A strange story echoed in Newsweek suggests that many people have not reflected on how democratic politics works, or perhaps they confuse politics as they think it should be with what it actually is. The magazine writes (“Donald Trump Threatened With New Investigation,” May 11, 2024):

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, has threatened former President Donald Trump with a new investigation into his reported promises to Big Oil.

The Washington Post reported this week of a deal that Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, reportedly offered to top oil executives at a Mar-a-Lago dinner last month—raise $1 billion for his campaign and he will reverse dozens of President Joe Biden’s environmental regulations and prevent new rules, according to people with knowledge of the dinner.

According to the Post’s sources, Trump said gifting him $1 billion would be a “deal,” because of the taxation and regulations they wouldn’t have to worry about if he was in office. …

“Put those things together and it starts to look mighty damn corrupt,” Whitehouse said.

In reality, bribes, solicited or offered, are the bread and butter of politicians. They promise political goodies in return for one form of support or another, or they respond to interest groups’ support with favorable interventions. These deals represent the political form of economic exchange, which is why public choice theorists speak of the “political market.”

Joe Biden openly seeks the support of trade union apparatchiks and members in return for “worker-centric” policies. Perhaps Donald Trump is just more transparent. And he plays the game on the side of different special interests—although, as any populist worth his salt, he also tries to bribe workers with tariffs imposed on consumers and on importing businesses. A qualification is needed: a political bribe aimed at extending freedom of contract to everybody equally—which we don’t see very often these days—should not be condemned. It is the system creating this necessity that is condemnable.

Political bribing also occurs when a politician offers a certain class of voters to favor their interests or opinions or sentiments—and they are often the same thing—in exchange for their support for his own interest in the perks of power. Bribing is at the core of majoritarian politics. The consequences for public and private ethics, and for the survival of a free society, are far from insignificant.

The more power the state has, the more widespread such legal corruption becomes. A defining characteristic of the classical liberal and libertarian tradition has been to argue against state power, democratic or not.

James Buchanan, the 1986 Nobel laureate in economics, proposed one way of solution through the “constitutional political economy” that developed on the foundations of public-choice economics. The solution revolves around constitutional limits on day-to-day politics and is precisely meant to stop the negative-sum game of redistribution and exploitation of political losers by political winners. Buchanan and his collaborators argued that it is only at the level of constitutional rules unanimously accepted in a virtual social contract that political exchange can be non-exploitative; at this level (the “constitutional stage”), he argues, politics resembles an economic exchange in everybody’s interest. It is not exploitative because, in theory, any individual can oppose his veto to a system of rules that would have larger costs than benefits for him. (See his The Limits of Liberty, his seminal The Calculus of Consent with Gordon Tullock; and his The Reason of Rules with Geoffrey Brennan; the links are to my reviews of these books.)

The most radical and subversive attack against majoritarian politics from an avowedly liberal viewpoint can be found in the writings of another economist and political philosopher, Anthony de Jasay, including in his appropriately titled book Against Politics (link to my review).

If we wish to round up the picture of the main strands of liberal political philosophy in the 20th century, we might add Friedrich Hayek’s critique of majoritarian democracy. In pursuit of expediency (cost-benefit analysis writ large), democratic politics destroys the traditional rule of law that generated an auto-regulated social order. (See notably his Rules and Order and The Mirage of Social Justice; links to my reviews.)


Politician bribing the voters he needs to be in power

Politician bribing the voters he needs to be in power (By Pierre Lemieux and DALL-E)