Home > Democracy, Law > Let’s reform the system!

Let’s reform the system!

Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice. – William Lloyd Garrison

The ideas which now pass for brilliant (political) innovations and advances are in fact mere revivals of ancient errors, and a further proof of the dictum that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it. – Henry Hazlitt

I propose a Constitutional Amendment providing that, if any public official, elected or appointed, at any level of government, is caught lying to any member of the public for any reason, the punishment shall be death by public
– L. Neil Smith

Statists disregard the basic premises that government is the initiation of force, and the initiation of force is inherently immoral. You can tell them all the other arguments about why government is wrong, and they will concede democracy is imperfect, and “do I wish less money went to this and more to that? Sure. Do I think special interests should have less power? Of course. That is why we need to reform the system.” Has reform of the system taken place during your lifetime? And has it been for the better? If not, why do you think that is?

Perhaps it is because no one can agree on the direction reforms should take. Do we want bigger or smaller government? More or less regulation of health care? Bigger or smaller military? More or less government intervention in the economy? Do we want a government that does what is right regardless of what is popular, or one that does what is popular, because what is popular is right?

Perhaps it is because voters and their representatives change their minds with the wind. How many things promised on the campaign trails of Barack Obama or George Bush have got done? Not many. They found other things to do. Do the people who voted for them remember any of those promises? Do they even care anymore? Perhaps politicians have found out they can lie and get away with it, give hundreds of billions in taxpayer money to lobbyist buddies and no one notices, screw things up and still get reelected. Or perhaps it is impossible to improve a system that is based on violence.


There is no lack of ideas for reform. Have politicians ever implemented any of the thousands of good ideas from think tanks and countless more from hopeful citizens? Do they have any incentive to do so? Proportional representation is indeed more representative. It reveals the different visions we all have for society, thus fragmenting decision makers, dividing the people who voted for them even more than the system already does and rendering impossible any kind of consensus. Sure, laws could still get passed, but they would be based on an even greater amount of horse trading (doing favours for each other) than goes on in usual legislative sessions. It does not change any of the real problems government creates. Likewise, campaign finance reform is always praised as inherently good. But it is still almost impossible for independents to run, unless they are millionaires. When was the last time there was campaign finance reform or electoral reform of any kind that benefited anyone other than the incumbents? I’ll let you ponder that one.

We are so busy considering how to retool voting, campaign financing and other petty functions of democracy we have long given up real aspirations. How about hanging all politicians caught lying, as L. Neil Smith proposed? How about sentencing every judge who convicts or every policeman who harms an innocent man to life without parole? How about making politicians who voted for budgets that increase the debt pay the interest on that debt out of their own pockets? How about forcing anyone who votes to wage an aggressive war to fight on the front line, or if any of these people have consciences, to live with a family in the area being bombed? How about rigorously testing every candidate for higher office for psychopathy and publishing the results? These ideas might make for a better political system. But they are so unrealistic as to be a joke. As David Friedman said, “One cannot simply say, ‘Let government help the poor.’ ‘Reform the income tax so that rich people really pay.’ Things are as they are for reasons. It would make as much sense for the defender of the free market to argue that when he sets up his free market it will produce equal wages for everyone.” How can you reform a system that by its nature discourages it?

Here is another idea. Let us raise the annual salaries and pensions of all members of the US Congress by $2m each. What would that cost? $1.07b a year. About the same as 12 hours of defense spending. It is a truism to say people lie or steal when they have a strong enough incentive to. When one has power over the granting of favours one tends to want to profit from it. If they are already making two to three million a year, and know they will retire and die no poorer, fewer of them might take bribes. (Although presumably a number of them still will.) The problem is, most people who are convinced politicians are crooks believe they do not deserve more money, and those who believe politicians when they speak think they are being selfless when they cut their own salaries.

There seems to be this belief among democrats that democracy is infinitely malleable, that because people can vote for new representatives, they can shape the system as they want. Democracy, after all, I used to believe with no evidence, guarantees peace, freedom, equality and prosperity, is exportable because all the world’s peoples crave it, and will last forever because everyone realises (or will realise) it is the ideal. All of those beliefs are disproven by the evidence. People who believe them grasp at the ideal while ignoring the real. Political systems change, but they tend to get worse rather than better, as bureaucracies expand and every aspect of life gets regulated; debts rise and economies suffer; freedoms slip away and citizens have less power to check the state; laws proliferate and organised crime grows. Democracy is indeed malleable, but it is molded in the ways politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and other interested parties with their hands in the clay want, not according to the wishes of the voters standing outside the windows looking in hopefully.

But it is so easy to cling to the current system as either the best or the only one we’ve got, and so hard to envision a system of liberty. It happens to the best of us. Economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that corporate crime such as tax evasion, and its corruption of government officials, through bribes and kickbacks, is exploding worldwide. But he did not consider that, without the ability to steal and spend other people’s money, and government control over resources, there would be no corruption. You would do business with the private owners of those resources. Then he defies all history by saying that, in order to change the relationships between business and government, we need “a new kind of politician leading a new kind of political campaign”. So, someone who isn’t concerned with taking power? Someone who is doing it for completely selfless reasons? Someone who will save the day? Has there ever been any politician like that? Or at least, if there has, has he or she ever taken power? And if he or she made it into power, did he or she somehow not get corrupted by it? And if not, did he or she have enough of it or stay long enough to make real changes? Apparently not. It is ironic for democrats to call voluntaryists unrealistic. As Murray Rothbard says, “the man who puts all the guns and all the decision-making power into the hands of the central government and then says, ‘limit yourself’; it is he who is truly the impractical utopian.”


The reformists are the same people who talk about accountability. This is the chimera democrats are always chasing. The state systematically relieves its agents of responsibility. When was the last time police were jailed for a botched raid that killed innocent people? When was the last time a politician was jailed for lying to start a war? When have you ever heard of a bureaucrat getting fired for terrible service and lack of effort? If a government agency approves of and releases a drug that kills people, or does not approve a drug that would save them, who takes the rap? No one.

Not only that, but the benefits of legal irresponsibility have gone to corporations by wrapping their owners and managers in legal protection, and to unions by protecting them in similar ways. Unaccountability is the rule for every government department and the powerful groups the state protects. Those subject to the will of the state have very little ability to hold it accountable. That is what it means to have power over others.

Recently, for instance, the Government Accountability Office requested the Department of Homeland Security conduct a full cost/benefit analysis of the Transport Security Administration full-body scanner boondoggle, and of the idea of screening 100% of all containers bound for the US. Homeland Security replied such a study “would place significant burdens on agency resources”. This middle finger to taxpayers comes from a department with an annual budget of $71b and rising and yet does little that is worthwhile. But a few tens of billions is nothing compared to the wasted trillions of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. I recommend the book Three Trillion Dollar War by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes. Then you will see what accountability really means.

Changes can take place in government, of course, but usually only when enough people are angry enough with the government to demand them. In such cases, they might want to end corruption, take freedoms back, and so on. Such demands are inevitably to rectify problems the government has caused. They are not reforms that take place within the political system but because of challenges to it. And when the people are not looking, the system reverts to its traditional practice of concentrating power at the top. If there were no government in the first place, neither reform nor revolution would be necessary or reversible.

Besides, states get their power from taxes, votes and compliance. I think people who pay their taxes and vote and then discuss how they would like to limit the power of politicians are deluded. After all, the ultimate act of reform might have been the American Revolution. Look how it turned out.

As Rothbard also pointed out, “The state is the only institution which can use the revenue from this organized theft to presume to control and regulate people’s lives and property. Hence, the institution of the state establishes a socially legitimized and sanctified channel for bad people to do bad things.” Because we are endowed with the ability to do good and harm, society’s institutions should encourage the good and discourage the bad. Government, by its nature, encourages the bad and discourages the good. It is designed by psychopaths for psychopaths. If you want to reform the system, take away the state’s ability to initiate force.

  1. June 5, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Yeah, and the middle finger to travellers by governments all over the world every time there is an intelligence failure or failed terrorist attack on a flight, its time to increase the invasiveness and inconvenience of air travel with ineffective security theatre. And the porno-scans at airports – a lot of rent seeking for no benefit at all.

    One of the biggest problems with democratic systems is they are too democratic – politicians don’t have incentives to do what is right but to do what is popular. We need constitutional protection to prevent governments from most of the military action they get involved with in foreign jurisdiction (including peacekeeping), creating arbitrary tax systems that give tax credits to all sorts of people and tax different businesses at different rates. And most importantly, constitutional protection against running a Ponzocracy. We can’t have generation after generation consuming more government services than they pay for – it just won’t end well. But the voters aren’t students of economics and they believe the garbage Krugman writes. Voters want bigger government with more services now, and someone else to pay for it. The eventual result is Greece, though it could be decades away.

  1. September 8, 2011 at 1:22 pm
  2. September 8, 2011 at 1:34 pm
  3. October 3, 2012 at 12:52 am

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