With all the bills coming through the new General Assembly on election reform, by far the best quip on what’s wrong with politics in North Carolina came from the man in charge of the last Senate, the recently resigned Marc Basnight, in his gracious cession to the new ruling party:
“In serving the people, you understand a day like this may come,” said Basnight, of Manteo, who led the Senate for the past 18 years. “You are hopeful that the change is beneficial, new ideas, different thoughts. This is only what the people want, so that means it is good.”
This bit of Schoolhouse Rock electoral positivism must be quite a balm for politicians’ consciences. By simple virtue of the fact that he was voted into office, everything he did for his 26 years in office (and 18 as President Pro Tem) was good. The people have spoken; the volonté générale is made manifest, and they want what Basnight gives them. And of course, the people are never wrong.
To his credit, he seems to have been very gracious to the new party leadership, as this logic requires him to be. Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t measure up to reality.
At first glance, one might think it’s a crude formulation of the subjective theory of value. Many economists have waxed about how one person cannot tell another that he will be satisfied by apples better than oranges – only the individual can make that choice for himself. However, the subjective theory of value does not say “whatever people want is good”. Far from it: people clearly make choices which are bad for them, and the theory does not rule out wisdom and advice. What it does rule out is forcing one set of preferences on another person.
But Basnight himself has proven not to be above telling other people what’s good for them. No doubt it was simply sloppy speech on his part to imply that whatever the people want is good. But even more troubling is his idea that the political process gives people what they want.
I’ve argued before that we have a mechanism for giving people what they want – and that isn’t the political process: it’s the market. The political process takes a problem and forces a solution on everyone, regardless of need or appropriateness. This is exactly why school zoning is bad for kids, for example. The market, on the other hand, allows for individual choice. The fact that I prefer red delicious apples shouldn’t prevent you from eating granny smiths. The fact that I prefer to teach my own kids about sex shouldn’t stop other parents from choosing schools with a sex ed class. School choice is the logical extension of apple choice – and for that matter, so is choice in almost anything, from day care to grocery bags to occupational licensing – which means removing it from the political process.
President Obama remarked last year, “When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us.” This is at best naïve, and at worst a disingenuous misdirection. Our government is not “us” – it is other people, approved by at least 50% of the population for at least one instant in time, making decisions for everybody, for a period of several years, regardless of continued approval. On the contrary; where our government is “us” only in a loose metaphorical sense, our market is “us” quite literally. It doesn’t need representatives and intermediaries, and we don’t have to wait for elections to express our voice. We tell producers every day what to produce simply by buying and not buying. Each and every one of us is the market.
It’s funny, then, that when the people speak through the market, Basnight feels the need to jump in and decide whether it’s “good” or not – heaven forbid parents decide whether their kids get juice boxes at day care! But when the people speak through the distorted megaphone of the ballot box, every result is golden and inscrutable.
The more things we subject to the political process, the more people lose. And that is unambiguously bad.