Politicians are self-interested too (and probably more than you are)

This entry is part 21 of 44 in the series Christian Theology of Public Policy Course

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.


Does the nature of man change on account of the ballot box or a political appointment? For years scholars in disciplines like political science and history have taught so. The basic idea is simply that a man who succeeds in being elected to office would reasonably be the “cream of the crop”—able to govern his fellow man with virtue—and subordinating his own self-interest motives for publicly-spirited ideals. Paradoxically, the mass of self-interested and often selfish voters would evidently elect such a virtuous man from their own dissolute ranks. Democratic processes and majority voting may thus bring about optimal social results, especially when “the voice of the people” has been heard through large voter turnouts.

However, this questionable notion has come under extensive attack by economists during the last several decades. Inspired by the libertarian-leaning writings of Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, and especially Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, “public choice” economists such Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, and Robert Tollison—as well as many “hybrid” economists espousing aspects of both the Austrian and public choice schools—began to promote a simple, but radical new idea. They extended the work of Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) and other economists to conclude that being elected or appointed to office does not affect man’s nature. Men still pursue their own self-interest in the political arena just as men in the private sector would. And why would any Christian think otherwise? The Bible never indicates that the nature of political actors is different than other men. Surely the fact that rulers like Nero and Herod are “ordained by God” (Romans 13:1) does not mean that they had human natures with less corruption!

Consequently, relying on both public choice economic theory and the Bible, we can safely conclude that there are never truly any “statesmen”. Rarely, if ever, is a man so publicly-spirited that he is able to subordinate his self-interest in favor of the “public interest”. Most men desire public office primarily on account of self-interested motivations (e.g., money, power, or prestige). Few men today come close to exhibiting the public servant ideals of the Founders in their vision of establishing limited government.

Moreover, economists in the Austrian school tradition have long pointed out the impossibility of men to accomplish public interest projects (whether socialism or other proactive policies). No man—or even a committee of brilliant men with a thousand computers and aides—can possibly harness the requisite knowledge to plan or regulate the economy in order to promote the public interest. On the one hand, there is no public interest. There are only individual interests. One man may like five aircraft carriers but another man only one. One man may like student loan programs and another may not. There is no way to aggregate individual preferences. Thus the term public interest is merely a euphemism for the preferences of a political party, a special interest group (or coalition), or any particular ruler making a decree.

On the other hand, no man (or junta) has enough knowledge by himself to produce anything. Even something as inexpensive and common as a pencil requires the cooperation of thousands of individuals with specialized knowledge to produce: graphite and brass mining and refining, forestry and woodworking, fine painting and lacquering, transportation, marketing, and much more. There is simply no way that any man (or any committee) would know what is needed to produce even the most basic goods. Thus, planners and regulators face an impossible task on account of this “knowledge problem”. The most that can ever be expected of a man as a governor, representative, judge, juror, or sheriff—none of which qualify as statesmen—is to provide for the reactive functions of defending constituents from predators and providing a system of criminal justice.

Accordingly, economists have developed a two-pronged general critique of economic regulation and planning. First, if rulers and planners were angelic or nearly altruists with hearts of gold—being publicly-spirited and full of good intentions—they will still fail to plan correctly or efficiently on account of the knowledge problem. Second, if rulers and planners were not like angels, but instead serve their own self interests (rather than mainly the public interest) like the rest of humanity, they will fail to plan correctly or efficiently on account of public choice problems. Hence, good theory would lead us to conclude that proactive policies will fail to serve their stated purpose and instead only serve to benefit the state and political actors.

If economic theory and what the Bible teach about human nature are correct, then no Christian should be in favor of maintaining public enterprises or permitting public policies designed to change people’s way of thinking and behavior or to redistribute wealth. The best people can hope for in government is to limit its sphere and scope to protecting them from the dishonest, treacherous, and inordinate actions of others. And Christians should have no other purpose than to see this end achieved.


Originally published in The Times Examiner on November 30, 2005.

Series NavigationPrevious Post: Previous Post:Next Post: Next Post: