This article presents a theory of why limited representative government fails. I cannot launch into that theory without first asking the reader either to agree with me that it does fail or to accept that premise provisionally inasmuch as I intend to explain why that failure has happened.
When I say that government has failed, I mean, for one thing, that it has failed the American people at large, or that it has failed to enhance the general welfare as it makes the claim to. Government has succeeded in enriching and empowering certain specific persons and groups, but that success, from the viewpoint of the population at large, is simply evidence of failure in my terms. I also mean that limited representative government has failed on its own terms by not remaining limited.
In my estimation, the American version of limited representative government has certainly failed; and I do not think it would be difficult to reach the same conclusion for many other similarly structured governments around the world. This is not the place to argue that case. I merely point to a few facts to ease acceptance of this statement. The most obvious fact is that America no longer has limited government. Governments at all levels absorb approximately one-half of all the income produced by the American people. Next, we can recount a long list of failed government endeavors. They include, in my view, everything that government does, from a to z. But if that opinion is too extreme for many readers, then merely think about the following failures. The War on Poverty has failed. The War on Drugs has failed. The War on Terror is a consequence of failed government policies aiming at national security. Furthermore, its execution has failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense has failed; the U.S. has had a series of serious and unnecessary wars and crises from its inception. The regulation of money by a government agency has failed to produce stable money and instead has produced economic instability, including the Great Depression. Urban development engineered by government has failed. The education system run by governments is well-known to have failed our children. The Medicare system has failed. It has succeeded only in driving up costs and reducing the quality of medical care; it will soon require massive infusions of funds. The Social Security program has failed. Not only does it have numerous negative effects, but even as an investment it is producing negative returns for those who are now paying the taxes. The attempts by the government to control energy production and use have failed. The attempts to control agricultural production have failed. The space programs have failed to pay for themselves. The infrastructure of the country is deteriorating and evidences government failure. Air travel is worse than years ago and betrays failure. Household incomes have stagnated for years as a consequence of failed government economic policies. The government has failed to control immigration and the borders.
Although I believe that this government has very seriously failed at everything it has touched, I do not think it’s necessary for me to argue that limited representative government is a complete or utter failure. I accept the proposition that our constitutionally limited government has been better for us than would have been a totalitarian government or a government that imposed a command economy. This isn’t saying much. (However, I accept the likelihood proposed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that we would have been better off under a monarchy.) So when I say that our limited representative government has failed, I mean that, while better than some other even worse or dreadful alternatives, it still has not lived up either to its own charter as a limited government or to its own goal of enhancing the general welfare. On its own terms, the American form of government has failed. That is, in part, what I mean by failure. But I also think of it as a failure in absolute terms because of the dire effects that its specific failings have had on the American people. And, lastly, I think of it as a failure in terms of better forms of government that may lie ahead of us that will surpass the existing form.
As we search for a better form or forms of government, it will help us to understand why this form has failed. That is the purpose of theorizing about the failure of limited representative government.
I select two key features of our government, that, at its inception and in theory, I take to be its signal qualities. These are that its powers and scope are limited by the Constitution and that those people qualified to be voters elect representatives to make laws and govern them. The American system is much more than this. The country has been built on ideals of freedom, private property, and rule of law. Government is more complex than the two aspects of limitations and representation. Our government incorporates ideas of divided government, checks and balances, and so on. But many of those institutions were designed to fulfill a more basic theme. As I see it, the whole idea of American government was that it was to be a restrained government with limited powers and a government responsive to the people forming it. It was meant to be government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Executing that vision seemed, at the time, to require that such a government be representative or at least that was the result of the Revolution. The people would not directly govern themselves. They would choose others as their agents to do the governing, and they would exercise control over these agents by periodic elections. (I am, by the way, in this article ignoring other basic criticisms of the Constitution such as that its aim was not to produce limited government in the first place and that its validity is questionable.)
The premise of government
I come to my theory. It has four elements that together explain why limited representative government fails us. The first and most basic reason has to do with the representative part of the arrangement. The premise of our representative government is that other people than ourselves can govern us. I call this premise into question. It will appear from my list of government failures that when several thousand people elect Rep. Goodman to represent them and she collaborates with other representatives elected by other thousands of people, the resulting deliberations of the representatives do not produce government on behalf of the general welfare of all. More importantly, I say that it cannot produce such an outcome while simultaneously enhancing the general welfare and maintaining individual freedom. I say that the process of representation necessarily sacrifices both welfare and freedom. The basic reason for this is that I am the only person who has the capacity to govern myself, and the same goes for you and every other responsible adult. The other side of this coin is that a representative’s use of power to direct behavior necessarily sacrifices the interests of those who lost out in the legislative voting process.
Each of us is the only person who knows specifically what enhances our specific welfare. And each of us is the only person who freely can control our specific behavior so as to improve our welfare. We are unable (incapable) of delegating this information to others in real time as we face the changing circumstances of life. The costs of discovering and communicating this information are simply too high.
No biennial or even continual electronic polling can even come close to accomplishing such a feat. And if we transmit what information we can to others so that they may govern our behavior, we are not only giving up our freedom but also ensuring that they will fail to do what is in our interests. Even if representatives received such polling data, they would have no way of aggregating them so as to govern our behavior without harming some persons while helping others. Representatives are unable to determine individual welfare, and they cannot possibly deliver the general welfare, to the extent they can determine it, without doing violence to the individual welfare of many constituents.
I do not, as I might, need to argue that there is no such thing as the general welfare. I am not saying that each of us should go his own way and do whatever he likes in an atomistic and Hobbesian society. No, not at all. Human life is shot through and through with the need for and adoption of cooperation and coordination with others. Hobbes failed to see this. He writes: "Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man." But the facts of life are different. The occasions for managing our behavior in conjunction with others far outweigh those in which we act in entirely solitary fashion. There can be and are joint choices that bring about the general welfare of all of those choosing. And I am saying, in opposition to Hobbes, that those cooperative interactions can only be achieved and can only be successfully achieved by our direct and hands-on actions, not by the indirect method of political representation. Representatives and representative government do not achieve cooperation. They cannot do so. They achieve a semblance of cooperation, in that government will create some mutual action; but since the government will, when all is said and done, impose a solution and individuals will have to accept that decision, the result cannot even be called cooperation much less successful cooperation. Government is the opposite of cooperation. It is not mutual effort achieved harmoniously by give-and-take or teamwork or confederacy or coalition or partnership. Government simulates these things. Government imitates cooperation, but government is actually power and the use of power.
Hobbes conceived that we could not achieve cooperation without a State to keep us all in awe. He was incorrect (self-contradictory) even on his own terms because the State itself is an aggregation of men in an organization, and he assumed that it would somehow maintain itself by some cooperative means or other. He did not propose another State to control the behavior of those men in the first State. If men can cooperate within a State without being controlled, then they can cooperate without a State and don’t necessarily need it to keep them in awe.
Besides, there are strong incentives for cooperation, especially when people transact repeatedly. Cooperation in repeated games is now a well-established research finding. See here. As the author tells us, "Repeated-game theory offers a beautifully simple answer to the question of why selfish agents should cooperate: namely, they should do so to ensure continued cooperation in the future."
The alternative to representative government is self-government. The cooperation and coordination that we seek has to be sought and delivered by us as individuals, not by representatives, in order not to give up both freedom and welfare. In order to do that efficiently and effectively, I suggest that self-interested behavior such as is studied in game theory is not enough. We must develop norms of integrity and trust. We must share an appropriate ethic and/or law. There must be some source of authority in a community and it will have to manifest itself in a shared ethic, but that authority and ethic, which will be essential for self-governance to succeed and work, cannot be found, identified, devised, or implemented in a representative government. It has to lie well beyond the reach, tamperings, whims, and manipulations of representatives. It has to be stable, true, and just; and it has to lie within each person’s ken.
I am, of course, only briefly outlining what I believe is a better means of achieving the general welfare. I regard government (including limited representative government) as an ersatz self-government. It is a substitute and a makeshift, a counterfeit like its fiat money. It is a passing phase in human history. The success of the State owes to many factors, one of which is the State’s ability to imitate self-government. Even to distinguish government from self-government and present them as opposites in their essentials is made difficult because of the trappings of self-government that the State employs.
The conflict between limited and government
The second element of my theory helps explain why our limited government has failed to stay limited government. The limit in limited government is, practically speaking, almost unlimited. Why is this?
My argument assumes that human nature or the human brain operates in an intensely logical fashion. We adopt premises and then follow out their implications.
I believe that the way that we operate is basically syllogistically. Our behavior is virtually always logical and that logic can be understood in the following stylized way. It as if we adopt premises or beliefs or propositions, and that is the critical step in our thinking and behavior. After that, it as if we logically draw inferences from those premises. Those inferences then guide our behavior.
I assume that people differ mainly in their premises, but in virtually all instances of normal functioning, they process these premises in a logical way. This holds true even for many people we may regard as mentally disturbed or people whom we call insane who we know are not. If a schizophrenic person hears a voice that says "You have no left arm," that person may accept that as a premise and begin behaving as if he had no left arm. We will think that the behavior is crazy, but the schizophrenic brain is acting logically. To understand a person is to understand the premises that person holds. Once those are grasped, the behavior of that person follows logically.
Now, there is in fact some limit to following out the implications of premises. We do look at results. If by following out some premise, we encounter difficulties or fail to achieve an improvement, we may well revise that premise or drop it. We may adopt a new premise. But my emphasis on logical behavior that follows from accepted premises says that there is quite a bit of stability to our basic premises. We do not alter them quickly or lightly. Survival and success depend on adjusting to changed circumstances, and human beings do adjust. But the speed of adjustment is an empirical variable. It should be fast when a process really changes, but it should be slow when a process really does not change. Faced with a noisy environment and difficulty in knowing what’s really what, we often tend to stick to our guns. We hold onto our premises until we are quite sure that we should change them. Generals are always fighting the last wars. Speculators are always looking at the behavior of past markets. Quick adaptation to surrounding change and events is not the most common behavior.
Applied to government, this theory says that we human beings who accept the premise of external government (which is not self-government) will follow out its implications. If we accept the Constitution, then we will follow out its implications. If it contains within it the seeds of unlimited government, then we will follow them out because we accept the basic premise of obeying the Constitution. There are limits, as I said, and the War for Southern Independence showed that such limits existed in the minds of many just as they do today. However, the end result in 1865 was a re-affirmation of the Constitution. Subsequently we have followed out its implications relentlessly, even if that required heavy doses of Supreme Court interpretations and the unopposed expansions of executive and legislative powers. The limits in government proved to be highly movable, elastic, and extendible.
If we accept the premise that other people than ourselves can govern us, which is indeed our most basic premise, then we will follow out the implications of that premise. What are they? This premise suggests that it is better and right for us to turn our own government over to other people. This is what having a "government" means. We shall therefore have no objection if that government governs, and if its scope over our lives increases, we will have a tendency to accept that as beneficial and proper. It is an implication of this premise that others are better equipped to govern us than ourselves. Our logical facility goes to work once we accept the premise of (external) government as opposed to self-government. We accept more and more government. We allow others more and more to rule us and order our behavior.
Once we accept the premise of government, even if it be limited government, we tend to follow out the implication of having others govern us, which is that more government is desirable. The two concepts, limited and government, logically conflict with one another. If we the people have in mind the limiting of government as a premise, that notion is closer to self-government. But if we choose to have government at all as a premise, it is not self-government. There is a definite conflict in premises here. The most likely result of this conflict is that one of the premises will tend to be submerged or forgotten or eliminated. We cannot behave in two conflicting ways at the same time. Another possibility is that our behavior will alternate, depending on which premise comes to the forefront.
This conflict between limited government and simply government has evidently been resolved in favor of dropping the limited part in favor of the government part. One reason for this is that those whom we elect have a bias toward using and expanding government, while we have a tendency to accept the government we grow up with (discussed below). They believe in government, which is why they are in it. They have a tendency to soft-pedal the limited aspect in favor of actions that expand the government. They have the power to expand that government, and they have innumerable devices and tools to accomplish that. Meanwhile, we who have deputed them to govern tend to accept the resulting government as a logical consequence of having a government in the first place.
Voting plays a part in this acceptance. By voting, we can maintain the fiction that we are in control over the government. We can imagine that government is limited. We can view the voting cum government as a species of self-government, rather than the imitation that it is.
A basic reason why we have big government is that we have accepted the premise of government.
Two psychological factors
The third and fourth reasons why limited representative government has failed have to do with human psychology. I focus on one psychological element in the governed and another one in the governors.
We who are governed have a tendency to accept the society around us. Whether this is inherent in human nature or taught or both, it is there. Whether it is a matter of rational economic calculation, it is there. Most of us do not make waves. We take society and government as given and we work within that context. We accept the status quo.
If we come into a society with small government most of us tend to accept it. If we come into a society with big government, most of us tend to accept that. If we come into a society that accepts government per se, then most of us will accept that. Furthermore, that tendency to accept will be reinforced by social norms and by various rationalizations. Hence, even though government is failing us, we tend to accept the premise of government by others of ourselves and we tend to follow out the implication of that premise, which is that more and more government is a good thing.
The fourth element I shall point to is the will to power that is present in human beings and particularly present in those who seek office. It is not even necessary for me to construe this will to power as a negative thing or as a will to dominate others in order to explain the impetus for limited government to fall by the wayside and for the representatives to gain more and more power. The offices-seekers can all be altruists or do-gooders. They can all believe that they are acting in the best interests of the American people or mankind as a whole. What is required in their psychology is simply that they believe in government. They believe in the use of power. And they seek office because they have a greater measure of the will to exercise that power. Once in office, they exercise that power and, because they regard it as a good thing, seek to expand that power. The result of the presence of government combined with the human will to power is that government expands its scope.
Summary and conclusion
Government has failed us. Our limited representative government has failed us. Government fails.
Historically, we have assumed that government is a good idea. By government we have meant choosing other people to govern us and giving them the power to do so. We have thought that this is self-government, but it is not. It is the opposite of self-government.
Having adopted the premise of government, we have logically followed out the implication that government is a means to achieve such ends as the general welfare. The premise of government being good has been our religion and we have followed it religiously. We have retained and expanded government. This process of expansion was helped along by our tendency to accept the society and government around us and by the tendency of those in government to expand the powers that they seek to hold and exercise.
We thought that we could have limited government, but these two terms are in conflict. We resolved that conflict by dropping the limited concept and retaining the government concept.
When we the people accept the premise of representative government, we are making a fateful decision. We are accepting a method of pseudo-cooperation, pseudo-freedom, and pseudo-welfare improvement. Representative government does not deliver freedom, welfare improvement, or cooperation. To achieve these, we need a different premise. We need self-government.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.