So where does power lie in our modern democracy?

This blog was written by Tom Pike and it was first published by Birmingham University Conserative Future here

There are many theories to power, be they liberal, socialist or otherwise. Many have been developed over centuries of thought, which pick apart the very nature of our society and world order. But of all the theories that I’ve come across, one sticks out more than any other, and it is the reason I hold such strong free-market/anti-state views. It’s called Public Choice theory, but don’t ask me why, because it seems to explain why any one but ’the public’ makes choices today.

Public Choice theory is modern, having only really taken off during the 1960’s, but I believe it grants a very realistic and worrying view of Britain’s power structure, and exposes many very deep scars which socialism and Keynesianism unintentionally inflicted on our country. It was heavily developed by the US economist James Buchanan, who won the 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize for his work, and who advised Margaret Thatcher through the Institute for Economic Affairs during the late 1970′s.

Just like capitalism, Public Choice theory is based on two simple assumptions about human nature. Firstly, that humans are principally self-interested. That’s not to say we’re selfish, which is somewhat more immoral, but rather that we will always aim to fulfil our wants and desires, economic or otherwise. Secondly, that humans are rational; when presented with a series of options, we will select whichever makes us the most happy for the least cost. Rational Choice theory, as it is called, has come under substantial intellectual attack in the past, and I don’t personally believe that all humans act completely rationally all the time, but as a model for human behaviour, I’d say it provides a pretty good analysis.

So what does it say about government?

Public Choice theorists take the view that government is a battle ground between two competing types of people: civil servants and politicians. Neither are friend or foe; they are simply humans, like us, making the same rational and self-interested decisions we would in their shoes.

Civil servants are ultimately interested in their status and lifestyle. To improve their status, they must ensure that whichever department they have control of, whether it be the education department of Pembrokeshire County Council, or the entire civil service itself, has the largest budget and workforce as possible. Size equals importance, and they use a wide range of tactics to achieve and vehemently defend both. To improve their lifestyle, they must make contacts, usually with big businesses, the media and other wealthy and powerful groups with vested interests. By providing these groups with what they want, be it a simple cabinet paper or memo, or access to national decision makers, the civil servants receive kickbacks: everything from social events to corporate directorships after leaving the service.

Politicians are interested in fame, and a place in the history books. Key to achieving both is taking and then maintaining political office, and both of these are themselves achieved through positive press coverage, which leads to vote winning. This is often why we see politicians on both sides of the House advocating policies which make little real economic sense, but are strong sound bites.

As Thomas Sowell once said ‘The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.’ This isn’t to say that politicians don’t have principles; it’s just that those which get to the top are usually willing to compromise or twist their principles the most, while those which remain ‘ideologically pure’ tend to remain on the fringes and achieve little real change (Ron Paul a regrettably good example). But the very nature of democracy involves many interests coming together in support of one broad goal, and if you can’t compromise, you can’t construct that coalition of support you need to take office.

But the key point to remember about both civil servants and politicians, is that they’ll always argue they are acting in the ‘public interest’. And believe it or not, they’re not always lying. But you can certainly be sure they’re acting in their own personal interests.

For example, a supposedly running joke in the Westminster village is that it was decided to use the construction of Britain’s first motorway to link central London to Yorkshire, along the spine of the country, not because north-south traffic was heaviest here (I believe this was actually the A1, the ‘Great North Road’…) , but because it would run close to many civil servants’ homes in the Home Counties and some of the country’s best shooting grounds.

For whatever reason the M1 was designated the London-Yorkshire motorway, clearly building motorways was in the public interest, but very likely in the personal interest of those whose choose to do it, and exactly where they went in the interest of those who drew the route. After all, what sane man chooses to build Britain’s next nuclear power plant next to his own country house, adjacent to the county landfill site, and across the road from the maximum-security psychiatric hospital? He’s not going to put a motorway through his own back garden.

Later in this series of posts, I will explain what we need to do to limit the actions of these people. But for now, and despite what the video may say, I will ask you not to naively believe that the beast that is the British bureaucracy was gallantly slain by eleven years of Thatcherism. Such an organisation, born from the war, strengthened by a post-war socialist government, and then maintained for forty years by the Keynesian collectivist consensus continues to live today. True, it’s less bold and overt than it might once have been, but it still lurks and it still possesses the power to strangle our economy and our freedom.


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