Politics Without Romance

For much of my life, I used to believe that it was the government’s job to solve all our problems. I always thought that government was this amazing benefactor with infinite wealth and power, and great potential to do good. Even in the face of evidence showing that the actual outcomes were sub-standard, I still believed that government was the only positive force for change.

My views changed completely when I was introduced to public choice theory by Parth Shah at an iPolicy workshop organised by Centre for Civil Society. It became a new lens through which to see and understand politics and political behaviour – applying the tools of economics.

Politicians and bureaucrats are not self-effacing saints working selflessly solely for the public good. Politicians and bureaucrats are not wiser than us that they know what is true, beautiful and good. Politicians and bureaucrats are just like the rest of us – they too are motivated by self-interest. They attempt to increase their power in whatever way possible, legitimate and/or illegitimate. A person’s nature is more or less fixed and does not magically change when the person occupies a position of authority.

Suddenly, the answers were obvious.

Of course, a politician is only interested in staying in power. Of course, a bureaucrat only cares about increasing his turf and budget. Of course, special interest groups will lobby hard for their gains – because they can concentrate their benefits and diffuse costs on everyone else. Of course, voters are self-interested in getting what they can from the politicians. They are also rational to either not vote or not think much about who to vote for – because their single vote makes no difference in the final outcome.

Indian politicians consider the average voter to be poor, a resident of rural India and a farm worker. But the fact is that around 50 percent of Indians live in urban areas. Yet the politicians believe that India is still largely a rural country, that government must intervene to “help” the poor, and that pursuing economic transformations can be electorally disastrous.

This applies to every government in India – the Union government, the state governments, and even the local governments (though they have very limited power). The electorate votes (or does not), governments grow, problems remain largely unsolved, and life goes on. But outcomes do not change because the rules don’t change regardless of the change in rulers.

PS: The title “Politics Without Romance” is from a paper by James Buchanan, who along with Gordon Tullock, originated the field of public choice, constructed around government failure.

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