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July 18, 2003

Public Choice


At various times you’ve discussed how learning more economics has let you see larger and more meaningful patterns in the world. I think I’m in the middle of having one of those relevatory moments via economics.

Have you ever heard of “public choice” economics? It had dimly passed across my radar screen from time to time, but I only started paying more attention to it in the process of writing my post Saturn Devours My Children (which you can read here).

What a gas to see a group of smart people take many of my private musings of the past decade and set them out with more clarity than I ever gave them. I actually read a webpage outlining some of the notions of public choice while literally laughing out loud to see that I wasn’t the only lunatic in the insane asylum.

“Public Choice” uses economics to analyze the incentives involved in making choices via a democratic government. It adopts (as any sane person would, it seems to me) a fairly skeptical view of the notion that the government is always running around serving the public good. To quote this same webpage, which you can access here:

Public choice economists also examine the actions of legislators. Although legislators are expected to pursue the "public interest," they make decisions on how to use other people's resources, not their own. Furthermore, these resources must be provided by taxpayers and by those hurt by regulations whether [those taxpayers or the people subject to regulation] want to provide them or not. Politicians may intend to spend taxpayer money wisely. Efficient decisions, however, will neither save their own money nor give them any proportion of the wealth they save for citizens. There is no direct reward for fighting powerful interest groups in order to confer benefits on a public that is not even aware of the benefits or of who conferred them. Thus, the incentives for good management in the public interest are weak. In contrast, interest groups are organized by people with very strong gains to be made from governmental action. They provide politicians with campaign funds and campaign workers. In return they receive at least the "ear" of the politician and often gain support for their goals.

Hee, hee—at least if I have to pay extortionate taxes so that powerful interest groups (like the elderly or agrobusiness) can keep all four feet in the public trough, I’m glad somebody stood up and pointed out what was going on. By golly, it gives me hope for the future.

Actually, it gives me more than hope, it gives me an idea. Isn’t it time for virtuous people everywhere to start thinking seriously about a system of governance that works better than democracy (or at least how American representative democracy is practiced in 2003?)

Before everyone freaks out, let me stress that I’ve heard the expression that “democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the others,” I just no longer believe it. As I remarked to someone who quoted this bromide to me recently, perhaps people who believe it should go back in time to, say, the era between the 1890s and the 1940s and ask some black people how thrilled they were to live in a democracy as a permanent, highly identifiable minority. My guess is the black folks of that era might not be quite so sanguine about the virtues of “majority-rule” democracy. (That’s just a guess, of course.) And I’ve yet to meet anyone who, when pressed, doesn’t acknowledge another failure of “majority rule” democracy: to wit, that whole classes of citizens who are deeply concerned in various governmental policies (i.e., children and yet-unborn generations)—don’t vote, which has produced some obviously grotesque political outcomes.

Moreover, even setting aside issues relating to the ethics of unlimited majority-rule democracy, "public choice" economists have raised a number of interesting criticisms about the efficiency of majority rule democracy in making decisions about a key activity of government: the creation of public goods. (Public goods are assets like roads or safe neighborhoods that confer benefits on many people without being specifically consumed by any of those people; that is, to use the example of roads, just because a road network is really valuable to the owner of a trucking company doesn’t mean that it’s not also valuable to people trying to get to work.) As “public choice” economists demonstrate, public goods are of unequal value to different citizens—e.g., the road network is worth more to the trucking company owner than to a shut-in—yet majority rule democracy will tend to “value” such public goods at the level of the median voter. This, of course, means that the amount of a given public good created will be too low for some people (those who find that good very valuable) and too high for others (those who aren’t particularly interested in it or are even threatened by it.)

Examples of the consequences of these mismatches abound: people—say those raising families—who value public safety very highly have been forced to move into gated communities because society as a whole won’t pay for enough crime control. Cancer patients, on the other hand, find that the FDA’s emphasis on demanding and documenting very high levels of medicinal safety may deny them a crack at a drug that might save their lives; for them, the public good of “drug safety” is being provided far too much. (Again, you can read a far more complete discussion of this issue here. )

And “public choice” economists have made some interesting suggestions for how to improve these and other governmental shortcomings. One is that vote-buying, which is of course illegal in all 50 American states, should perhaps be encouraged as a rational (if somewhat inefficient) way for a minority that places a very high value on some public goods to influence societal decision making. Another is to provide government services chiefly on a local basis, so that if you’re in a community that values public goods differently than you do, you can move to one that better meets your needs. A third is the notion of “metering” or “user fees” to allow the provision of different levels of public goods for different citizens. A fourth is the notion of requiring supermajorities for many governmental decisions, so that the final outcomes will have to come about as a result of negotiation between the majority and minority groups who are either uniquely helped or harmed by a policy. A fifth is the privatization of many governmental services so as to permit opting out of, and pursuing alternatives to, services provided by government bureaus that often come at a cost so high that they make sense for no-one, other than the bureaucrats themselves.

I would note in passing that public choice economists seem to be quite scathing on the topic of government bureaus and bureaucracy. (You can read one example of this here. ) I can only say that again their thinking accords with my personal experience: in the course of my business life, I’ve had to follow the affairs of several heavily regulated industries, and the notion of the “regulatory state” as some kind of paradise of public-spiritedness is, to put it mildly, bilge-water. You couldn’t shake a stick at the number and variety of games that get played in such an arena, always for the self-interest of the various players who are almost always successful in screwing the general public in ways large or small. If you think I’m hallucinating, consider the regulated public accounting industry and its very profitable role as an enabler of large-scale corporate accounting fraud.

Hey, I know I’m not the only person who is aware of this stuff. Come, on, jump in here and let’s at least get the notion out on the table. Our current system of governance can surely can be fine tuned, if not replaced with an altogether better model. The public choice people seem to have made a start here. Anybody willing to make some suggestions?



posted by Friedrich at July 18, 2003


Democracy as the tyranny of the majority is an age-old libertarian argument. But absolute democracy is a mythical beast, and therefore a bit of a straw man. We don't hold referenda on every piece of legislation, we democratically delegate legislative responsibility to representatives. And those representatives can't do anything they like either, regardless of the popularity of any given legislation. There is a constitution which defines the boundaries of legislative powers and protects individual rights, and a court which decides whether legislation is constitutional. Laws made my democratic governments can be struck down - witness the Texan sodomy laws.

Posted by: Hugo on July 18, 2003 06:19 AM

So all of that must have made those black folks feel real good about their situation c. 1890-1940, right?

Who are you, Candide Jr.? Do you really think the current set up is perfect? Did you think reciting the contents of your high-school civics class proves that status quo is simply impossible to improve on? Maybe you should re-read the post a little more closely.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 18, 2003 09:03 AM

I am not sure about what would be the fate of black folks, and other minorities, during the 1890-1940 period, have you had another regime, let's say, less "democratic". I understand this is not your proposal and of course democracy could be improved. But right now, in many parts of the world, people are struggling to attain at least some level of democracy, which seems to me a fair goal. Also, on behalf of democracy, I would say that it is a robust regime that once installed tend to remain, and resist to other ones, more uncomfortable, as a dictatorship.
Anyhow, I believe that as a part of some kind of "evolutionary" process democracy, as we know it, will reach an end. You know, once natural resources begin to diminish, and this will happen (or it is already happening) our world will have a very different configuration. But, by then, we all shall be long gone...

Posted by: Z on July 18, 2003 09:29 AM

The problem with achieving the change you and the public choice school (and I) want is, that the people who this change would benefit most have all been bought off by a cynical and lazy unelected political class. Political action committees have grown partly out of the Watergate era political reforms of the early 1970’s and partly due to self interest. These PACs have grown into the collective behemoth they are because everyone has at least one pet issue that they WILL be heard on.

How many voting, taxpaying, non-campaign-contributing constituents have a prayer of getting through to their congressman, let alone have his ear on an issue that is important to them? But, grease the skids a little via a campaign contribution and presto! You get a phone call. Grease them a little more, by collecting smaller contributions from like-minded people into a nice size chunk of cash, and you get not only face time, but you might even get a chance to draft legislation yourselves.

All this happens not in smoky back rooms as the popular image conjures, but right in your face on the six o’clock news. And don’t you dare try to oppose an AARP or an UFT, you’ll be hounded and shouted down – not an option to most good folks.

So, what to do? The cynical short-term answer is of course, donate time and money to PACs that share your views and work to make America a better place for you and yours. Another has to be – and this is important – get out and vote. Everyone complains, but less than half the eligible voters exercise their right. Years, no, decades of voter apathy have been a consenting vote for the shenanigans going on in DC by staffers, insiders, spouses and PACs. If you don’t like what’s going on, tear yourself away from 15 minutes of your daily 5 hours of television, and send a real and lasting message to your representative.

Here’s a little secret that really isn’t: Your congressman is laughing at you! Don’t like your tax bill? What are you gonna do? Don’t like a law that transfers your hard earned money to a special interest group you despise? What are you gonna do? It may be naïve High School civics to believe this, but as a former lobbyist, I can attest to this, voting scares the shit out of politicians!

Posted by: Matthew on July 18, 2003 10:04 AM

Part of the problem you rightly recognize is one of scale. Democracy, pure or not, was never thought to be able to govern large numbers of hetergenous people. Athens, after all, had I believe something under 25,000 citizens who could vote. The notion of a democracy of 260 million would have been ludicrous to any political thinker until the nineteenth century.

The Founders of the US thought they could get around that problem with procedural devices, some ingenious and some not. What they failed to fully account for were the dynamics of power and incentive that the public choice theorists and others have identified.

The greatest dynamic was centralization. When everything is federalized, the influence of interest groups, and the weakness of politicians, becomes magnified (It is no coincidence, for example, that the railroads wanted federal regulation; that way they only needed to bribe one legislature instead of 51).

So, as for solutions. Short of a constitutional monarchy (to which I remain nostalgically attracted for various reasons), moving more actual power - not just funds - to smaller and smaller groups may make a difference. When families know that what they do can make a difference in schools, neighborhoods, etc. they will vote. When they think everything depends on Washington, they won't.

Posted by: Ger on July 18, 2003 10:42 AM

I'm a big fan of the Public Choice school, so thanks for the posting. Hey, here's a q&a with Public Choicer James Buchanan.

Seems to me that one perhaps simplistic but maybe helpful way of looking at the problem is that, while the Constitution did a good job of fencing in the political class for a long time, the political class (and its immediate clients and allies) has long since busted out of that corral. Plus it's the old conundrum: How to police the police? How to govern the governors?

No brilliant ideas here, that's for sure. But thinking in this way does lead me to root for just about any and all movements that might cripple (ahem, "limit") the political class's ability to have things its own way. For this reason alone (as well as others, but for the moment ...), I'll root for balanced-budget amendments, privatizing schools and Social Security, killing the NEA. Milton Friedman once suggested an amendment that would specify that the highest income-tax rate can't be more than twice the lowest -- sounds good to me, though I'd root even harder for a negative-income-tax/flat-tax arrangement. But like I say: virtually any and all arrangements that might cripple or even hobble the political class.

Hey, another one just occurred to me: an amendment requiring that for every new program government starts, it has to kill another one. And another: that the entire tax code has to be spelled out in fewer than 500 words. I'm on a roll now.

And wouldn't it be lovely if, during those Presidential town-meeting things, where the candidates take questions from the public, if the damn public would hammer home, over and over, the questions: "What do you think government should get out of the business of, and how do you propose doing this? Name five programs you vow to kill."

Seems like a p-r triumph of the political class that they've got so many people sitting around dreaming about what they'd like to see government do, doesn't it? I'd love to see the general public start to refuse to buy that fantasy. Maybe bloggers can play a little role in this...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 18, 2003 11:08 AM

The excellent thing about our system as it currently exists is that over time it does change in response to the wishes of the majority, but also that it changes very, very slowly.

Consider--blacks were poorly treated in the era you cite. Some blacks still are poorly treated, certainly. But today, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor are black. Why? We as a nation changed our values.

Consider--as Hollywood types are so fond of remembering, we had a witchhunt in the days of Joe McCarthy. Today, despite all of the anti-government ranting we've been hearing, and all of the comparisons of GWB with Adolf Hitler, and all of the invocations of a new McCarthyism, in fact nothing like Uncle Joe's shindig has happened this time around. We Americans don't like that.

So we do change over time. Yes, it takes a long time--and that's good. It means that we've arrived at some kind of consensus. It also means that our society is unlikely to collapse--radical changes are naturally damped down.

The solution is to point out the problems you see, loudly, eloquently, and vigorously--and, I hope, truthfully. And when enough people agree with you, change will happen.

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 18, 2003 11:21 AM

Friedrich, I may or may not be Candide Jr. You were sounding off about "unlimited majority-rule democracy", and I was just pointing out that there's no such thing. Constitutional rights come before democratic rights. I'm not saying that this mechanism for protecting individual liberties is perfect - what political mechanism is? I'm merely saying it exists.

Public choice theory has some interesting things to say, but just as the public choice economists are cynical about the motives of politicians, allow me to be cynical about the motives of public choice economists. After all, their argument can be boiled down to a pretty standard and hardly original political line: i.e. politicians can't be trusted to look after the public interest; all they do is take your money and use it to promote their own ambitions; so let's scale back the state and keep our taxes for ourselves.

Posted by: Hugo on July 18, 2003 11:40 AM

Hey, another q&a with Public Choicer James Buchanan is here.

Hugo -- Just to intrude for a sec, and I suspect we're describing the same thing and maybe even reacting in much the same way, but I take a more cheery view of the contribution of Public Choicers. I find that an amazing number of my arty-lefty friends especially, sigh, who are often fairly shrewd about the motives of most people make an exception for politicians, or at least the politicians they approve of. (It's like they need to believe in something or someone, some potential Redeemer. Somebody's got to be out there doing good, fighting for the good cause, darn it.) Which seems to me naive. So I'm glad to have the Public Choicers out there saying, Let's remember that we all pursue our own self-interest. I take the Public Choicers to be making the point that the "political class" is as likely to be pursuing its own interests as , say, "the business class" is, or the "trial-lawyer class," or the "oil-executive class." (Or, come to think of it, the "arty class." Or, as you point out, the "Public Choice economist" class.) I mean, perhaps oil executives really do care about delivering oil to us -- to some extent. But to a large extent, they're in the biz to make money, and good for them. And perhaps the people who make up the government class really do care about doing social good for the rest of us -- to an extent. But it doesn't hurt to remember that they're as likely as anyone else to be out for their own good. (More in the way of power and ego benefits than financial, it seems to me.) And nothing wrong with that -- but why not cast as skeptical an eye on them as on oil executives? Why not assume that, to some sizable extent, what they want is what's good for their class? And then take that into account? So, while I don't take Public Choice to the last word about anything, I'm sure glad they're contributing to the conversation.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 18, 2003 11:58 AM

Michael - Yes, I absolutely agree that we should cast a sceptical eye over the doings of politicians. And strangely enough, this scepticism is something that unites the two ends of the political spectrum: the libertarians and the Chomskyite leftists. And as I said, I think the Public Choice guys have some interesting things to say. More decisions can and should be devolved to the local level. But there are always going to be massively important decisions that will have to be taken nationally - so long as you want a sovereign state at all, and some libertarians don't. And the "evolutionary psychology" approach to political motivations only works so well. Whatever you think of, say, Swedish-style welfare statism, it's pretty hard to reduce it to the simple self-interest of the middle-class politicians who set it up and maintain it. Individual motives matter, but I think it's a mistake of public choice thinkers to focus so tightly on that, and I think they fall into the same kind of philosophical trap as libertarians in imagining that all social forms can be usefully reduced to the rights and motivations of its individual components. With individuals and the societies to which they belong, there's always a bootstrapping effect.

Posted by: Hugo on July 18, 2003 12:24 PM


You may be have a point about other factors coming into play when making comparisons between between various political cultures, but within our political culture, I believe the structural issues identified by "public choice" types are too significant to sit back and ignore. To point out just how significant, allow me to quote from an essay in the WSJ of July 17 by Jagadeesh Gohale and Kent Smetters:

Medicare now faces an imbalance exceeding $36 trillion--yes, trillion. That is the amount of money in present value that Medicare is projected to pay for future benefits in excess of the money in its trust fund, plus the money it is projected to collect in future taxes and permiums...So why don't we see real entitlement reform? Why does Congress seem more interested in expanding these entitlements without also proposing real reforms that would put [it] on a sustainable course?

Come on, Hugo, you know why. Because of rent seeking by two highly organized interest groups--seniors and the health care industry. Which, of course, can't be counteracted by the people who will bear the burden--children and the unborn.

But if I understand you correctly, the constitution and the Supreme Court will rescue us from this, right? Right.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 18, 2003 02:57 PM

One other brief comment: my impression of the "public choice" crowd is actually not that they're so down on politicians...they just don't take them at face value. I suspect their ire is more directed at rent seekers (people trying to get the government to transfer other people's money to them--e.g., special interests.) Politicians are just reacting to the pressures of the job. So the basic argument of "public choice" people is not, I suspect, that politicians spend all your tax money on themselves, but rather than politicians are so easily used by special interests to vacuum out your pockets--a rather different argument.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 18, 2003 03:09 PM

I strongly recommend the very short and very illuminating Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. George Reisman, author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, credits Hazlitt with some of the insights of the rational expectations school--decades before the rational expectations guys. And Mencken praised Hazlitt as "one of the few economists who can actually write." Well worth a read.


Posted by: Craig on July 18, 2003 05:32 PM

One comment - "who value public safety very highly have been forced to move into gated communities because society as a whole won’t pay for enough crime control."

People who can afford gated communities were are people who can afford to live in crime-free neighborhoods, gated or otherwise.

Posted by: j.c. on July 18, 2003 05:45 PM

The essence of democracy is not, as some fondly imagine, to have decisions made directly made by 'the people'. Nearly all democracies, even Athens, have been representative democracies, in which the people choose individuals to carry on most of the public business. It is having the wielders of power explicitly accountable to the people - a feedback mechanism to restrain them from imposing tyranny or folly.

But as a rule, people dislike being subject to feedback and accountability. And the world is full of corrupt, incompetent, or lazy folk who try to 'game' the feedback mechanism rather than do the work. We see this in many different areas of life.

For instance, corporate managers rig the voting rules to stifle shareholder rebellion, and invent new mechanisms to defeat the intent of accounting principles. Labor union officials also rig votes and rewrite bylaws. Drivers carry radar detectors.

And of course, politicians have found numerous ways to neutralize political feedback. This is most true of legislators, who have used computer technology to carry gerrymandering to absurd but highly effective levels. Another highly effective mechanism is the de facto delegation of legislative power to the unelected courts.

The great difficulty we face now is that we need to reform the political system, but the mechanism of reform is controlled by the system itself. There is still a fair amount of honesty and responsiveness left in the system, but it could all be gone in another generation. Political officeholders could become a self-perpetuating oligarchy, with 'campaign finance' laws, ballot restrictions, gerrymandering, media regulation, and other 'legitimate' measures de facto eliminating competitive elections. The oligarchy could govern as they see fit, ignoring any inconvenient laws or constitutions. Note the recent Nevada Supreme Court decision that the legislature could ignore the state constitution's explicit 2/3 requirement for new taxes.

The European Union is already well down this road, with power increasingly accruing to the unelected EU bureaucracy, which answers only to the appointed EU Commissioners. The proposed EU Constitution is almost devoid of limits but chock-a-block with mandates, allowing the EU to declare just about anything they want to do to be Constitutionally required.

There are no final answers, but the best immediate remedy I can see is term limitations. It's long tenure in office that assimilates people into the political class.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 18, 2003 08:46 PM

What a tragedy to see grown men come to these ideas so late in life and not have the experience or critical apparatus to refute it. Public choice was given a death blow in the 1960s...yes, are waisting your time.

Posted by: python on July 20, 2003 08:40 AM

Gee, Mr. Python, perhaps you could enlighten us as to said "death blow," since by your own account we're just too stupid to be able to see it for ourselves. Try to use one-syllable words, too, while you're at it, since somehow we've gotten to be "grown men" who are so idiotic that we think that "public choice" reflects trends we see around us all the time.

Along the way, perhaps you could account for the that $36 trillion net present value imbalance in the Medicare entitlement program. That couldn't have anything to do with "rent seeking" now could it? Granted, we're just too dumb to see the real reason, but we look forward hopefully to hearing your explanation.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 20, 2003 01:51 PM

In my mind, even worse than the partial delegation of law making power to the courts by Congress, has been their delegation of law making power to the Executive branch via Federal Regulations. Most laws we are subject to in the US are actually 'regulations' made up by the bureacracy to 'implement' a law passed by Congress. And the one thing that a bureacrat doesn't want is to see his budget and power base diminished.

Which is why around 40% of our GDP in the US is govt. spending at one level or another. And why some very few have advocated govt. employees not being able to vote during their term of 'service'. When you can vote to keep your own gravy train going directly, regardless of it's larger consequences to society, you will never see anything other than massive growth of the size of govt.

I too have lately become very disillusioned with democracy as a governance mether. Yes, it is VASTLY better than any of the monarchies it replaced, and beats out the totalitarian forms hands down. But I've come to think that a kritarchy (rule by adjudicators mutually agreed upon by parties to a dispute, with competing free market enforcement of justice), with some kind of tweak to allow for voluntarily-triggered coercive collective action in time of external threat (the hole in most other libertarian philosophies, too), is perhaps our best bet for the future; at least if one values human liberty.

Dutch natural law philosophers and Rothbard cover most of the moral and economic theoretical underpinnings of kritarchy as a governmental form.

It is I think instructive to note that the first factor on De Tocqueville's list of "CAUSES WHICH MITIGATE THE TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY IN THE UNITED STATES", Chapter 16 of Democracy in America, is "ABSENCE OF CENTRALIZED ADMINISTRATION". And that since FDR, this has ceased to be the case.

That chapter is at

It is very interesting to see that most of the things he found that moderated our democracy's oppressive elements have fallen by the way side, including the jury as a political body, and not just a decider of legal fact.

Posted by: David Mercer on July 21, 2003 05:46 AM

Fredrich, if a CEO gives a big contribution to a politician, it's frequently hard to tell whether it's more like a bribe for favors or more like protection money.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on July 22, 2003 08:40 AM

I'm curious. As a Canadian, I'm constantly faced with (1) How much Americans loathe taxes in all its forms, and (2) How low American taxes are.

It would seem that just about everywhere else in the world would have *more* to complain about, but actually it seems that Americans feel the most taken advantage of by their government.

What is it about America that seems to make Americans think that all their tax money is wasted?

I certainly don't want to pay more taxes than necessary, but I don't think I even personally know anyone else who thinks taxes are evil per se. I'm rather happy to maintain my current tax levy than see services reduced that effect the quality of life for me, my children, and other Canadians.

Posted by: Tom West on July 22, 2003 05:13 PM

I find one aspect of "public choice" disturbing. The "self-interest" that all government employees/politicians are presumed to serve is pretty much automatically at odds with doing a good job.

I've always found it annoying that economists automatically assume that we follow the money, prestige, etc. Certainly that's the assumption of the one article. ("Bureaucrats are assumed to try to maximize department size") Unfortunately, it doesn't jar with my reality. Many of the people I know (albeit not in civil-service) have turned down money/promotion in order to spend more time with spouses/children, or simply because they liked their current job.

I suspect that the main motivation of most people, once one has enough to pay the rent, etc., is to do a job that one enjoys, well.

When I asked an economist friend about it, he joked about the fact that if you couldn't consumer motivation wan't measurable, economists would all be out of jobs.

Maybe its time to measure economists' self-interest :-)?

Posted by: Tom West on July 22, 2003 06:10 PM

Mr. West:

Sorry to take so long to reply (it's been busy around my life.)

I'm pleased that you see to be so happy with the cost/benefit ratio of your taxes, and I would agree that there is definitely a culture-gap on the issue of government, taxes, etc. between the U.S. and Canada (although, I suspect, not as large of one as you portray: I know several Canadians who feel strongly that the cost of their taxes exceeds the benefits conferred by the public sector, but they don't feel they can be candid about this in public because of the pressure of Canadian "social norms.")

Having said that, however, from the standpoint of strict logic your remarks don't hold up:

(1) You write:

I certainly don't want to pay more taxes than necessary, but I don't think I even personally know anyone else who thinks taxes are evil per se. I'm rather happy to maintain my current tax levy than see services reduced that effect the quality of life for me, my children, and other Canadians.

Some Canadians (presumably not yourself) live in poverty. If "quality of life" for "other Canadians" is the issue, shouldn't they be the recipient of more government spending? And thus shouldn't your taxes be higher as a consequence? So if you don't support higher taxes, your interest in the "quality of life" for "other Canadians" is pretty lukewarm--you're effectively saying that you're willing to be taxed enough for them to live at their current (not so hot) level, but not to be taxed enough for them to live in luxury. What I'm getting at here is that there is a tradeoff between consumption for you (and your family) and consumption for "other Canadians." Public choice deals pretty honestly with such tradeoffs: your remarks, it seems to me, are an attempt to deliberately blur the choices this tradeoff involves (made by Canadians in the same relatively hard-hearted way as they are made south of the border and everywhere else in the world) issue in a haze of self-congratulation.

(2) Perhaps you've notice the huge imbalances that have accumulated in social insurance programs in the United States (and in every other advanced country I'm aware of). These have occurred because current generations of retirees are demanding more and more benefits without considering the ultimate cost of such benefit escalation on subsequent generations. European welfare states are being pruned back because the unsustainability of their burden is being (ever-so-slowly) realized. If you are concerned with "quality of life" for your children, you might do well to start looking at "public choice" to understand the structural underpinnings of how these social choices were made and how it will be possible to unmake them in the context of a democracy.

(3) I've known a lot of senior bureaucrats in my day and all I can say is that, yes, they really do build empires and fight over turf issues and hype their budgets,etc.. Junior bureaucrats are more laid back, but their lifestyle choices are irrelevant to the policy issues the article is discussing.

(4) Also, in what may be a tangental point, I see a certain smugness in your comment:

Many of the people I know (albeit not in civil-service) have turned down money/promotion in order to spend more time with spouses/children, or simply because they liked their current job.

Has it never occurred to you that when the nice middle-class people you know make lifestyle choices to not maximize their incomes, in a country with a graduated income tax and significant government spending, they are throwing more of the national tax burden on those who make maximizing their income a priority? Isn't there something a little morally ugly about this? Why is it that some, perhaps most, people feel entitled to first choose leisure time as more valuable than marginal income and then turn around and loudly demand that others (who have chosen differently) pick up the financial slack?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 26, 2003 06:25 PM

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