President-elect Donald Trump ran his entire campaign as a renegade outsider. A man who has never held a political office is now our new president. Part of his allure is that he spoke to a class of voters who feel marginalized and disenfranchised by elite Washington insiders on both the Right and the Left.
It is reasonable for middle-class and working-class Americans to feel disenfranchised, because in Washington the elites typically mingle and consort only with each other.
Part of Trump’s rise to power is that he ran on a campaign that denounced the cronyism at the very heart of American politics. Trump spoke directly to marginalized voters and claimed that if he won he would “drain the swamp,” which means ejecting all Washington insiders.
Much is yet to come in terms of who Trump will ultimately surround himself with, and the world — as well as his voters — will be watching. But public choice theory helps us understand that we should be skeptical of the idea that one president can overturn the insider institutions of Washington.
Public officials make private decisions.
Public choice is a discipline in economics which uses the tools and assumptions of economics and applies them to understanding exchange within political institutions. Historically, political theorists have often assumed that political leaders, once in office, can magically become devoid of their own interests and instead assume the “will of the people.”
Public choice turns these old political theories on their heads by assuming one important thing: individuals make “public” decisions the same way they make “private” decisions. In other words, the decisions people make in politics are based on their own subjective desires, their own self-interest, their own limited knowledge, and their own limited resources.
At the end of the day, we are all self-interested people living in a world of scarcity, and we respond to the incentives that we face.
The lesson of public choice then is not so much about the particular people (insiders or outsiders) holding office in political institutions but the institutions themselves. Do those institutions serve as effective constraints on the self-interest of the people who populate them?
Gators don’t drain swamps.
While “draining the swamp” sounds like a good idea, it’s the swamp itself we need to worry about. What mechanisms stop the lure of political power? How can we take men and women on their worst days and use effective constraints to ensure that their lust for power (a natural tendency) does not allow them to become cronies and political tyrants?
The best mechanism for this is to limit government in both size and scope. This goes well beyond Trump’s call to “drain the swamp.” And sadly, the very people who we would call on to reform these corrupt political institutions are the very people who benefit from the current institutional matrix.
Political incentives are difficult to change. Another lesson of public choice that flows from this is that we should be very cautious about what we agitate for in terms of broadening state power, because once it is established, it is hard to upend.
Donald Trump has had both political insiders like Rudolph Giuliani and outsiders like former Cato Institute president John Allison on his list for top positions.
For liberty-minded individuals, getting principled people in positions of power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for greater liberty in the long run. We must transform the institutions that exacerbate the asymmetry of power.
Limiting government can limit the damage.
We can reflect on the wisdom of F.A. Hayek, who, when reflecting on the contributions of Adam Smith, wrote this:
The main point about which there can be little doubt is that Smith’s chief concern was not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid.… The chief concern of the great individualist writers was indeed to find a set of institutions by which man could be induced, by his own choice and from the motives which determined his ordinary conduct, to contribute as much as possible to the need of all others; and their discovery was that the system of private property did provide such inducements to a much greater extent than had yet been understood. (F.A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order, 1948, 11–13)
Hayek and Smith before him understood that private property is the best bulwark against the real threat of growing tyranny. If political agents can rig the rules, and in doing so negate or weaken each person’s claim to their own property and investment, those agents’ political power will continue to grow.
Draining the swamp may be a popular political slogan, but unless the swamp is restructured and significantly reduced, even the best of us on our worst days will use political office to enhance our power at the expense of others.