Modern political theorists have offered many similar takes on the problem. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's models of political power struggles conclude that institutional design is very important; democracy and separation of powers increase the degree to which competing political factions are forced to provide for the public good in order to maintain power. Many others believe that it is no accident that the rich countries of the world are almost all democracies.

Some American libertarians, however, take issue with Madison's solution to the guardian-guarding problem. One of these skeptics is Will Wilkinson:
We are constantly exploited by the tools meant to foil our exploitation...So it's no surprise that progressives would rather worry over trivialities such as campaign finance reform than dwell on the paradoxes of political power. But it really isn't the Citizens United decision [that allows government officials to get cushy jobs in the finance industry]...Well-connected wonks can get rich on Wall Street only because Washington power is now so unconstrained...So, what is to be done? Summon a self-bottling genie-bottling genie?

The [libertarian] answer is to make government less powerful. The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation.
For Will, checks and balances are not enough. Institutional design cannot create a self-bottling genie-bottler (or a self-guarding guardian); the government must be shrunk as much as possible without destabilizing markets to the point of ruin.

I find this notion highly objectionable. In a way, it is a cop-out worthy of Plato and Confucius; libertarians throw up their hands and say "Just get rid of the damn guardians!" But this begs the question of who will toss out the guardians, and who will guard against the guardians' return. Presumably, the guardians will be ejected by a wave of individuals inculcated with strong personal libertarian values...and hey, we're back to calling for personal virtue.

So much for the American experiment.

James Madison, and most or all of our Founding Fathers - the libertarians of their day - would almost certainly disagree with the modern variety. They had just seen 3000 years of attempts to elevate virtuous individuals to positions of power. It was called the "dynastic cycle," and it was decidedly suboptimal. They knew that if they played the part of the Virtuous Men of their day, and overthrew government in the name of liberty, a new government would simply rise in the future and undo all their efforts. And so they saw only one way out of this trap: the design of self-sustaining political institutions that would maximize effective liberty. Only government can guard against government power, they realized; to let the perfect be the enemy of the good would simply mean the return of the despots.

So, tweaks like campaign finance reform might be small potatoes compared to the vast amount of corruption that still exists in the system, but they represent progress toward greater liberty, which libertarian admonishments to "just shrink the government" do not.

This is just one more instance of modern libertarianism's fatal flaw. When they come to a Gordian Knot of a problem (optimal public good provision, for example, or optimal institutional design), they reach for a sword. They want to hack through thorny engineering questions with the pure, clean, steel of unwavering ideology. That their solutions are unworkable is hardly a deterrent; ideological self-consistency takes precedence over real-world consequences. Hard problems, it seems, are just too hard.

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