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Apprehensive about comprehensive political reform

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There have been almost uncountable times politicians have promoted “comprehensive” political reforms in areas ranging from immigration to health care to taxation and entitlements. However, there are good reasons to be apprehensive whenever politicians talk about comprehensive reforms.

Comprehensive politics.

Consider how “comprehensive” rhetoric is utilized politically.

Groups that fear a policy will hurt them dress up their self-interested objections as a failure of reform to be comprehensive enough. It sounds less selfish and carries the implication that such harms would not occur if only reform was only more comprehensive.

Groups whose agendas are somehow related to proposals with some prospect of passage, but have not been brought or bought into the supporting coalition, use them as levers to advance their interests. They hold their support hostage to extract what they want (as with “must pass” legislation, transformed into “Christmas tree” bills), but rationalize their demand to be included in the sausage-making as seeking more comprehensive reform, rather than “insufficient” piecemeal approaches. That mechanism complements efforts to put together 50% plus 1 political coalitions to extract benefits from the rest of their fellow citizens, with no need to get their consent (e.g., Obamacare), when they cannot do so by dealing with only a single issue at a time.

Politicians looking to extract more political payoffs from interested parties hide behind “comprehensive” rhetoric. Particularly when outcomes are in doubt, delays for reconsideration, further negotiations, more public input, hearings, etc., can always be created in the name of more comprehensiveness. But they primarily provide another opportunity to get “players” to put more into the pot in search of swing voters, in the political version of Texas hold’em.

In areas where government has promised benefits far in excess of taxes to fund them, as with entitlements (with Medicare and Social Security topping the list), there is no fair way out. Some will have to get unfairly hit in a big way. So politicians dodge the hot seat of having to offer solutions where no good ones really exist. They talk about how much they care and want reform, but wait for others to offer proposals, then reject every one that would hurt anyone who might vote for them (i.e., every actual proposal) as not comprehensive enough.

Similar results obtain in the many areas where politics divides into an adamant “A” camp and an equally adamant “not A” camp. Politicians can endorse and/or vow to push reforms, but can evade accountability because no comprehensive policy proposal ever makes it through the political gauntlet, which can always be blamed on opponents’ intransigence.

In addition, when inefficient policies have been capitalized into asset prices via sale (e.g., agricultural crop price supports pushing up agricultural land prices and taxi restrictions raising values of existing permits), even-handed reform is impossible. When A benefits from the policy, then sells the asset to B, those expected future benefits are incorporated in the price B pays. Ending the policies unfairly harm B, without undoing the windfall A received. So efforts toward comprehensive reform run aground, without staining politicians who promised to try.   

Such supposed searches for comprehensive political reform are also frequently inconsistent with the process employed. If the intent was really to seek better, broader reforms, you don’t need closed-door secrecy and surprise to keep the process out of view and outside accountability. Honest attempts to benefit all stakeholders wouldn’t keep the details, without which they cannot be evaluated, under wraps, exclude the “other” party from any involvement, or force votes before representatives have had time to digest, or even read, bills.

Comprehensive ignorance

The many abuses of claiming to favor comprehensive solutions for political window-dressing and maneuvering do not exhaust the problems involved. As Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and many others have clearly laid out, centralizing decisions in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats requires that many valuable details of time, place and circumstance that can be known only to those directly involved is discarded from the decision-making process.

Substituting political determination for voluntary arrangements thereby throws away wealth. While more extensive plans are always couched in assuring words implying even more good will be done, the fact is that the more “comprehensive” the political plan, the more comprehensive is the ignorance to be imposed. Potential mutual benefits at even more margins of choice will be disabled. And history is full of illustrations of the damage that can be wrought as a result. That is also one reason why the increasing federal domination of political decisions, despite the federalism designed in the Constitution, makes the problems worse. Expanding the empowerment of beltway politicians guarantees that even more of the details and the wide variations in situations and desires among individuals will be left out of account, at the same time that those stuck with the tab are given less ability escape the burdens by voting with their feet.

Comprehensive versus piecemeal

The presumption in favor of comprehensive political plans over piecemeal improvements is also questionable. After all, as Hayek has noted, “in complex conditions…a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order.” However, this potential is undermined by centralization because “the more the state ‘plans’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” In other words, more central planning often means less, and less effective, planning in addressing the problems unavoidably imposed by scarcity and limited information.

Did early America “work” so well that other countries sent deputations to discover and try to replicate the “magic” because of some sprawling, comprehensive political plan? No. It was precisely because government was strictly prevented from imposing such plans in most areas of Americans’ lives that freed individuals to more effectively coordinate their productive actions. That is borne out in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of unalienable rights and the many nos and nots the Constitution utilized to limit our government.

Did capitalism spring whole from a well-reasoned and implemented comprehensive political reform? No. The most productive social organization ever discovered resulted from centuries of evolution, largely by way of piecemeal changes discovered and implemented by some, then imitated and adapted by others in search of similar mutual gains. And not only weren’t those changes the result of a comprehensive plan, they were commonly the opposite--attempts to avoid or evade the nonsensical, abusive and inefficient comprehensive plans rulers have imposed. In other words, the annals of politics show a long train of centralized, comprehensive plans that do not advance the incredible productivity of the voluntary associations of capitalism, based on freedom, but hamstring both freedom and capitalism, impoverishing societies. Comprehensive political plans have often been just as responsible for peaceful and productive societies as blood-sucking parasites are for a shark’s high speed in the water.  

Comprehensive protection of private property

Despite the problems that bedevil comprehensive political plans, there is one central plan that can benefit all members of a society (except for predators on others) -- the joint protection of everyone’s private property. As Locke pointed out, and many of America’s founders echoed, that is the only thing government’s coercive power can do that can make all citizens better off.

In other words, “don’t ever violate others’ rights” is adequately comprehensive for extensive, successful social cooperation. But it is comprehensive only in spelling out what no one can do to others without their consent. It imposes no limits on what individuals can create voluntarily with and for others, a far cry from the political delineation and delegation of privileges to some and duties to others. And it is far superior in both ethical and economic terms to legislation or regulations that are supposedly comprehensive, yet routinely violate citizens’ rights.

Maintaining individuals’ rights inviolate also allows them to achieve the most efficient degree of comprehensiveness in planning, pulling the rug out from under the argument that we need comprehensive government policies.  

In markets, the degree of comprehensiveness of plans is a marginal variable left to those whose rights are involved. There are no barriers to more comprehensive plans (as when there are large economies of scale or scope or important dependency issues in production relationships), other than the need to get others’ voluntary agreement. Projects can be as large scale as is consistent with not violating rights against invasion. And the market mechanism allows consumers effective means of punishing and eliminating failed comprehensive plans in contrast to their far weaker power over political plans (where government-induced failure is always deemed to deserve another, after blaming freedom for the failure). But projects and agreements can also be as narrow or as piecemeal as participants choose. When parties agree on something, they don’t refuse to cooperate about it simply because it is not comprehensive.


The supposed need for comprehensive government action provides an all-purpose excuse for many political abuses. But people don’t need such government dictates for social cooperation.

Individuals can put together plans of whatever degree of comprehensiveness they find mutually agreeable, without violating “losers” rights, which is the ultimate source of political benefits. That includes piecemeal changes that are often more appropriate to the circumstances and knowledge available to the parties involved. In fact, comprehensive government planning reduces our ability to coordinate our actions effectively by replacing massive amounts of valuable individually-held information with increased ignorance as the basis of policy. In contrast, the only comprehensive political commitment necessary is a commitment not to violate any citizen’s rights, including through the imposition of “new and improved” comprehensive plans.

Friedrich Hayek may have best described the upshot of comprehensive political planning when he wrote: “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.” Recognizing the weakness of the case for such planning is the necessary first step in limiting rather than expanding the harm done in its name.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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