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Will of the People?

Mises Daily: Thursday, December 14, 2000 by

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Thomas J. DiLorenzoThe state needs to invent an endless series of myths about its powers and importance in order to exist, and there is no bigger myth than the notion that democratic governments are mere expressions of "the will of the people." No matter how heinous the deeds performed by democratic governments, no matter how much property they steal or people they kill at home and abroad, the basic institutions of the state are almost never challenged because they supposedly enjoy the support of "the will of the people."  

Market entrepreneurs are successful only if they cater to the will of the people, i.e., customers. But in politics exactly the opposite is true: Success in politics is determined by the extent to which political "entrepreneurs" can subvert the will of the people and operate without constraint.

Nearly every act of every legislature is the result of "logrolling," a principal means of subverting the will of the people. For example, consider a hypothetical situation where there are only three voters in a community. Voter A prefers more government spending on schools, but nothing else. Voter B prefers more government spending on hospitals, but not on schools or anything else. Voter C is satisfied with the status quo. No proposal for spending more on either schools or hospitals can command a two-thirds majority, yet the usual outcome is more spending on both schools and hospitals by the simple expedient of logrolling. Voter A (or his representative) can simply say, "I don’t want more hospital spending, but I’ll vote for it if you, voter B, agree to vote for more school spending."  The true will of the majority is no more spending on anything, yet the actual outcome is more spending on everything.

Modern government is much too large for any citizen to possess knowledge about anything other than a miniscule percentage of its activities. Moreover, the average citizen is "rationally ignorant": he has little incentive to become informed about the activities of government, for he spends most of his time earning a living, educating himself, raising his family, etc. To make matters worse, the state, its media lapdogs, and its court intellectuals comprise a vast propaganda apparatus designed to confuse the voters about what the state is really up to (primarily legalized plunder and the form of mass murder called "war’). Every politician, and every bureaucrat, is a consummate propagandist. 

This means that what little the average, rationally ignorant citizen does know about government tends to be mostly lies and statist propaganda. We are told that welfare is needed to reduce poverty, yet as Charles Murray proved in Losing Ground, success against poverty was reversed in the U.S. at precisely the moment the government declared "war" on it and greatly increased welfare expenditures.

We are told that farm subsidies are needed to "save the small family farm," yet the big majority of the subsidies go to large corporate enterprises. We have been told for more than a century that we are about to run out of energy, perhaps the most blatant of all Official Lies. 

There is barely a word of truth in all the government-funded environmental propaganda, from acid rain to the ozone layer, to global warming hysterics. The federal government annually announces that it is winning the war on drugs, a lie that no responsible adult could possibly believe. And then there are the government propaganda mills known as "public schools," which have brainwashed generations of children into becoming docile supporters of the state. What all of this means is that government at all levels devotes enormous energy and resources to manufacturing the will of the people, not merely responding to it.

For more than a century, political "entrepreneurs" have also subverted the will of the people by creating thousands of "off-budget enterprises," as James Bennett and I showed in our book, Underground Government:  The Off-Budget Public Sector. At the state and local levels of government, politicians frequently respond to citizen demands for budgetary restraint or debt limitation by paying lip service to "the will of the people" while simultaneously subverting that will with myriad off-the-books spending schemes. At the federal level, hundreds of billions of dollars in spending are hidden by the Federal Financing Bank, which places billions of dollars of spending off budget annually, and by the subsidized lending practices of various "government-sponsored enterprises."

Congress has so rigged congressional elections that in the year 2000 fully 98 percent of all incumbents were reelected. It is almost impossible for a challenger to compete with incumbents who enjoy dozens of taxpayer-financed staff members who are really campaign workers; positions on congressional subcommittees that allow them to ladle out pork to their constituents; taxpayer-subsidized mailing privileges that are used to distribute campaign propaganda; the ability to use one’s position on a powerful committee to extract bribes (euphemistically called "campaign contributions") from various industries; and millions of dollars in "contributions" from political action commitees.

Because of these monopolisti advantages, the idea that electoral competition causes politicians to cater to the wishes of the median voter, as some public choice theorists maintain, is a myth.

Government has become the master, not the servant, of the people, even under democracy. Unless we want to live our lives as serfs, working for half the year or longer to feed the voracious appetites of the tax collectors, the powers of the state need to be scaled back as much as is humanly possible. The free market is the only institution about which it can be said that the will of the people is satisfied. 

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Thomas DiLorenzo is a professor of economcs in the Sellinger School of Business and Management at Loyola College in Baltimore. See his archive, read an interview with the author, or send him MAIL.