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« A Behavioral Approach to Development Economics | Main | Julian Simon Wins Again, But Will Anyone Learn? »


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Peter, I wonder if the facts you chronicle might reflect some deep truths about human psychology. Presumably, our Pleistocene ancestors lived in hierarchical societies in which it was, in some sense, all about about who is where on the status hierarchy. Perhaps we naturally (and do mean naturally) think of the bureaucratic governments of large nation states in the same way natural selection caused us to think about the alpha males in band-level society. Of course I'm not saying anything original here. Lots of people have been exploring how our caveman roots affect current political and economic behavior. To cite just one nice example:

My comment just follows this trend of thought.

Roger: I need to read this book - I like Paul Rubin's stuff. Thanks for elevating my random musings into something profound :-).

It's just a repeat of the theme of Plato's Republic--a dicatorship run by philosophers would be paradise on earth.

Roger Koppl,

I do not now nor have I ever (and I mean since childhood) had any positive feelings or thoughts about bureaucratic governments or authority in general. The older I get, the more repulsive I find it.

When we rejected the ultimate large bureaucratic nation state by applying to immigrate from the Soviet Union, were declared insane. Are you telling me the Soviets were right? We dissidents WERE crazy? :)

What if

1. when power levers are available, the wrong people tend to get control of them, or

2. access to political power levers tends to corrode people's character and good sense?


I think the traditional Public Choice answer is that people working for the government are neither good nor evil. It's just that a problem of bad incentives and, therefore, we need to change the incentive mechanism within the system and that's the story I tell my students in the classroom. However, outside the classroom, I do add that the story is not totally accurate because it takes a special type of individual to be willing to make decisions that can affect (and sometimes destroy) the life of thousands if not millions of people. It's a self-selection issue. We had this discussion at an IHS seminar about that politicians might from a psychological, clinical viewpoint exhibit identical characteristics to sociopath/psychopath who pretend to care but in effect don't care of the lives their decisions will affect.

There was an article in Reason about this here:

@Alex Padilla,

Hayek's famous chapter in The Road to Serfdom on "Why the Worst Get on Top" is on point. Peple seeking power over others are not a rdanom distribution of the population.

What Jerry says. Hayek includes a quote from Frank Knight that getting "good people" at the top of the political system is as likely that a tenderhearted individual will apply for the job of whipping overseer on a slave plantation.

Reading studies of people who worked in Nazi concentration camps shows that very few who applied for or took the jobs were empathetic toward their victims. They simply went home at the end of a "hard days work," and enjoyed the evening with family and friends to relax.

And, yes, many, even those who were not necessarily "card-carrying" Nazis, thought they were "doing good" (if they thought about it at all). That's partly because they were "victims of their cultural environment." They had merely absorbed the generally accepted belief that Germany would be a better place if "cleansed" of these "undesirables."

Richard Ebeling

I'll trot out my favorite Hayek thought again: it's perfectly natural that the most intelligent people will be socialists because they overrate intelligence. Because they are intelligent they get arrogant by thinking they know more than they do and can control everything if given enough power. So they become power hungry.

I think I am making a slightly different point. I understand the Public Choice story and Hayek's expectation of the worst getting on top. I am thinking here about the people who make the movies and write the stories. These Hollywood types are overwhelmingly "liberal" - I have a hypothesis that it has something to do with guilt (a subject for another time). So the government is always bad, unless they are in charge. But they have never really explored this theme - what should they expect to happen if they were in charge? Where is that movie?


Wow. I'm glad you were able to exit! I know your comment was kind of sly and ironic, but please allow me an earnest reply. The apparent facts that you viewed the Soviet state favorably when you were a child and that your revulsion for it grows over time supports my suggestion. In this as in other areas of life we can learn to think and act in unnatural ways, which is a bit part of what civilization is all about. ("Natural" is not necessarily "good.")

Any system that is dependent upon the right people being in charge is a fundamentally broken system.

Roger Koppl,

Thank you. I'm also glad we got out - and that I'm now able to get back in. my comment was just a bit of fun, but I think you misread it.

I never ever had viewed the state favourably. Not even as a child. Though my revulsion grows, it was always there from my earliest memories of brushes with authority (excluding parental authority). My natural state is to abhor the crushing fist of the state - for which I, along with the rest of my exiting family, was labeled "insane". And, yes, natural is not necessarily good and I am, I guess, unnatural! I doubt very much I'm unique, though.

Not very knowledgeable myself, but it's an interesting question -- are there any movies out of Hollywood fitting Peter's description? Or is it really an empty set?

And there is Lord Acton's insight, in his letter to Mandell Creighton.

"I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of pwer, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of leagl responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men...."

"So the government is always bad, unless they are in charge."

That's always the excuse they give for the USSR, Cuba and N Korea. If they were in charge things would be different.

Actually, I don't think the Hollywood wealthy feel any guilt. Their good intentions, in their minds, prove that they are good people so the wealth doesn't taint them. Good intentions trump everything.

If they were in charge, I think they expect what every socialist since Saint-Simon expected: mankind's nature would change; man would revert to the state of innocence it enjoyed before the evil of private property. Crime and poverty would disappear. John Lennon's "Imagine" would become reality.

Socialism is a salvation story that mirrors Christianity.

But it's an interesting question why they don't make a movie portraying this. I'm guessing the scripts keep getting trashed because no one would believe them.

This is precisely why I am writing my play "President Faust," which is about a man with good intentions, who sincerely wants to do what is right, and who sells his soul to the devil so he can bring what is right and good to the people. He is convinced that is economic/political/social programs are just and that they will improve everyone's lives. He thus sells his soul for political success -- all his legislation gets passed, and he is put on the fast-track to the Presidency (he has only 28 years). The theme of the play is that even if the "right person" -- someone who has good intentions, and only wants to help people, and is not really interested in power for the sake of power, but because he sincerely believes what he wants to do is right for everyone -- is in charge, the wrong system will destroy everything.

This article makes an interesting point. I actually think that movies have a really strong impact on how society operates, and this analysis covers one of them.
Humans are tailor-made to think in terms of stories. It's how we've passed on crucial information between groups and generations pretty well forever. And that worked really well when the stories were allegorical or instructional, and the number of stories we were exposed to was very small. The down side of this is that we tend to think that stories (in this case movies) carry a grain of truth even when they do not. And it's an even worse down side when we're exposed to hundreds or thousands of stories which are designed to entertain instead of instruct, but which look like what we think 'real life' looks like.

The worst offenders, in my opinion, are RomComs. They typically follow the pattern boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-get-girl;-back. But they almost always focus on falling in love or being in love, never on the second (and longer and more important act) of loving. Hollywood sells an amusing story, for amusement's own sake, but people read too much into it. Up on the screen you seen the perfect moment of 'true love's first kiss' - but you don't see the couple spending the next 40 years holding hands, or arguing about money, or comforting one another, or doing the laundry. And so there's an entire generation of women (and they are, mostly, women) who believe that if they don't have what they see up on screen, then they're being ripped off and they should hold out for better. They want that first flush of romantic love forever. On the screen love is perfect, and subliminally that's part of the message that's being received. Real life, unfortunately, doesn't deliver in comparison, but people persist in thinking that it should.

It's also true of other genre's. E.g the huge number of people who thought that Martin Sheen would make a great president. They didn't want Martin Sheen, they wanted Jeb Bartlett. They lesson they got was "This guy is really good at solving problems", instead of "This character has been written to be really good at solving the fake problems that we only wrote to give him something to solve".

As a species, we're really good at stories, but really crap at logic. More's the pity.

You're right, Jim. Which is why supporting good stories is vital. There may be little else so vital for civilization.

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