How to deal with power-addicted politicians

This has been a fruitful dialog.  Two days ago Matt Yglesias made a list of how progressives should respond to the public choice critique of big government:

– This is why it’s important to be a civil libertarian and to be much
more skeptical than the political/media mainstream is of the idea that
what’s at stake in these debates is really a “balance” between a
“security” imperative and some airy “values.” It is overwhelmingly
likely that various secret police powers are simply going to be abused,
rather than put to some productive-but-liberty-infringing use.

– This is also a reason to be skeptical of ideas about discretionary regulatory fine-tuning. You always could
improve outcomes by abandoning rigid rules (with “do what you want”
counting as a rigid rule) but in practice you probably won’t.

– I think this also counts on a reason to prefer systems that rely more on career civil servants
and less on political appointees. Bureaucrats have their own
distinctive psychopathologies, but they’re different, and it’s helpful
to have them in more tension and balance than exists in the United

– It’s also important to have in place systems for effective
monitoring of elected officials. A Canadian voter elects one federal
official–a Member of Parliament. An American elects four–a President,
two Senators, and one Representative. Americans don’t have four times
as much time as Canadians to pay attention to what politicians are
doing or to learn the issues; our politicians are just being monitored
less. When you consider the proliferation of things like independently
elected school boards, district attorneys, sheriffs, etc. keep in mind
that this diffusion of responsibility is a good way for the egomaniacal
to evade responsibility.

– If that leaves us with too few veto points, the thing to do is not to have additional houses of legislature, but Swiss-style (as opposed to California-style) direct democracy, where the actions of a unicameral legislature can be checked by the voters.

I agree with much of the list (for one thing, however, I think voting for a fewer number of politicians will have a very small beneficial effect in terms of voter attention); the question is what should be added to it.  "Smaller government" is a question-begging answer even if you favor that outcome.  It's a list of what will get you to better governmental outcomes, whatever you think those might be.


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