When a politician declares that he is “ready to govern,” what does he mean by “govern”? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the verb “to govern” came from a French word and first appeared in English in the 14th century. In its intransitive form, it meant “to direct or control the actions and affairs of a people or place” (OED, accessed on July 2, 2024).

What we may call the naïve conception of governing sees it as a way to please everybody, to make everybody happier. But it is not obvious how individuals with different preferences, values, and circumstances can all be made happier by the government’s decisions and policies. Moreover, how are the rulers incentivized to be benevolent angels? What we know from history shows the opposite.

The more realistic majoritarian conception of governing focuses on satisfying a majority of the members of society, presumably the group of voters whose support the rulers need most. Majoritarian democracy means that the majority is little restrained by a constitution. If you are in a minority, there is a good probability that you will be exploited by the majority, that is, you will pay (in money, discrimination, or otherwise) for the benefits and privileges offered to the majority. Note that non-democratic governments often need to respond to the demands of a majority or a significant plurality. In a democratic regime, however, a minority citizen has a better chance to be part of a future majority and have his turn at exploiting others.

The majoritarian conception of governing is questionable from both an economic and a moral viewpoint. From a moral viewpoint, some individuals may get stuck in a permanent minority and never have their turn at governing and exploiting others. From an economic viewpoint, being alternatively or cyclically among the exploiters and the exploited may average out with a net benefit, but the average is calculated on a lower level of wealth. The reason is that the ruling majority’s constant interference with free exchange and free social interaction in general (which is what exploitation is about) reduces the general level of wealth.

A more sophisticated conception of governing can be labeled “public-good” or “contractarian.” Governing then means directing a subset of social affairs so as to ensure the production of public goods (or services), goods that everybody wants but which cannot be procured at an “efficient” level by voluntary cooperation.

We may view the idea of a “social contract” in its liberal version as an extension of the public good approach. Governing amounts to directing or orienting social affairs according to general rules that its members unanimously agree on. Unanimous agreement to a set of rules (the “constitution”) implies that each and every member of society gets a net benefit, even if specific political decisions under the rules may sometimes run against his interests. Nobody can be consistently exploited. We owe the best-developed form of this conception to James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and the related school of constitutional political economy (see notably James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, 1962; and Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan, The Reason of Rules, 1985). Many, perhaps most, liberal thinkers, from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek, can be understood as espousing a related but less formalized theory in which any act of government must respect rules and institutions that meet wide agreement (where “wide” means much more than 50%+1).

However attractive is the formal or informal contractarian approach, is it realistic to think that subjecting to a government can be in the interest of virtually everybody? For Anthony de Jasay, the answer is no. Any coercive act of government and even any general rule or set of rules supposedly unanimous must favor some citizens and harm others. There is no way but the arbitrariness of political authority to decide that the benefits of some are higher than the costs supported by others (see notably de Jasay’s 1985 book The State). To govern means nothing else than to favor some by harming others—taking money from some to transfer it to others, or granting privileges to some (a tariff to protect some producers against their foreign competitors, for example) at the cost of others (consumers pay higher prices). The government may be producing public goods at a level otherwise impossible to attain, but it then becomes the locus where free riders get free goods at the expense of other taxpayers (see de Jasay’s Social Contract, Free Ride, 1992).

De Jasay’s theory is consistent with current observations in the democratic world: a significant part of the population hate their democratic rulers, and more governing to solve public discontent only worsens it. Although many aspects of his theory are debatable, I don’t think that the challenges it raises have been persuasively met.

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I asked ChatGPT, “What does ‘governing’ or ‘to govern’ mean, as when we say that political leaders govern?” To summarize, he answered that the purpose of the rulers is “to ensure the stability, security, and welfare of their society.” But he admitted that “governing requires balancing various interests, making difficult decisions.” In other words, harming some to favor others. I then instructed “him”: “Generate an image illustrating the concept of governing you just explained.” The image he produced is as confused as his conception of democracy.

Chat GPT's first image after being asked to illustrate what governing means, as when we say that political leaders govern

Chat GPT’s first image after being asked to illustrate what governing means, as when we say that political leaders govern