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Eamonn Butler: Disillusionment with politicians is so great there is serious talk of clipping their wings

BUTLER EAMONNDr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute. His new book Public Choice – A Primer is published by the Institute of Economic Affairs and can be downloaded for free here.

For most people, politics is an utter turn-off. We are all exhorted to take more interest in our community and how our country is governed – and in the debates about our schools, the health service or roads. But few people actually do. Why is that, when so much is at stake? Why do we leave the future of our nation and our institutions to the few?

Partly because we feel that getting involved in politics will not make a scrap of difference. It is more likely that you will be run over on your way to the polling station than that your vote would actually make a difference. The question isn’t exactly ‘Why take the risk?’, but it certainly is ‘Why bother?’ And it is a question that increasing numbers of people ask themselves: despite all the efforts to make us vote, fewer and fewer of us do.

Perhaps we figure that, even if by some million-to-one chance our vote did make the difference in an election, the people we elect would still do pretty much the same. Like pre-revolution France and Russia, we seem to be governed by a completely separate class – not a hereditary aristocracy, but an elected one. Politicians have become full-time political professionals. Officials act like our masters rather than as our servants. Journalists trade favourable stories for information, in the kind of insider trading that would land any businessperson in jail – but not politicians or spin-doctors, it seems.

We see politicians’ decisions as far more likely to reflect their own interests or the demands (and party donations) from lobby groups than anything we voters are likely to say. Noisy minorities grab the headlines and politicians rush to placate them. Who bothers about the silent majority?

But none of this comes as a surprise to economists. They see the marketplace as something in which people jostle and haggle and bargain in order to serve their own interests. And they see politics as just another marketplace in which much the same happens. Indeed, there is a whole ‘school’ of economists devoted to studying this phenomenon – the so-called Public Choice school, the subject of my new primer published by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The problems start, actually, with us as we vote at elections. (‘Don’t vote,’ said the 60s poster. ‘It only encourages them!’) Quite. But elections, we are told, are ways of identifying the public mood, so our leaders can identify the ‘public interest’.

Hardly, say Public Choice economists. Voters have many, competing interests. Like a sheep and two wolves deciding on what to have for supper, the majority wins every time, though the outcome can be messy.

It is not obvious that what 51% of the public want is necessarily superior to what the other 49% want, but that is politics. And precisely because the stakes are so high – win, and you control two-fifths of national activity, lose and you merely get to pay for it – that elections get captured by interest groups. It is economic common sense. Each vested-interest group might be small, but by supporting each other, they can win a majority. Then they can all get their snouts in the public-money trough.

The politicians we elect work the same way. Each votes for the others’ pet public-spending schemes, so they are all happy. The only unhappy folk are the taxpaying public, who end up with far more government than they want.

And whose interests are the political class really interested in? Their own, just like the rest of us, say the Public Choice economists. Lobby groups wine and dine them, in the hope of winning subsidies and special privileges in return – what the economists call ‘rent seeking’. Lobby groups like trade unions control votes too – and politicians need votes. It is institutionalised corruption, but to politicians (and officials) and lobbyists, it is big business.

Politicians are loudly praised for spending money, but rarely for saving it. The lobbyists are loud, and the silent majority is, sadly, silent. So it is the big-spending politicians who enjoy the promotions, the higher salaries, the limos, the fawning and the retirement sinecures.

But then who ever said that political decisions were rational? Markets may not be perfect, but before we try to ‘correct’ them, we should reflect that public decision-making is often less perfect still.

Of course, those in power would prefer to keep that quiet. Nor do they welcome proposals to curb their power – constitutional restraints, say, or term limits, open primaries, public borrowing caps, or two-thirds majorities on critical issues. And, of course, it is those in power who decide.

At present. But the political class have overdone their power trip. We have become so disillusioned by them that there is serious talk of clipping their wings. Not before time.


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