Sunday, October 02, 2005

Column on Prestigious Media Ignorance

Uneducated Interviewer

Tibor R. Machan

It may be gross folly but I have had this notion that contemporary
journalists working at major media outlets had to have received a good
education. Alas, I could be very wrong.

Evidence for this comes from the Sunday, October 2, 2005, issue of The
New York Times Magazine. In it interviewer Deborah Solomon was sparring
with former Massachusetts governor William Weld, who expressed his support
for privatizing a good deal of what governments do around the country. One
of his targets was zoos.

Alas, when he gave voice to this idea, Ms. Solomon responded by saying,
?But surely I don?t have to remind you that the private sector cannot be
trusted to act in the interests of society as a whole, which is why
government exists....?

Not only does this retort fly in the face of centuries of history and
even plain common sense but it counters one of the most important insights
of contemporary economic understanding of the public sector. I have in
mind the famous "public choice theory," as laid out in detail in James
Buchanan?s and Gordon Tullock?s seminal book, The Calculus of Consent
(University of Michigan Press, 1962). (Buchanan received the Nobel Prize
in economic science for advancing the theory; Tullock didn?t because, I am
told, his degree isn?t in economics but biology or law).

The gist of the theory is that people in the public sector and the
private sector are motivated very similarly, that is, so as to advance
their own agendas. And why not? Why would someone enter ?public? service
if not to promote some cherished purpose, in this case by means of
politics rather than enterprise? Indeed, most folks who go into politics
do not devote themselves to promote the interest of some illusory ?society
as a whole.? There is no such thing??society? is a term applied to the
interlocking network of all the private and social endeavors and
achievements of individuals, nothing more. There is no entity the term
refers to the interest of which public servants can advance. There are
only the innumerable private interests, all of them with more or less
support within society, and people entering politics and working in
government are pursuing these interests, not the interest of society as a
whole. (The only common interest governments can possibly protect is the
equal individual rights of all citizens.)

Whenever people do pursue their various private interests within
government, they have one advantage over those who do this in the private
sector. This is that they can obtain resources from taxation instead of
voluntary contributions, via trade. So the pursuit of the ?interest of
society as a whole? routinely gets reckless and unrestrained. We have, as
a result, massive, uncontrolled spending on projects that have become the
purview of governments because they can legally extort?and, if that
doesn?t work, print?money with hardly any obstacles standing in their way.

Former governor Weld is right to complain and to seek some remedy from
privatization. Indeed, throughout the globe desperately broke governments
have begun doing this whenever they aren?t prevented by citizens who have
come to depend on them for handouts. (Germany is a good example where some
in government is seeking to reign in spending but free riders fiercely

In any case, one would have thought that Ms. Solomon, being as she is a
journalist in the employ of a very prestigious media giant, The New York
Times, would have some inkling about public choice theory and its
successes in understanding how politicians and bureaucrats behave. Yet,
she asserts, as if it were a self-evident axiom, that government can be
trusted ?to act in the interest of society as a whole.? Is she whistling
in the dark or is she really so ignorant as to buy into this widely
exposed old myth?

One would have hoped she is aware that governments mostly serve various
special private interests and care not a whit about society as a whole but
use the idea as a ruse. And, contrary to another myth to which she
subscribes, the only reason government exists is to secure our
rights?which is something Ms. Solomon could easily have gleaned from
reading not some obscure technical treatise but the Declaration of

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