A Communist representative in the French National Assembly, André Chassaigne, probably expresses what many if not most people believe, in America as in France—that the role of politics is to respond to the needs of people. Is there anything wrong with that? Mr. Chassaigne just declared in an interview (Le Point, January 17, 2022):

The rejection of political discourse … comes from the fact that politics has lost part of its ethics. … It ignores the fundamentals, which are to respond to the needs of people.

Le rejet de la parole politique […] vient du fait que la politique a perdu de son éthique. […] Elle ignore les fondamentaux qui consistent à répondre aux besoins des gens.

Along the same lines, George W. Bush famously declared, “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

This is a fundamental point. The error lies in the failure to realize that the way government responds to the needs of people is, most of the times, by catering to some needs of some individuals to the detriment of other needs of other individuals. In order to give to some, the state must take from others. In order to help some satisfy their needs, the state must prevent others from satisfying theirs. The harmed individuals bring up their grievances and, in their turn, demand some privileges that will hurt somebody else. And so forth, up to the point where everybody is both assisted and harmed, a phenomenon called “churning.” An individual balance sheet is generally impossible to calculate except for some long-term government favorites.

Dissension within le peuple de gauche (“the people of the left”), as they say in France, made more visible by the upcoming presidential election, illustrates a fact too seldom emphasized: every socialist (or, for that matter, every statist of the right) thinks that it is his own preferences that would be catered to under his preferred regime. But if they understandably don’t agree among themselves, how can they hope to satisfy “the needs of people”? Individual preferences are different.

Friedrich Hayek believed that the political differences between socialists and classical liberals did not come from conflicting values, but from intellectual errors over how society works and how it is impossible for the state to bring everybody to nirvana; he dedicated his The Road to Serfdom [University of Chicago Press, 1947], “to the socialists of all parties,” and it was not sarcastic. Mr. Chassaigne falls into the errors that Hayek was trying to explain. It is no secret that economic illiteracy is deeper in France than in America.

The “needs of people” in an ad-hoc-policy sense has no ascertainable meaning except to the extent that political authority—politicians and bureaucrats or, at best, a numerical majority—determines what they are. In a free society, each individual decides what trade-offs he will make among all the things he “needs,” and brings his demand on the market, where is it in most cases better satisfied there than at a government window. (The featured image of this post is from a Venezuelan grocery store in 2015: socialism for the 21st century…).

The invocation of ethics by Mr. Chassaigne may be sincere, although “ethics” is not a Marxist category. However, invoking ethics in the political world is generally an indirect way to stake a claim on resources, affirm the priority of the speaker’s preferences, signal virtue, or move voters. Distinguishing between the positive analysis of the consequences of individual or collective choices on the one hand and, on the other hand, ethical values is not an easy task. It helps to be cognizant of the ideas of classical-liberal political economists over the past three centuries.

Given a theoretically realistic view of how society works, one can ask whether individual demands for some goods or services can be better satisfied by politics than by voluntary trade and free interindividual cooperation. This is the million-dollar question among classical liberals and libertarians. With a few exceptions (including Anthony de Jasay), they have answered positively but with the condition that government power and action be strictly constrained (James Buchanan is especially interesting). In this perspective, the question is not how government policies can cater to people’s needs, but whether and how government can help maintain an autoregulated order where individuals and private groups can peacefully pursue their different goals.