Who Watches the Watchers?

The abiding question of government is “Who watches the watchers?” That is the question Cass Sunstein, the current regulatory czar in the Obama administration, never quite addressed in his book The Cost of Rights. In essence, the question points to an observation that if people cannot be trusted to govern themselves, they certainly cannot be trusted to govern others. And if people can be trusted to govern themselves, there is no need for a monopoly government.

Sunstein claimed that, much to the chagrin of libertarians, an expansive government is necessary for rights to function. After all, if there are no police, what good are property rights if no one is present with the power to enforce them? Furthermore, for police to function, there needs to be an effective oversight mechanism to make sure police procedures are followed. And governments have costs, which must be recouped with taxes if they are to be maintained.

I have two responses to Sunstein’s justification for the state. First, even in the absence of government, individuals do not have to be defenseless bystanders. In fact, in the absence of gun control laws, more people would be in a better position to defend themselves and their property. Second, Sunstein unknowingly is making a case that rights do not exist in practice. If police and an oversight panel are necessary for the defense of rights, then another oversight panel is necessary for the first oversight panel and so on and so on at infinitum. Again, we are left dumbfounded answering who will watch the watchers.

Furthermore, Sunstein’s leap to a justification for taxes is a non-sequitur. A drowning man who is rescued by a well-dressed businessman should, if he has the least scant of courtesy, offer to pay for his rescuer’s dry cleaning or perhaps a new suit. But would the good Samaritan be justified in holding a gun on the man who he just rescued if he was not compensated? Of course not.

Possibility of Electing Moral Representatives

For a moment, let’s grant Sunstein’s premise that government is necessary for rights to function. Who is to govern?

One remaining solution to the question is that select people are of sufficient character to govern others, including themselves. Fair enough. But is it plausible? Lousy entrepreneurs are flushed from the market all the time. It is easy to not do business with someone. You just ignore them. And those with minority opinions are free to act on their beliefs. That is the difference between the free market, an open-ended process of discovery, and one-size-fits-all monopoly government.

The important point is that you cannot keep out people of low character. Character is not a black or white, all good or all evil proposition. Character is along a gradient. And in an appeal to votes, someone closer along the lines of low character may appeal to the unrepresented immoral class. Second, those in power have no obligation to uphold their promises, so low-moral people can get into office on the promises of doing good. The institution itself can be corrupting. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton stated.

The Myth of the Vigilant Voter

So if moral representatives can elected, why are they so scarse? You will sometimes hear that voters are to blame for not keeping politicians honest. This is even less convincing since government has been in the control of the education system for the past century.

It also is hard to imagine that voters ought to be vigilant. The costs of some outrageous corporate welfare is just a few dollars per voter. How much time is it worth to research and compare competing regulatory proposals? For the beneficiary of that regulation, it could mean millions of dollars.

All the things that allow for the efficient blending of capital and management are lacking in government. Government’s “customers” have no real alternative. The best they can do is choose new management every few years. The managers can never really be certain why they were put in charge, and they can never be held liable for any broken promises. At most, they can lose their job (and keep their pensions) if enough people agree a less-worse manager is available.

The people who rise in government are those who like to exercise power, since that is what government is, an exercise of power. That individual was not randomly chosen; he or she worked deliberately to rise through the ranks to get in that position, probably toiling many years for such an opportunity. Knowing that someone has worked in obscurity for the opportunity, what is the likelihood that someone in power would use that power solely for the benefit of others?