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The Calling: The Problem with Political Heroes and Villains

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It’s sometimes hard to tell the coverage of politics from the coverage of sports. People seem to root for political parties as though they were sports teams, cheering Team Red or Team Blue on to victory with the same passion they bring to the Super Bowl. Individual team members are followed with the same intensity as are star players in basketball or football.

Similarly, the guys on your team are always the heroes, and the guys on the other team are the villains. Political discourse in America today is filled with this sort of rhetoric, with one group saying the other group is a bunch of racist troglodytes who hate poor people, and the other group saying the first group is a bunch of crypto-Communists out to destroy America. Both sides yell and scream about how bad the people on the other team are, and there is little serious talk about the real issues facing Americans today.

Aside from the way in which the “us-versus-them” argument overlooks real issues, it misses the more fundamental problem of political economy. The back-and-forth about good guys and bad guys turns political debate into a battle of intentions. What’s great about your team is what you think it intends to do while in office. Likewise, the problem with the other team is what your team thinks it intends to do while in office.

Intentions, however, are not what matter in political economy, because they do not equal outcomes. Whether good intentions produce the results the actor desires depends on the structure of rules and institutions within which those intentions are acted on. This is the core idea that economics has emphasized since at least Adam Smith. Looking at intentions alone tells us little to nothing. Self-interest can manifest as a world of violence and predation if the rules and institutions are such that rights to person and property are not clear and well-enforced. Or it can manifest as peaceful progress — producing trade if such rights are clear and well-enforced.

Intentions get filtered through structures of rules and institutions to determine outcomes. The classic example is minimum-wage laws. Those who support such laws believe that they are helping the poor because the intention is to raise their wages. However, the actual consequences of such a law are, as we know, to raise the cost of labor and thereby shut out of the labor market those workers whose productivity is less than the mandated wage. The result is increased unemployment for some or many and reduced hours or nonmonetary benefits for others. The actual consequences are the reverse of what the good guys intended.

Rather than rooting for one team or the other, or hoping for that star player or virtuous hero to save the day, we need to pay more attention to the institutional structure that frames human action. One of the biggest mistakes in modern politics is thinking that giving power to the right people is okay because they will use it wisely. The main problem is not that they won’t use it wisely — though that’s likely going to be the case — but that the institutions the power necessitates will outlive those who possess it now. And those who possess it next might not have the same good intentions.

One need only see the way in which the Left thought that if Barack Obama were in office, the massive increase in executive power would be safe in his hands because he’s a “good guy.” The result, of course, has been more death and destruction raining down on innocents in the Middle East and the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment here at home.

In the same way, blaming the failures of government on the “bad guys” who had power also ignores that the same failures are likely even if the “good guys” have the power. If the problem is with the institutions and rules, then it doesn’t matter which team the players are on. They will produce bad consequences either way.

What matters is what sorts of interactions the rules of the game permit. Where the rules protect rights and promote peaceful exchange as the means to our ends, even the most self-interested of people will have no choice but to trade for mutual benefit. Where the rules fail at this task, predation, both public and private, will dominate.

Rooting for your team or your favorite player is a recipe for social disaster; it encourages the creation of institutions of power that undermine progress now and that will be available to the “other guys” later, with equally unpleasant results. If we want to end the growth of the state and the erosion of our freedoms, we need to stop waiting for the star player to win the game and start talking about the need to change the rules.

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    Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA. He is the author of two books, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (Routledge, 2000) and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order (Westview, 1992), and he has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and the economics and social theory of gender and the family. His work has been published in professional journals such as History of Political Economy, Southern Economic Journal, and The Cambridge Journal of Economics. He has also done public policy research for the Mercatus Center, Heartland Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Cato Institute. Horwitz is also a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute in Canada and a contributing editor of The Freeman. He has a PhD in Economics from George Mason University and an AB in Economics and Philosophy from The University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book on classical liberalism and the family.