Public Choice and the expansion of the government

Why government expands is an important point of discussion in the public choice literature. (Public choice being the application of economic tools onto the realm of political theory and practice.) This question has often been asked by economists and occasionally there is an answer that makes sense, but rarely can we account for all of government growth through the use of a singular theory.

Donald Wittman claims to provide an overarching, mono-causal theory of government expansion: it’s because the people, the voters, want government to expand. An increase in the role government is the reflection of the will of the voters and this expansion supposedly leads to the lowering of transaction costs or opportunity costs of the constituency. Bryan Caplan, Wittman’s nemesis, says that this theory is wrong since we know that voters are absolutely underinformed; he claims that it is too costly for voters to gain information and that there is relatively little benefit to having that information. The logic of collective action is in full swing.

A second theory, purported by Robert Higgs, claims that government has grown during times of emergency and afterwards fails to shrink back down to its previous size. Higgs calls this his “ratchet-model” of government expansion. It can be seen through the lens of history: the US government rapidly expanded during the World Wars and after each of them were over, the size of the federal government shrunk somewhat but never back to the size it was before the onset of war. During each of these national “emergencies,” the government takes on extra roles and duties not previously delegated, only to refuse to relinquish them once the need for that role being filled is over. Whether the government should have occupied that set of duties in the first place is a different question. The ratchet model fails to take into account countries that have not experienced world wars or other national emergencies but have still grown nonetheless.

A third theory of government expansion has been cited by Tyler Cowen. His theory, unlike the previous two, is not mono-causal, but only relates a part of the story. Cowen claims that as technology has advanced, the cost of governing has decreased. This, in turn, has lead to an expansion of powers to places that were previously too costly to govern. Cars, highways, and air travel made far away places accessible within hours or days instead of weeks. Telephones and internet made communication instantaneous. Much of the technical innovation lowers the transaction costs of implementing policies. I am partial to this explanation of government expansion, though, it must be kept in mind that this is only a small part of the story.

Lately, I have been wondering about a more endogenous model of government expansion. Many of us who study public choice often look at the incentive structures of policy and the public realm, but sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. In a democracy, government might expand due to the opinion of the majority at the expense of the minority. Such a case has been theorized since Madison’s Federalist 51 and has been often repeated in various circles as outside threats arise. Madison says, “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”

I think it is improbable that a society can exist for long without having the majority take over large parts of governance without some minority bearing some cost. This is especially true when the minority can be seen as the outgroup. This has been a defining part of history. Many societies have increased the burden on the fringes and minorities of their civilization to prop up the rest or to simply keep the other group down. Medieval Europe, South Africa, Japan, China, the Aztec Empire, the United States, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the list goes on, have engaged in these kinds of actions. Not every policy action is a pareto improvement, so, someone is hurt, at least in the short run, each time a new policy comes out. What makes this viewpoint different is that entire groups pay the price instead of a small collection of individuals who have no connection other than interest.

The possibility from this kind of policy endeavor rises from the formation of large groups who can at any one time control the majority. Madison continues, “Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” If there are not enough interests shared by enough groups and large bundles are instead monopolized under the umbrella of an uber Gruppen, we get a system that prioritizes the majority. In a duopoly, one group can claim to prioritize the wants of the minorities it supposedly represents, but given the a prior fractures among groups this will achieve little and may exacerbate the polarization and fracture of a society. This is especially true of democratic societies in which the median voter model holds true.

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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