Publisher's note: The article below appeared in John Hood's daily column in his publication, the Carolina Journal, which, because of Author / Publisher Hood, is inextricably linked to the John Locke Foundation.
Knocked out a big chunk of my book chapter today. More writing on tap for tomorrow. In the meantime, here's the second installment of my series on the founding principles of the John Locke Foundation.
RALEIGH If you really want to stir up a hornets' nest, go to a certain kind of modern-day conservative gathering and say, "I'm so glad that America is a democracy." You will get an earful, and depending upon the availability of edible projectiles, an eyeful. You will be accused of gross ignorance, bad faith, or both. "America," you will be lectured sonorously, "is a republic, not a democracy."
Yes, if you employ
the terms in their most pristine form. A republic, from the Latin, is a system in which government power is wielded by officials representing the general public (usually, but not always, chosen via periodic elections). A democracy, from the Greek, is a system in which at least some share of the general public makes government decisions directly, via affirmation or vote at a public gathering or, on a larger scale, via a formal referendum.
As I try - usually in vain - to tell my interlocutors in such situations, real-life republics and democracies have never been so pristine in design or practice. Ancient democracies elected military commanders or other leaders to carry out public functions as representatives of the populace. Some ancient republics had popular assemblies that performed, or at least witnessed, official acts. Furthermore, both contained sources of political power that resisted easy categorization as either democratic or republican, such as the veneration of sagacious old men, a common understanding of legal tradition, or divination by religious orders.
Besides, choosing sides in an unnecessarily stark contest
between direct democracy and representative government means losing the original and more important meaning of the term "republic." The Latin root is res publica, which literally meant "the business of the public" or "matter of public concern." It was used to distinguish matters of state from private matters. One early use of the term was specifically to distinguish private property from public property such as streets or government buildings. Built into the meaning of "republic" itself, in other words, is the notion that "government" is not synonymous with "society," and that many everyday events, transactions, or issues lie outside the proper scope of the state.
Aristotle and his students famously studied the composition and operation of governmental forms throughout the ancient world, and (as he was wont to do) prepared distinct categories of government institutions, each with their own pros and cons. Reading their Greek philosophers and Latin historians, the founders of the American republic sought to mix monarchical, aristocratic, and representative institutions within the new federal government, recognizing that dividing power thusly would likely maximize the pros and minimize the cons. Without checks and balances, it was reasoned, executive power can become tyranny, aristocratic power can become oligarchy, and representative power can become what Aristotle called "democracy," by which he meant the dangerous dictates of the mob, not the considered opinion of an informed majority of conscientious voters.
The second of JLF's statements about America's founding principles
reads as follows: "We are a constitutional republic in which government power is limited and employed for the purpose of providing legitimate public goods rather than for the benefit of insiders and narrow interest groups." Unlike the first statement, regarding our inalienable natural rights
, this one comprises several different ideas about government.
It starts with the term "constitutional republic." While Americans tend to think about constitutions as written documents that define and constrain governmental powers, a constitution need not be the result of a formal, binding contract written and ratified at a particular point in time. Britons have insisted for hundreds of years on their constitutional rights as citizens of a realm that has never held a constitutional convention. The key principle here is that a constitutional government is not an arbitrary one in which form and powers can be devised by whoever happens to hold office at the time.
A constitutional republic, then, is a form of government by which state power is constitutionally vested in a range of institutions, including but not limited to representative legislatures or executives, and limited to the public's business. What is that business? Here we use the term "legitimate public goods" to distinguish what government should do
from the many tasks it should leave to other social institutions. Perhaps no political phrase is so fraught with peril as "public good." In my experience, many politicians and citizens alike simply equate "public good" with "something that is good for the public." Great are the perils of the homonym! In this context, we are not taking about good and evil. We are talking about goods and services.
One technical way to describe a public good is that it is both non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. That is, when you consume a public good you do not significantly reduce the ability of someone else to consume it (non-rivalrous) and it is highly costly if not impossible to exclude you from consuming it (non-exclusive). National defense
, for example, is often considered a classic public good because you and I can be protected at basically the same cost as each of us individually can be protected, and if you are protected I will probably benefit, too, even if that was not the intent.
A commonsense way to think about the dividing line between public good and private good is to associate it with pricing. If an individual can efficiently be charged a price to consume a good, and can be excluded from consumption if he doesn't pay the price, then it is likely to be a private good.
So when lawmakers say that a particular government program is justified simply because it may benefit the public, they are misusing the concept of public goods (if indeed they are familiar with it at all). What they should say, or attempt to prove, is that the function or service in question cannot be performed by private enterprises, competing for the business of willing customers, because of a pricing problem. The problem may be either that justice demands no price be set (in the case of, say, defending victims of robbery or rape) or that practical experience shows no price can profitably be set and enforced (as has been the case with unlimited-access highways).
The fact that something isn't a public good doesn't mean that it can't be good for the public. Heck, public-policy research
is good for the public
. But in a constitutional republic, it is not a public good. That's why it is properly supported through voluntary means
, not through coercion.
The last few words of today's statement of principle speak to public policy often being manipulated by "insiders and special-interest groups." This is an occupational hazard of government service, demonstrated over thousands of years of experience. More recently, it has been the subject of decades of research and application within the public choice school of economics
, which uses both formal mathematics and narrative history to demonstrate how minorities often get the better of majorities even in seemingly majoritarian forms of representative government. To put the matter simply, groups of insiders or net beneficiaries of government largesse need not be numerous to wield control because they are more highly motivated to engage in political activism than is the general taxpaying public. Motivation, translated into time or money invested in politics, trumps sheer numbers.
Among the potential solutions to public-choice problems are devices that, once again, mix democratic, republican, or judicial exercises of government power. These include requiring a supermajority in the legislature to enact certain laws or fiscal measures, subjecting major long-term expenditures to direct voter approval, holding voter referendums to add tax or spending caps into the constitution itself, or urging judges to take an active role in striking down government policies that violate basic constitutional protections of individual rights, including economic ones.
There is a great deal of room for legitimate debate about how constitutional republics should be structured, how best to define and deliver public goods, and how to distinguish special interests from the public interest. But first, there must be agreement that this debate matters - that government is not merely a means for those currently in power to take what they want to enrich their political constituencies and stay in power.