In an age where chaos and cronyism seem to be the defining characteristics of our politics, and where the political system is increasingly decried as being “rigged” by populists from both the left and right, the time seems ripe for a renewed focus on political constraints.
When such concerns arise, we are quick to point back to the U.S. Constitution, and rightly so. Yet economist Peter Boettke sees another guide that can also offer some value.
For Boetkke, our politics and policymaking would benefit greatly from a greater appreciation for “ordinary economics,” the principles of which point not only to solutions for how we live and work and trade, but also for how we organize and manage our governing institutions.
“Now, more than ever, we need to turn to ordinary economic thinking to guide our actions,” Boettke says. “Three economic principles, which improve our lives each day, even as we take them for granted, are key to political stability and improving policy outcomes.”
Boettke summarizes these three principles as follows:
1. “Individuals face limitations when negotiating the world around them.”
We cannot always rely on other people to act benevolently toward us, whether we are buying toothpaste at a big box store or voting for a congressperson. We hope that our actions will first benefit ourselves, our families and our friends. Most parents go to work primarily to provide for their family with only secondary ambitions to help society at large. When we interact with strangers, our parents told us, we must protect ourselves from being taken advantage of.
2. “Human interaction is influenced and constrained by our institutions and culture.”
While the first principle paints a pessimistic picture, people can be influenced to act benevolently. For example, our system offers incentives to business owners to treat consumers well, or they risk losing their business. They are guided by property rights and the legal system that protects them; market prices, which signal scarcity and consumer demand; and the feedback of profits and losses.
3. “Social cooperation is possible and happens every day.”
Despite the chaotic world we live in, much of our daily lives is filled with cooperation with strangers, as described above. We drive down the street expecting others to follow the traffic rules, and, for the most part, they do. We send our children off to school expecting that they learn and socialize with the peers, and, despite some tough days, they do. We buy goods online expecting them to arrive in good condition, and, for the most part, they do.
It’s hard enough to instill this sort of “ordinary” thinking in the realms of business and economics. As Boettke duly notes, these principles are far too often taken for granted.
How, then, are we to cultivate an appreciation for such constraints in an area as messy and convoluted as modern American politics?
There are no simple answers, but we can start by helping to stir that simple shift in our political imaginations, not limiting our aims and efforts to the areas of business and economics, even as it relates to policy.
When approaching political problems, we need to be mindful that we have the chance to transform social and political chaos and turn it into social and political cooperation, just as we do with everyday disorder in the marketplace. “Finding ways to constrain these incentives will constrain policymakers from making decisions that hurt society,” Boettke writes. “Limiting the influence of special interests and tying budgets to performance are just some ways to hold politicians accountable and ensure better policy outcomes.”
Again, such a perspective nestles well with the founders’ views on the need for such constraints, echoing that same Constitution we routinely lean on and leverage. In some sense, Boettke’s light prod to our political thinking offers just another angle from which to work. But given the ordinary, everyday application, perhaps it offers the right connective tissue for the time we’re in.
“In chaotic times, constraining the rules that influence politics will limit political power, minimize scandals and provide policy stability,” he concludes. “In other words, ordinary economic thinking constrains chaos.”
Photo: Thomas Hawk via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC