F. A. Hayek devoted a chapter in The Road to Serfdom as to why the worst get on top in political regimes that grant almost unlimited discretionary power to political leaders. In my study of the public choice contribution of The Road to Serfdom, I argued that Hayek had simply applied the basic economic argument concerning comparative advantage to the context of selection of individuals to head up the attempt by the state to control economic life through planning. In making his argument, Hayek quoted Frank Knight as arguing:
The probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation.
But, I would argue, there is both a selection effect due to the institutional context, and a transformative effect on the individual's character as they adapt to their environment. In addition to Knight, we can draw inspiration from another early 20th century observer of humanity, H. L. Mencken, who presented the problem as such:
... there are still idealists ... who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics --- that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me is quite ... absurd ... When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdy houses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would lead out of the windows, or they would cease to be virgins. The same alternatives confront the political aspirant who is what is regarded in America as a gentleman ... [From Notes on Democracy, p. 107, emphasis added]
How do you react to these precursors (and perhaps more straightforward) of behavioral public choice and institutional political economy?
HT: Ben Powell
*BTW, Ben Powell has over the past few years helped to build an graduate education and research program in public choice and political economy at Suffolk University in Boston, and has a group of outstanding graduate students doing research in the field. If you are looking for a high quality political economist to join your department, give Ben a call so he can tell you about the various students working with him. Very impressive group of young economists!