So the big news today is that the governor of Illinois has been caught doing explicitly what most politicians do with more subtlety every single day: selling off their power to the highest bidder. I can't help but note that yet another politician is indicted on corruption charges at the very same time we are handing over unprecedented power to the political class as we partially nationalize the banking system and, apparently, the Big Three auto companies.
I simply do not understand how those who are in favor of giving government all of these new powers because they sincerely believe that doing so will work out the way their blackboard designs intended can keep a straight face. What kind of cognitive dissonance must it take to believe that the people YOU are handing power over to are "not like" Ted Stevens or Rod Blagojevich? How deeply must one be in denial or engage in rationalization to believe that they are "different?" How blind must one be to think that trillions of dollars in bailout money won't go to the highest bidder (as the lobbyists line up on K Street...) in a process different only in its wink-and-a-nod courtesies than Blagojevich's auctioning off of a Senate seat?
For me, the key insight of public choice is the same insight that underlies Austrian economics: it is the institutional framework that is the key to understanding the choices people make and the unintended outcomes they produce. As I said to a class last week: "Governments can't act like businesses because businesses only act like businesses because they operate in the institutional environment of private property, monetary exchange, and competition." In the same way, getting politicians to stop selling off their power isn't a matter of ethics or psychology, rather it's about changing the rules of the game such that they do not have as much power to sell. Unfortunately, the current bailout mania is changing those rules in utterly the wrong direction.
Look at it this way: the bailouts are already becoming just a legal form of the essentially the same behavior for which the governor has been indicted.
Why should we ever accept "Oh, but he's different" as an answer to the claim that explicit bribery and selling off power are just a less subtle form of politics as usual?