Public Choice in a Nutshell

Government officials are happy making and executing plans that affect the lives of millions, but when things go wrong, well … they’re willing to accept the responsibility, but they’re not willing to take the blame. What’s the difference? People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are “responsible,” do not. The blame, such as it is, winds up deflected on to The System, or something else suitably abstract.

But when you cut the linkage between outcomes and experience, you make learning much more difficult. When you were a toddler learning to walk, you fell down a lot. This was unpleasant: shocking, at least, and often painful. Thus, you learned to fall down a lot less often.

But imagine if falling down didn’t hurt. You wouldn’t have learned not to fall, or at least, you would have accumulated a lot more bruises along the way.

This is from an excellent (and short) op/ed by Instapundit Glenn Reynolds in USA Today. The title: “Penalties for Politicians.”

How did this incentive system come about? Reynolds writes:

The problem is that they don’t have, in President Obama’s words, “skin in the game.” When it comes to actual wrongdoing, they’re shielded by doctrines of “absolute immunity” (for the president) and “qualified immunity” (for lesser officials). This means that the president can’t be sued for anything he does as president, while lower-ranking officials can’t be sued so long as they can show that they were acting in a “good faith” belief that they were following the law.

Such defenses aren’t available to the rest of us. And they’re not even the product of legislation passed by Congress after considered judgment — they’re judicially created. (Judges gave themselves absolute immunity, too, for good measure.)

Reynolds goes on to advocate some changes in the incentive systems facing politicians. His changes might make sense but I would want to think carefully about the unintended consequences that might arise and I would also want changes that could actually be enforced. For example, his proposal that the U.S. president not be allowed to travel when there’s not a budget could cause the president to sign on to almost anything if he likes travel enough. Also, who would enforce this provision? Eric Holder?

I’ve written previously about one huge bad incentive facing U.S. presidents, an incentive that President Ford helped create and that President Obama added to.