Unnaming the Government: Public Choice Theory

Forewarning: this article is a bit dense.

I was initially inspired to write this piece by Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story entitled, “She Unnames Them”.  I had to read it for an interdisciplinary studies course, and this piece is actually a reworking of a paper that I wrote for that course.  While I have thought about the topics herein before, I thought that the way Le Guin framed her deconstruction of names to be particularly insightful, even if it is a fairly short story.  Here is a link to the story if you’d like a little more perspective with respect to where I’m coming from in this approach.  It really is short.  Also, before anyone asks, yes, I read a fictional story about Adam and Eve naming and unnaming creatures, and what I got out of it was an anarchic, anti-government argument. 🙂

Right, back to the point.  The government, too, is naught but a name, and it is a name that can be deconstructed in what I find to be an important way.  Government’s deconstruction results in nothing more than us, yet it seeks to be our very cure.  Moreover, governments are granted unique abilities to do things that individuals would never be permitted to do outside of the guise of government.  Governments can levy tax, imprison, conscript, declare war, etc.  This only grants further room for abuse.  In this piece, I will attempt to argue that government is not only a repackaged ailment masquerading as its own cure but that it is, more detrimentally, just a concentrated version of the ailment itself – and one that seems only able to fall into the wrong hands.  It’s a false remedy that we may very well be shielding ourselves from realizing.

Public choice theory takes a rather unique approach to political science in that it applies economic theory and its principles to the entire field of political science.  It does this by painting the field of politics as a facet of the market, and it presumes politicians, bureaucrats, and the average voter as market actors.  One of its principle assumptions is that all of these market actors are, in the political realm, motivated chiefly by their own self-interest, just as it is theorized that market actors are in the economic realm.  A major criticism of the theory, though, is lobbed at that very assumption.  The criticism is that it paints that assumption with too broad of a brush; even if many people are motivated in that way, that does not mean that everyone is.  However, I think that if one takes a step back and reduces the theory to a useful, generalized heuristic rather than a rule that encompasses every human motivation, then I think that the criticism can be largely avoided.  I also think that the theory is best used that way, regardless.  There is no need to assert that such is always the case.  All that needs to be shown is that it is normally the case, and that should be reason enough to illicit concern.

Now, if that concern is valid, and if politicians are elected in order to serve the public good, yet are chiefly motivated by their own self-interest, that ostensibly leaves the door wide open for conflicts of interest to arise. One could try to mitigate this problem by claiming that reelection is also in the best interest of any politician, stipulating that not living up to the public’s expectations would be detrimental to their reelection.  I think that this position is rather juvenile upon reflection, though, in that it gives far more credit to the voting populace than what even a cursory examination of modern political history calls for.

Under ideal conditions, such would be the case, certainly.  We do not live under ideal conditions, however.  Under ideal conditions, the concept of a government would be entirely unnecessary as everyone would already know what to do.  The non-president James Buchanan, one of the theory’s founding thinkers, said, public choice theory is “politics without romance”.  It isn’t about saying that the emperor ought to wear clothes; it’s about showing how the emperor does not wear clothes, irrespective of whether or not he or she should.  That is another, much more moralistic matter entirely.  While the theory does tend to pull at the strings of one’s ethical dispositions, that’s merely a side effect of having such dispositions.  The aim of the theory is not to condemn contemporary politics in some sort of moralistic light but rather to attempt to more accurately analyze it.

One of the things that the theory is arguably the best at accounting for is the paradox of regulatory capture, and I only call it a paradox to be charitable.  The government’s chief role, which many agree with, is to regulate.  The government regulates in all sorts of ways, but it always does so under the pretense of protecting the public good.  It is for this very reason that regulatory capture is paradoxical.  If the government is meant to regulate for the public good, and the government’s regulators consist chiefly of men and women that are from the institutions that the government is meant to regulate, then what real regulatory work is being done?  To borrow from the overused old adage, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who will watch the watchers?), who will regulate the regulators?

The worst part is not even that these entities are—quite rationally—gaming the system and escaping real regulation but the fact that they can and do use their regulatory positions to regulate their competition.  They can force and maintain de jure monopolies and oligopolies by crushing their competition without having to compete with them in the open economic market.  Using regulation to their advantage, such market actors not only can crush extant competition but can also extinguish new, potential competition before it can make its way into the market.  This is clearly evidenced by all of the subsidization that the government pays for.  It’s the larger firms that benefit the most.  They also enforce regulations that only an already large and well established corporation can afford to adhere to.  So, yes, some regulation might be going through, but most of it is regulation that only further secures the already advantaged groups—big business.  Instead of government working as a deterrent to those that would abuse without regulation, it can be easily manipulated into a crutch for abusive entities that would otherwise falter to competition in an open market.

That is not to say that I advocate for a free market necessarily but rather that it at least seems preferable to the apparent Chinese finger-trap that is (captured) regulation.  Government regulation is not some self-realizable, ontologically independent force to be reckoned with.  It is a tool that needs hands to wield it.  Even under ideal conditions, human beings must be in charge of the regulation.  When the regulation’s goal is to disadvantage your own position in any way, then what better idea is there than to take the reins of regulation yourself?  Moreover, what better idea is there when not only can you save yourself from being disadvantaged (in the long run) by taking the regulatory reins, but you can even incapacitate your competition by doing so.  For the ardent egoist, it’s just the logical position.  Abuse or be abused.

Last semester, I attended a conference that had a mini-lecture on public choice theory.  In it, the presenter, one Geoffrey Lea, was adamant in stating that problems like regulatory capture and others that are endemic to government intervention are not symptoms of a flawed system that is reparable; they are “features” of an irreparable system.  His exact words were, “feature, not a bug.”  Government is necessarily set up in such a way that it is ripe for abuse.  Those that wish to do so will always have more to gain than those who do not.  Not only does their own self-interest typically grant them a much stronger drive, they will also have an easier time getting into office because they lack the moral qualms that anyone who did not wish to abuse the system would have.  They are not only fine with abusing the system once it has been infiltrated, but they are just as fine with abusing their way into the system by virtually any means necessary.

Furthermore, their position within the system is seemingly safeguarded by another one of public choice theory’s political hypotheses: rational ignorance.  To briefly sum up its essence, rational ignorance occurs when the cost of learning about any particular item outweighs the perceived benefit.  In public choice theory, rational ignorance is inextricably linked to voter apathy.  If a voter does not think that his or her decision will make much of a difference—if any at all—in the long run, then what reason do they have to bother spending an adequate amount of time attempting to inform themselves on voter issues?  Having little spare time to even do such things due to work obligations is problem enough.  There is also a problem of competition in this realm.  Will more satisfaction be received by spending their spare time on entertainment and other such competing time-consuming activities, or will more satisfaction be received by edifying one’s self on matters of policy?  I would venture to say that, given my own perspective on things (which I don’t think is particularly controversial), the non-edificatory hobbies tend to win the competitive battle.  Again, exceptions clearly exist and so long as the general theory is used only in a general, heuristic sense, then those exceptions can be duly accounted for.  I maintain that rational ignorance can only ever feed into the already problematic political feature that is regulatory capture.

While this next paragraph might look a bit like a tangent (it probably is if I have to preface it with another paragraph), this is my brief attempt at proposing anarchism as a possible alternative.  I mean, if this problem is endemic to all forms of governments, which public choice theory does appear to entail, then that’s pretty much all you’re left with:


Anarchism has a long and sordid history.  At present, it is a provocative position that is popularly dismissed as naïve and adolescent, while also seen as dangerous at the same time.   I suppose that anarchism could entail those things, but that all depends on the particular flavor of “anarchism” in question, and there are plenty of flavors.  There are probably more flavors of anarchism than there are flavors in a Baskin Robbins, and these flavors really do matter.  Within the anarchist community, most that ascribe to any given school think that their theory is the only conclusion that “true anarchism” (whatever that means) can ever entail.  Any other school is merely an anarchist imposter, but I digress.  The point to this commentary is that there is serious dispute within anarchist circles as to what the proposition actually means/entails.  My own position is that any form of anarchism ought and must eschew violence altogether.  There may be room for defensive violence, at the very least in the defense of others if not one’s own person, but the key is that violence is always to be avoided.  It can only be tolerated as a last resort in a scenario where it is proportional at most.  I just wanted to note my position here, not defend it, so I’m not going to delve into the ethics right here.

Before closing, I would like to address another associated issue for a moment.  It is an issue that I think attentively stewards the naming of things, as opposed to their unnaming, especially with respect to government.  This issue is that of government as religion.  Of course, what it is that I mean by religion, exactly, must first be fleshed out.  Religion, as I use it, is the manner in which we believe that our fundamental ideologies apply to the world.  Under such a sense, religion can be both non-secular and secular; such a distinction is lost on it.  Additionally, religion is rooted in faith, which also merits a quick classification.  Faith, as I use it, is utterly arational.  As such, it is immune to rational argumentation.  This is not to say that one cannot be moved toward faith through rational inquiry but rather that, even if that is the case, faith is something new altogether.  I can think that x is correct for one or more good reasons, but that’s significantly different than the claim that I know x to be true.  When we leap from a proper justification for thinking that something seems to be true to an unwavering position that it is and can only ever be a true fact of the world, then that is indeed a leap of faith.  The leap is from rationality to arationality.  I would like to note that while I do think that faith has its place, I also think it to be inescapable, but this conversation is moving beyond the scope of this essay.  I’ll probably write an article on this alone in the future.

The reason I brought up the idea of government as religion at all was to try and make this point: when we transfer a proposition from a matter of contention and probability to one of essentiality and necessity (to something that we believe religiously), we also shield that proposition from scrutiny.  This can lead to cognitive dissonance and other such problems for discourse and thought.  We might also be completely unaware of the leap ever occurring.  Part of its inescapability is that it is something that we do naturally, I think, to protect the very foundations of our ideologies.  If we were able to completely change the core of our beliefs on mere whims, then we would all most likely go insane.  Its necessity and inescapability notwithstanding, I do believe that, first, it is important to repeatedly reflect on our beliefs and try to earnestly determine whether we hold them as matters of faith or rationality, and then, secondly, earnestly determine whether they ought to be or not.

I argue that government is not merely something that is just as susceptible to corruptibility as we are ourselves.  I argue that government is both a beacon and a haven for corruptibility.  As Frank Herbert said in Dune (which I haven’t read), “All governments suffer a recurring problem: power attracts pathological personalities.  It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”  Public choice theory can be summed up rather concisely: those who have the most to gain will be the ones trying the hardest.  Yes, this seems to be a problem with human nature more generally, but concentrating it does not seem to be helping.  If we have such a hard time tackling the problem on an individual level, then what makes us think that we’re prepared to tackle it on a macro level?

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