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Democracy and Individual Interest

By Taylor Marvin

Matt Yglesias doesn’t buy into the idea that Americans have a deep skepticism in the ability of the government to run itself effectively:

“That broad-based skepticism of government is, of course, why the Obama Era has also witnessed a broad-based public backlash against unrestrained government surveillance powers, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, public demands that Obama cut Medicare benefits more sharply. That’s why a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana passed easily in California, and public momentum is growing to get Big Government off our southern borders and let people travel back and forth more easily.

I would say the main story of the Obama years has to do with people’s trust in other people. Most Americans are white, most Americans have health insurance, most Americans are native-born citizens, most Americans aren’t Muslims, and over the course of the Great Recession most Americans have become more suspicious that they live in a zero-sum world where any effort to improve the condition of other people will come at their expense.”

This is a bit simplistic. There really isn’t a logical contradiction between people supporting a reduction in the size of the federal government yet happily spending their Medicare and Social Security entitlements. People, with good reason, define good governance by what improves their individual welfare the most. Personal government transfers clearly do, and under simple, mostly emotional analysis policies that enhance social welfare like open international trade, reduction of government debt through entitlement cuts, and de-escalating the drug war don’t. Under this logic citizens have much more of an incentive to lobby for the continuation of policies that they believe directly affect them rather than, say, closing Guantanamo Bay. Of course this isn’t logical if individuals care about the welfare of the country over themselves, but there isn’t necessarily a contradiction in supporting policies that benefit yourself at the expense of the wider country. This isn’t an incentive that will go away, and is part of the reason why democracies have so much trouble eliminating the types of focused entitlements that are costly to society as a whole but benefit specific constituencies- agriculture subsidies are a good example of this. Policies that benefit specific groups aren’t always in the net benefit of society, and policies that a benefit everyone almost never exist. People act and vote in their own interest, and for policies to be successful democratic politicians have to design them so they appeal to voters’ personal interests as much as possible. Of course this is rarely practical. The incentive to act in your individual interest is probably the greatest strength of a market economy and the great weakness of democratic government- the contradiction in this is what makes democracy so fascinating.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments on this situation as well as the interesting facts. Thanks.

    January 5, 2011

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