The United States government, as well as the governments at the lower levels are supposed to be governments of the people, by the people, and for the people. We have long since left the realm of the last of these three ideals. I’d change it to read government “to the people” rather than “for” the people as a quick rundown of the special privileges granted to corporations and favored individuals will quickly show. Adam Smith was aware of this problem over 200 years ago.
I have long since abandoned dreaming that government exists to serve the general interest and have turned my attention to why that is the case. Clearly the public choice school of economics explains a good deal of this. However, I think a simple statistical problem lies at the base of the issue.
The folks that are in government are not representative of the population they represent. This is not news to many folks, in particular because they understand that elected officials are typically more (formally) educated, and are wealthier than the representative American. But the representation problem is far more severe. Think about the types of people that want to get into government. These include those that are interested in wielding enormous amounts of power, those that are interested in reshaping society, those that are interested in writing or rewriting the rules of the game to work better, those that are interested in making the economy work for everyone, those that have the money to buy their way into the system, and maybe a few people who actually are trying hard to represent their constituents better.
In other words, the folks that run for and accede to elected office have to be more statist than the typical American. It is what draws them into politics in the first place. And this is true whether the officials are Republican or Democrat. Folks that are not as politically or statist oriented choose not to enter politics, or not make long careers in politics. They would prefer to spend their time as teachers, social workers, entrerpeneurs, cube-farm residents, and so forth. Even if the latter are politically oriented and motivated, by virtue of their choice not to enter politics, it reveals that being active politically as a representative is not as important as other aspects of their lives.
Hence, the “electorate” is less statist than the people they are electing. I’d go one further and argue that the people who choose not to vote are less statist than the “electorate” choosing the people in office. Generally half of Americans do not vote.
The point being that we get a lot more statist intervention than the “typical” American (no such thing exists) would prefer. The implications are obvious. There are a large number of reforms which would make sense given this difference in sentiment between the “people” and the people supposedly representing their interests. The founders tried (unsuccessfully) to deal with some of this. Generally, restricting the power government officials wield over their uninterested subjects is the goal, but how to get there is another story.
This idea is a much more general one. It is why people seem to think there is more polarization in ideas out there today – it is the folks that are passionate about their politics making the noise in print or on screen, and the folks that are not, well, they do not. It is the same reason why it is hard to conlcude from looking at test score data or job market outcomes why private colleges appear to be better than public ones, or why certain public K12 systems outperform others. It might be the case that certain schools improve outcomes for a group of students vis-a-vis other schools, but it is also possible that better students with better backgrounds attend certain schools – causing us to conflate the effects of the individuals on outcomes with the institutional effects. We call these “selection” problems. And the problem with government is that more statist oriented individuals “select” themselves into government positions – and it is not clear then how well our political institutions represent the true desires and preferences of the “people.”
This is yet one more reason why Democracy is not the holy grail for folks like me. Even if having a voice matters (I don’t think it does, I’d prefer choice to just voice), when the “system” selects for representatives that are not representative, what does it matter if I get to vote for them, or whether they assume power over me through some other means?