Taming Leviathan

STANFORD – A successful society needs effective, affordable government to perform its necessary functions well, and that includes sufficient revenue to fund those functions. But a government that grows too large, centralized, bureaucratic, and expensive substantially impairs the private economy by eroding individual initiative and responsibility; crowding out private investment, consumption, and charity; and damaging incentives with high tax rates. It also risks crowding out necessary government functions such as defense. That is today’s Europe in a nutshell, with America not far behind.

The recent death of James M. Buchanan, the father of public-choice economics, is reason to reflect on his sage warnings. Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for bringing to the study of government and the behavior of government officials the same rigorous analysis that economists had long applied to private economic decision-making. Buchanan concluded that politicians’ pursuit of self-interest inevitably leads to poor outcomes.

Buchanan’s analysis stood in marked contrast not only to Adam Smith’s dictum that the pursuit of self-interest leads, as if “by an invisible hand,” to desirable social outcomes, but also to the prevailing approach to policy analysis, which views government as a benevolent planner, implementing textbook “solutions” to market failures.

According to this view, if markets do not fully internalize all of the costs of private action – environmental pollution is a classic example – some “optimal” tax or subsidy supposedly can correct the problem. So, if a monopoly is restricting output and raising prices, regulate firms and industries. When weak demand leads to recession, increase government spending and/or cut taxes by just the right amount, determined by a Keynesian multiplier, and – presto! – the economy rebounds quickly.