Ask me anything — The Elections Edition

“The state—or, to make the matter more concrete, the government—consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

“Government, of course, has other functions, and some of them are useful and even valuable. It is supposed, in theory, to keep the peace, and also to protect the citizen against acts of God and the public enemy.” — Henry Louis Mencken.[1]

Cynical though Mencken is about the whole business of elections, politicians and government, his assessment is precisely correct. He points out that government consists of people just like the rest of us. True. That same assumption is employed in public choice theory.

James M. Buchanan, one of my most revered economists, is a pioneer in public choice theory, the three three main foundations of which are methodological individualism, behavioral symmetry, and politics as exchange. Behavioral symmetry means that as voters, politicians and bureaucrats, people are simply people. They are as self-seeking as voters, bureaucrats and politicians as they are as shoppers.

Alistair Cooke in his weekly radio broadcast, A Letter from America, once explained the theory of public choice to his listeners as “the homely but important truth that the politicians are after all just the same as the rest of us.”

Anyway, Indian elections are around the corner. The various political parties are promising goodies to special interest groups. They may or may not fulfill those promises but it is certain that once elected, the politicians will steal from particular groups (through taxation, which is legal but largely immoral) and transfer to other groups.

Do I blame the politicians for what they do to the people? Not entirely. The people get fooled because they are stupid and greedy. As another American journalist Edward R Murrow put it, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”[2]

A bit more of Mencken.

  • Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
  • … the whole aim of practical politics [under democracy] is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
  • Off goes the head of the king, and tyranny gives way to freedom. The change seems abysmal. Then, bit by bit, the face of freedom hardens, and by and by it is the old face of tyranny. Then another cycle, and another. But under the play of all these opposites there is something fundamental and permanent — the basic delusion that men may be governed and yet be free.
  • … when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand.
  • The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Alright then, ask me anything.


[1] That quote is from an essay, “Sham Battle”, published in the “Baltimore Evening Sun” in October 1936,  H L Mencken (1880 – 1956) was born and died in Baltimore, which is just an hour’s drive south of where I am right now. As it happens, today I will be passing by Baltimore on my way to Ashburn VA for the weekend.

[2] I recommend this Dec 2012 post, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.

Author: Atanu Dey


18 thoughts on “Ask me anything — The Elections Edition”

  1. I went through all the previous Ask-Me-Anything blogs and summarized two questions on which we had some conversation already. However, I still have some ‘opens’ on them. I am posting the two questions in two separate threads.


  2. Thread#1:

    How shall judges be paid (discussions done on hope for humanity and order out of choice):

    I agree that judges have to be paid out of tax-money but how to build incentive with tax money? Who administers the incentive system (unlike legislature, judiciary is accountable to nobody)? What can be the incentive system? More pay for more high-quality judgments? High-quality judgments are those which are not appealed-against or which-are-not-overturned-on-appeal.

    You told about civil-cases being paid for by litigants. How does that work?


  3. We hear everytime that limited government is the solution to our political, economic and social ills. But under capitalism, there’s nothing that impedes the wealthy from influencing the extent of government and laws. What can laws do when an individual collaborates with law maker to influence the law itself?
    Law is for law abiders. It disincentivizes those who abide law(such as law punishing gun purchase) and puts to advantage those who successfully collaborate with law makers to influence law.
    There’s a strong motivation under capitalism to do that.

    In that case, don’t you think its shallow to merely say that government should be limited?
    Limited by whom? Political and legal structure are merely hot air. If the incentives go against the structure, then the structure is soon dismantled.

    What then is your solution(if you think the above stated is a problem at all) to this suicide longing of capitalism?


    1. @KeshavBedi:

      “We hear everytime that limited government is the solution to our political, economic and social ills.”

      I would claim that limited government is a necessary condition for avoiding most of the societal ills. The bigger the government, the more power it has to favor some over others, and therefore a lot of losses incurred in rent-seeking (or DUP activities a la Bhagwati.)

      “But under capitalism, there’s nothing that impedes the wealthy from influencing the extent of government and laws.”

      But under socialism, there’s nothing that impedes the wealthy from influencing the extent of government and laws. But under communism, there’s nothing that impedes the wealthy from influencing the extent of government and laws. But under authoritarianism, there’s nothing that impedes the wealthy from influencing the extent of government and laws. But under fascism, there’s nothing that impedes the wealthy from influencing the extent of government and laws.

      Can we seriously claim that it’s only under capitalism where the problem of capture of the government occurs?

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Keshav, you defined capitalism by “there’s nothing that impedes the wealthy from influencing the extent of government and laws”. Then you proceeded to beat capitalism based on this definition. Are you sure about the definition of capitalism you outlined?


    1. No, I didn’t ‘define’ capitalism therein. I said only that nothing impedes wealthy to influence law making under capitalism.
      Might I also correct my comment slightly.
      I intended to say the following above:
      *Law is for law abiders. It puts to disadvantage those who abide law(such as law punishing gun purchase) and puts to advantage those who don’t follow law.
      Moreover, there’s a strong incentive to successfully collaborate with law makers to influence law. . .


      1. @KeshavBedi:

        I would not say that “law is for law abiders” — law is law and applies to even those who don’t respect it. What matters is whether the law is enforced. If it is badly enforced, then those who abide by it are (possibly) handicapping themselves IF not obeying gives one advantages. Let’s take taxation laws, for example. Those who illegally evade taxes will have an advantage over those who dutifully pay up, if the tax laws are not enforced.

        The rich and the politically powerful in a badly organized polity will always have the means to create laws that favor themselves. That’s not a fault of the concept of law but rather of the institutional organization.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I would not call it a “failed cargo-cult democracy.” In fact, India has implemented a very successful and the longest running cargo-cult democracy the world has ever seen. I have written about India’s cargo cult before. See this from 2004 — “Cargo cult and democracy” —

      In the case of India, we have a cargo cult democracy. It looks like one with electronic voting machines and election speeches and manifestos, with pollsters and pundits, with election commissioners and voting stations. Only the deep backend is missing. There is no understanding of issues of substance among the people who vote. Put up a name which is recognizable, and they would vote for or against that name. Promise enough freebies (free electricity, for instance) and they will vote for you, never mind that it may bankrupt the state and that eventually it will impoverish the same voting public. For democracy to work, you need accountability — both among those who vote and those who are elected. In an area where the government is seen as a source for endless handouts by the people, and the leaders look upon their stint in the driving seat as an excellent opportunity to steal from the public, democracy is not likely to work. All the talk about the smart voter is so much hogwash that the mind boggles.


      1. I just returned after casting my vote. It was a feel good affair. I met old friends in queue. It felt great to see presiding officers administering the process in a government primary school. There was only one police official but he was enthusiastically helping people to find correct queues.

        Democracy is not just about casting the vote. Casting vote is just one of the steps which one can take in democracy. However, it is too much to expect the single vote to enforce accountability on politicians and government-machinery under them.

        I find some similarities between the philosophy of selecting a mutual fund and voting a candidate in India.


        1. Democracy is a pernicious ideology, not a good way to politically organize a free society. Choosing by majority vote how others should live is primitive and amoral. I don’t care to be ordered around by anybody — including a majority. A republic that is guided by a constitution that guarantees the freedom of the individual is a much better way of organizing society.


          1. I think democracy serves an important function, which is a peaceful change of government.
            I don’t think any alternative to democracy is better than that.

            The problem really is the domain of matters you leave to be democratically decided. In this day and age of division of labor, its astonishing that no norm requires a complex job such as administration to be rested in the hands of someone who has the competence. I sometimes wonder if we will want players in cricket team to be democratically decided. It will be comical but thats how we select administrators.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello Atanu,
    How do you see the latest India-Pakistan standoff. Do you think India would move towards de-escalation or has the current administration taken the tactical pause and will resume the action post election and the new government (assuming BJP returns).

    Additionally, if we go by your ‘Dollar auction’ post made two months ago, how should India proceed from here.

    Thank you.


  6. Atanu, One of Subramanian Swamy’s ideas is the abolition of the personal income tax in India. What is good/bad about this idea, please?


    1. CynicalStoic:

      Abolition of taxes are a good idea, and thus the abolition of personal income taxes would be a welcome move. Instead of income taxes, there should be consumption taxes — with basic items that the non-rich consume taxed at a lower rate than items that are not essential.

      Liked by 1 person

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