01 January, 2012

Leaders and the "common good"

On day one I give my foreign policy class three "laws" that explain ninety percent of what states do:
  1. What people *believe* is real determines what they will attempt.
  2. What *is* real determines what will work.
  3. Leaders will do whatever is in their power to stay in power.
There are other factors, but these are the big ones.  It's odd how the hardest one to get people to believe is rule #3.  Now the Economist publishes an interview with Alastair Smith (New York University) in which he gives some great examples of what I've been talking about all these years.  For example,
It is virtually impossible to find any example where leaders are not acting in their own self interest. If you are a democrat you want to gerrymander districts and have an electoral college. This vastly reduces the number of votes a president needs to win an election.  Then tax very highly. It’s much better to decide who gets to eat than to let the people feed themselves. If you lower taxes people will do more work, but then people will get rewards that aren’t coming through you. Everything good must come through you. Look at African farm subsidies. The government buys crops at below market price by force. This is a tax on farmers who then can’t make a profit. So, how do you reward people? The government subsidises fertilisers and hands it back that way. In Tanzania vouchers for fertilisers are handed out not to the most productive areas but to the party loyalist areas. This is always subject to the constraint that if you tax too highly people won’t work. This is the big debate in the US. The Republicans are saying that the Democrats have too many taxes and want to suppress workers. But when they were in power five years ago they had no problem with taxing and spending policies, but now it’s taxing their supporters to reward Democrats. 
Or, as Harry Browne is supposed to have observed, the state breaks your legs, gives you crutches, and claims credit for the fact you can still get around.

And what about the common good?  I don't deny there might be one, but I'd never count on it being the basis of policy.  As Smith observes, "If you’re working for the common good you didn’t come to power in the first place. If you’re not willing to cheat, steal, murder and bribe then you don’t come to power. "

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