Give the Governor Harumph!

In this week’s EconTalk podcast, guest Glenn Reynolds says well something I think about often:

 …it’s always funny to me that the people who go on the most about sustainability in other areas seem the least concerned about sustainability when it comes to things like government and spending.

Here he sums why government grows:

…there is a scene in it [the movie Blazing Saddles]–which I regard as one of the most powerful metaphors for our political situation every produced–and it’s the one where Mel Brooks, playing Governor Le Petomane, has all his cronies around a big conference table and he says: Gentlemen, we’ve got to protect our phony-baloney jobs. And the problem with making the government smaller is it threatens a lot of people’s phony-baloney jobs.


This immediately follows his plea to protect their phoney-baloney jobs:

Here Reynolds mentions what motivates politicians, something that should get more airtime:

I think it’s a mistake that a lot of economists make–not just economists but a lot of other critics of government–to think that the only question is just sort of money. I think the other issue that people guard almost as vigorously, and maybe more vigorously, is the non-monetary economy of self-importance.

Which I think for politicians is really what drives them more than anything else. I think the sense of being a big man.

It’s funny to me that it is assumed by default that CEOs are motivated by greed, but this motivation of a politician goes past society nearly undetected. Rather, politicians are often considered to be ‘serving the people’, when all they’re doing is spending other people’s money and getting their kicks out of being loved and a big shot.

Reynolds offers a nice rebuttal to a previous guest, Louis Michael Seidman’s, position that we shouldn’t be beholden to the Constitution.

If you are the President, if you are a member of Congress, if you are a TSA agent, the only reason why somebody should listen to what you say instead of horse-whipping you out of town for your impertinence is because you exercise power via the Constitution. If the Constitution doesn’t count, you don’t have any legitimate power.  …if we are going to start ignoring the Constitution, I’m fine with that; the first part I’m going to start ignoring is I have to do whatever they say.

Though, in Seidman’s defense, I think Russ and Reynolds are missing something in Seidman’s argument (even though they kind of mention it in the podcast, but don’t connect the dot back to Seidman’s argument). I hear Seidman basically saying that what ‘we’ consider the Constitution has evolved over time, without necessarily being updated through the official amendment process. I believe this is a fundamental point made by libertarian-minded folks like F.A. Hayek. Law isn’t the set of rules written on paper. That’s legislation. Law is the set of norms and customs by which people get along with one another. When legislation lines up with the customs, it looks like we are following the written rules (like stopping at red lights). But, when legislation doesn’t line up with custom, we generally ignore them (like driving 5 miles over the speed limit).

One last tidbit. Here’s Reynolds’ idea to help slow the growth of government (emphasis added — incentives matter):

…create a third house of Congress, which I call a House of Repeal, in which people run for election in which their only power is to repeal laws. And if that one house repeals a law, that law is repealed. And when you go before the voters every two or four years or whatever term you choose for it, the only thing you’ve got to run on is which laws you struck down. Because right now, one reason why we’ve got growth of big government is there is literally nobody in the government with an institutional incentive to shrink government. Courts can strike down laws as unconstitutional, and they do sometimes, but it doesn’t do anything for them institutionally to do so. The other two branches are all about making government bigger. And everybody runs for election and tells voters what they are going to do for them; it would be nice if we could have somebody run for election and tell voters what they are going to undo for them.


I heard about Constitutional law professor Louis Michael Seidman’s radical-sounding argument to ignore the Constitution though the general media. I thought he was a flake.

I must admit, when I began listening to this week’s EconTalk podcast and found out that he was the guest, I nearly turned it off.

I’m glad I was lazy enough to keep it rolling. I discovered that the impression I got of Seidman through the general media was wrong (surprise, surprise).

I also discovered that his conversation was remarkably similar to part of the discussion we had in the comments of my previous post Profits and Ballot Boxes.

And, I found I agreed with Seidman on quite a lot.

For example, Seidman doesn’t believe that the unconstitutionality of a government action is a valid argument against taking that action. He thinks we should discuss the merits of the policy and decide from there. I agree. I think the founders agreed, too, as evidenced by their inclusion of Article V: Amendment. 

I would add that this applies to government action that is constitutional. Just because an action is constitutional doesn’t make it right.

Of course, there are a certain group of people who should care about the constitutionality of a government action. They’re called judges.

However, I did disagree with Seidman on some things.

Seidman made a point similar to Wally in the comments (just before the 55 minute mark): the founders are not all-knowing so and it’s arrogant to assume they could think things through for generations hundreds of year after they wrote the Constitution.

I was surprised that Seidman — an advocate for discussing merits of issues — made this point. It doesn’t matter if the founders were limited in knowledge or lived hundreds of years ago. What matters is whether the Constitution (or a specific part of it) has merit. So,it seems reasonable to consider in the discussion of merits of government action why the founders were for or against those actions, rather than dismissing their positions outright. We might learn something. To commit my own fallacy, how many of us have written Constitutions that, by and large, have kept a country growing and improving for well over 200 years?

I do recommend listening to the podcast.