None of Us Are Angels
An old thought: Were we all angels, we wouldn’t need government. Indeed, were we angels, it wouldn’t matter what kind of government we had.
But we’re not angels. We have limitations. Each one of us judges according to our own context-ridden conception of advantage and value, bound by our differing perspectives and situations. Despite our love for others, that love isn’t infinite and it doesn’t often trump our perceived self-interests, and it certainly isn’t angelically unlimited.
So we need something very much like government, and that government needs limits.
We need protection from criminals, but we also need protection from those who would protect us, who can — with “government power” — usurp their roles and become criminal themselves.
This is, I repeat, a very old thought.
Yet it seemed new when James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock advanced something very much like it with their book The Calculus of Consent, and in the many great contributions of their separate careers.
James M. Buchanan died this Wednesday. Before his contributions, economists typically assumed that public servants would swoop in like saving angels, setting the world aright according to the latest mathematical models, disinterestedly, without partisan passion or individual error.
Naive in the extreme.
Thanks to Buchanan, economists today occasionally go so far to confess that though markets often “fail,” merely appointing government to “fix” markets can put us in a bigger fix, since government failure is rampant. Government isn’t magic. It doesn’t change our natures for the better merely by being instituted, or by being called “government.” Power still corrupts, and economists now have to deal with that ugly but unavoidable fact.
By showing us that we’re no angels, Buchanan put himself on the side of the angels.
This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.