On a cause of corruption in popular governments.

After giving a lengthy discourse on the rise and extent of the decadence of popular government (with a focus on the rise of the regulatory state), Jacques Barzun concludes to the formula that the moment when good intentions exceeded the power [of the average reasonable person] to fulfill them marked the onset of decadence. There is evidence in Barzun’s discourse that this moment is very difficult to avoid, and that this formula indicates a way in which popular governments contain the seeds of their own collapse into decadence. So how does this corruption happen?

There is a fundamental desire in popular government to ensure fair play and equal access, and this requires regulation. There nevertheless remains a perpetual genius for a.) extending the scope of what will count as fair play and equal access (the gradual extension of rights) and b.) discovering ways to cut off persons from a fair share and equal access (new modes of fraud, monopoly, or impinging on the ever expanding notion of right). Both give rise to diverse sorts of regulation to ensure justice and punish crime, and the perpetual genius to extend equality or outwit the system lead to more and more regulation. At some point, the good intentions of the regulators amass to the point that no reasonable person can be expected to make his way through the labyrinth of regulation, and at this point the government is no longer a popular government. Thus the very regulations made to ensure the equal ability of everyone to compete amass to where they become an impediment to the ability of persons to compete.

This is not an argument for libertarian deregulation. It is, in fact, a claim that such deregulation is not effective, since it claims that the very process of ensuring justice in a popular government involves a ratchet-effect of regulation that is ultimately incompatible with popular government, since at some point the ratchet turns past the point where we could expect a majority of the people to maneuver their way through the regulations. The system of regulations we have in place for opening a business seem to have reached this point: who but the most intelligent and/ or motivated could figure out and accomplish everything needed to open a business? The same thing is true of political office: who in the world knows what one has to do to get nominated for an office? There are, of course, people who know what to do – but does anyone think that an average person knows what to do? I doubt that I’ve ever met anybody who could tell me the concrete steps one would have to take to run for a congressional seat or open up a McDonald’s.

There are degrees of decadence and loss of popular government. Clearly, businesses still open and people still get elected. But at some point it is no longer true to say that the people can do these things, even if there are new businesses everywhere and many reversals of political fortune made by popular vote. A hundred new big corporate businesses – even with all their popular benefits and attractions – don’t go very far to showing that the people have the power to open a business; and the power to “vote the bastards out” or enjoy the hopeful euphoria of electing someone who exceeds all our expectations does not prove that the people have the power to run for office. Again, the standard is not that everyone should be intelligent or motivated or connected enough to run, but at some point the intelligence, motivation, or resources required become so prohibitive that any claim to having a popular government is a sham.

When the people have no power in a society that still sees value in equal access for all to the levers of power, the system is by definition corrupt and the citizens hypocrites.  This is the decadence that promises to collapse into either a revolution or quiet death.

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3 Comments

  1. Jennifer said,

    July 28, 2011 at 4:50 am

    “This is not an argument for libertarian deregulation. It is, in fact, a claim that such deregulation is not effective, since it claims that the very process of ensuring justice in a popular government involves a ratchet-effect of regulation that is ultimately incompatible with popular government, since at some point the ratchet turns past the point where we could expect a majority of the people to maneuver their way through the regulations. ”

    So what is the argument FOR?

  2. July 28, 2011 at 6:14 am

    (like your blog, BTW. On another note, my wife is also a Ph. D with three kids and one on the way.)

    It’s an argument “that the very process of ensuring justice in a popular government involves a ratchet-effect of regulation that is ultimately incompatible with popular government, since at some point the ratchet turns past the point where we could expect a majority of the people to maneuver their way through the regulations.” I stress the word “justice”. The very essence of popular government requires dedication to fair play, equal access, and the gradual extension of the sphere of rights, and this leads to the ratcheting up of regulation, though it is not the only reason the regulation increases (corruption also plays a role).

    I’m not a determinist about all this. People are not puppets and reform is always possible. But reform requires a clear practical vision of ones goals, and I see no one who has such a vision of the goal of popular government (or self- government). The Left is correct that popular government requires a severe limitation of the power of corporations and the Right is correct that regulation chokes self-government; but the Right’s vision of deregulation would empower corporations and the Left’s vision of corporate regulation would greatly expand, well, regulation. Both sides have quietly given up on the goal of self-government and have embraced different versions of popular slavery for the sake of comfort. This is not a new danger – the choice between freedom and slavery is at the foundation of human life. What I’m trying to articulate here is the way in which this foundational problem manifests itself in popular government, the principles of which can be used either to free us or enslave us.

    Politics begins exactly where Aristotle begins his discussion of it: with the division between free men and slaves. This question of “who will count as the free man” is the first one that needs to be asked, and all politics follows after it.

  3. Jennifer said,

    August 2, 2011 at 5:05 am

    Thanks–you might be interested in my post today–I wrote it before I read your response, but there is a quote in there about faux-libertarianism that sort of echoes some of the sentiment in your response. I enjoy your blog, too, and KUDOS to your wife (and you). I wrote my prospectus while pregnant with #1, wrote the diss while pregnant with #2 and became pregnant with #3 shortly after the defense. Very shortly. LOL


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