Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rule of democracy: politicians don't lead, they follow.

I've thought about this idea for some time, and I continue to see examples of it. It isn't original to me except maybe to the extent I find it nearly ubiquitous.

I believe a rule of democracy is that politicians do not tend to lead but rather tend to follow the common view. This is true in a general sense and in most specific instances. On the surface it shouldn't be surprising, after all democracy is should give rise to this, and it is unclear if in aggregate it is a feature or a bug. I believe it is a bug on net, but only slightly, and I assign low confidence to this view. Say what you will about the results of totalitarianism, at least it is an ethos of leadership.

The most recent example I found was this one from Todd Zywicki of the Volokh Conspiracy. It the piece he is pointing out that traffic fatalities were falling for a steady and long period before the formal introduction of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1970. His discussion is a bit richer than just that as he considers the merits of liability law and regulation versus market forces. Here is the graph that caught my eye (original source):

A similar graph can be plotted for nearly every regulatory agency. The one above reminded me of one I saw back in college, which led me to get out my old Economics of Regulation and Antitrust textbook. In that example workplace safety is shown to be steadily declining prior to and after the creation of OSHA.

I think Robin Hansen would be in agreement with my view--"Politics isn't about policy".

The reason I think this is a net bug is that government isn't well suited for many of the tasks it takes on. The incentives are bad, perverse, or at best non existent. Government is highly subject to regulatory capture. Government's one-size-fits-all approach, which is a natural and good product from equality before the law, is antithetical to evolutionary adaptation.

The reason I think this is only a slight net bug is that what we see generally is just a codification of the mores and demands society otherwise possesses. Hence, my libertarian problems with the 1964 Civil Rights Act with its limitations on freedom of association are mitigated by the virtues the law sought to create and the fact that society was moving that way anyhow. Government then just becomes a clumsy way to achieve what we are otherwise moving toward.

I'm sure I'll have more examples and more thoughts on this. Suffice it for now to summarize that while regulatory approaches to problems are suboptimal solutions (at best second-best if not third-best approaches) they are in fact more solution than new problem. But of course when opportunity cost exceeds benefit at the margin even slightly, the makings for compound disaster are created.