Saturday, July 2, 2011

There is no limit to the good, alas

This is based on comments I made here.

If the purpose of government is to "do good", then there is no limit to government, for there is always more "good" to do. The more absolute the claim of "the good", the more total the therefore-legitimate ambit of government. The most complete manifestations of this logic is in totalitarian regimes, for the more complete the transformation of human society to be achieved, the more total the control. The Soviet Union sought to transform human beings, the Third Reich to give Aryans Lebensraum, the Fascist state to create a united, powerful and confident Italian nation. Each aim was more total than the next one, so the peace time Soviet state was more completely totalitarian than the Nazi state which was more totalitarian than Fascist Italy.

Democratic government points in both directions. As legislators are the elected representatives of The People, their authority is sanctified by popular sovereignty. On the other hand, their authority comes from said people, so controls which seem to too restrictive on said people also contradict popular sovereignty.

One sees this tension particularly clearly in US politics, where the left tends to take it as read that government acts across a wide range of issues to support the Good and manifest popular sovereignty while the right tends to take it as read that government is a dangerous delegated authority whose overweening ambition threatens popular (in the sense of individual) sovereignty.

This comes out particularly strongly in economic issues, where one sides sees property rights as manifestations of popular sovereignty and the other as them being various levels of impediments thereto.

It also comes out in that folks on the left tend to see private interests as something the political order can "sit over" and control while the right tends to see government as something that will be gamed by, or otherwise manifest, private interests. (To put it another way, one regulates in the hopes of restricting lobbies and private interests, the other is more likely to see lobbying as the predictable result of intrusive regulation.)

To complicate matters, there are "the claims of God" conservatives who are happy to use the state to do "God's will". Also, the default attitudes to state coercion tend to reverse when considering the physical coercive arms of governments (police and military forces). The left tends to be suspicious of legitimated official violence (while being terribly keen on all sorts of other official coercion) since criminals and angsty foreign powers are just misunderstood/have legitimate concerns (but corporate interests are, of course, evil), while the right wants social order to be protected (even while being generally sceptical of state coercion elsewhere).

So US politics is divided into two Parties who can both accuse the other of "not getting" the American Revolution and both are correct.

All of which makes the question of "yes, but what actually works?" an excellent one. It, more than anything else, was the question which led to liberalising economic reforms being adopted by both sides of Australian politics. Legislation normally has wonderfully "good" intentions. But intentions are easy, anyone can spout them, it is consequences that really matter.

Another way to think about the modern addiction to legislating is: what incentives constrain politicians to pay attention to consequences? And which consequences are they going to pay attention to? Thinking about those questions leads to rather more scepticism about the modern mania for lawmaking.

Changes in technology may also have affected the propensity to legislating. Looking at the stats on pages of legislation passed by the Australian federal Parliament, I suspect the photocopier helped expand the amount of legislation by making it easier for Parliament to process it.

As for the notion that purpose of legislators is to legislate, Pitt the Elder is reputed not to have shepherded a single Act through Parliament in his entire Parliamentary career.

Law can also repeal law. By the late C19th, British politics had a reputation for high levels of probity. This was not the case in the C18th. The British Parliament, from the late C18th on, spent much time repealing laws and regulations. By so dramatically reducing official discretions, it dramatically reduced the potential market for corruption (corruption being the market for official discretions) and so greatly improved the probity of British politics.

If one dislikes all the corporate lobbying, less intrusive regulation (particularly less complex tax systems) would be a great way of reducing the amount of lobbying. Complex tax laws and intrusive regulation attracts lobbying the way faeces attracts flies. It is a major cost of an excessive propensity to legislate.

A political order that is addicted to legislating should not have its addictive behaviour facilitated by a presumption of doing Good. Consequences are what really matter, because they are what people actually live with. Not justifying intentions.


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  2. Great stuff, Lorenzo! I've recently been feeling in the considerable lacunae on modern history knowledge. You are spot on about the UK parliament rolling back legislation from the mid-late 18th century onwards.

    At the moment, my focus is the Colonial Office and cognate bureaucracies. In all the all hoo-ha over the History Wars of the 20 years or so, why has no one told us that since at least 1800 to the late 19th century, the British HATED having colonies, and reflexively put the kibosh on any schemes that involved colonial expansion.

    Rather than looking to Big Chiefs in London to understand our early history and where our national character comes from, we need to look at ourselves for those answers.

  3. Thank you Peter. On the colonies thing, there is a reason for the comment that Britain acquired an empire "in a fit of absent-mindedness". That being said, Australia was colonised for very deliberate imperial/strategic reasons. And the British were very attached to their Indian empire: much colonial policy was driven by protecting it. But most colonies were financial drains rather than benefits: like the other European imperial powers, Britain got richer as it ditched its colonies.

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