The Myth of Interest

In his reply de Jasay makes two claims.

First, he claims, “The saving grace of using interest as the motive of choice is that for all its narrowness, it deals in matter that is identifiable, ascertainable and with a bit of luck even quantifiable.” There is a well-known, notorious, problem with this old view. If we employ a narrow concept of interest, then I think the evidence shows that it is simply false that most political behavior can be explained in terms of such interests. A number of empirical studies show that narrowly interested concerns do not count for most of the variance in electoral behavior. Voters seek environmental goods, social goods (such as less homelessness), and they vote for minimum wage legislation when they are earning $200,000 a year.  Overall ideological commitment is a crucial factor, and narrow interest is simply an inadequate explanatory hypothesis. The same goes for politicians; that their overriding concern is interest narrowly defined just does not explain most of what goes on. The interest theorist is then driven to respond by expanding the notion of interest: the rich voters who vote for minimum wage laws are just trying to feel good about themselves!  So now “interest”  includes a wide array of goods in which people are interested in, and which they seek to promote. It becomes anything but a clear useful concept. IT is the tautological doctrine. A false hypothesis or an empty one — that is what accounts of interest as the root of political motivation must always choose between.

Second, de Jasay asserts:

The moral sentiment most relevant to political choice is fairness. People claim fairness mostly for themselves, but they undoubtedly want it for everybody else as well. However, the notion of fairness is an extraordinarily messy, disorderly one. Theorizing about it is an enterprise rather like herding cats. (The attempt to account for the emergence of fairness norms in Cristina Bicchieri’s highly-rated “social grammar” conjures up in my mind a squadron of over-equipped, late-model fighter planes sent to chase a desert Arab on a donkey).

Ah, I am sure if I knew what all this meant, I would  be able to better reply, but simply dismissing Bicchieri’s work in this way deflects us from the core point. There is overwhelming evidence fairness matters to people, and their decisions are affected by it. If it was the case that that which is not clearly quantifiable does not exist, we could dismiss it. But the simple truth is: narrow interest explains some of political behavior, ideological convictions and fairness norms explain a good deal too. Empirical evidence cannot be dismissed with a quip.

What de Jasay and so many classical liberals cannot bear is that an expansive welfare state has been supported largely because the majority of voters and politicians believe it is fair and just. All the quips in the world cannot change that.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Reprising the topic of his 1989 essay, “Is Limited Government Possible?” political theorist Anthony de Jasay continues to express limited skepticism. According to de Jasay, the incentive of political actors is to gain power by putting together winning coalitions, and to stay in power by rewarding their supporters at the expense of their opponents. If constitutional limits stand in their way, they will eventually be reinterpreted, undermined, or otherwise worked around. Governments are more delayed than limited by constitutional rules, like a lady with the key to her own chastity belt. If governments are effectively limited, de Jasay argues, then it is by means of the structure of campaign finance, the practical limits on tax rates, and public panic at the prospect of economic ruin. De Jasay admits conventional cultural and moral norms may limit government, but doubts these are strong enough to fully check the interests that drive politics.

Response Essays

  • In his reply essay, Gerald Gaus, the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, argues that Anthony de Jasay has overlooked the importance of distinctively moral rules in regulating behavior. Drawing on recent work in psychology, Gaus distinguishes between conventional rules, which may be changed by the relevant authority without complaint, and moral rules, which may not. If constitutional limits on government fail, it is because these are seen as merely conventional rules out of sync with biologically and culturally evolved moral rules. “The welfare state reigns supreme not because the state and it allies have tricked the rest of us in a power grab,” Gaus argues. “It reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans.”

  • In his reply, Duke University political scientist Michael Munger agrees with de Jasay’s discussion of “the frontier between the ‘zones’ of individual and collective choice,” and provides a novel illustration. However, Munger disagrees that the problem with the “incentive-compatibility” of limits on power has been overlooked. He offers a classic historical example of incentive-compatible constraints and discusses the value of building conflicts of interest into political institutions through the separation of powers. “The last thing you want is an efficient government. Our only choices are a truly weak, but efficient, limited government, or else a powerful government prevented by strong ties from using most of its powers, most of the time.”

  • Randy Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at Georgetown University Law Center, notes that limited government is possible because it is actual, but acknowledges that “given that some limits on power clearly remain, these constraints failed to hold the line the Framers were attempting to draw.” Barnett argues that the mechanisms of limited power embodied in the Constitution — reciprocity, checks and balances, and the power of exit — would be more successfully realized in a “polycentric constitutional order in which one would subscribe to a legal system of one’s choice as today one subscribes to cell phone service, health and auto insurance, or private security providers.” Understanding why this would be an improvement “can help us appreciate why restoring the characteristics of the original Constitution as amended by the Fourteenth Amendment … would be far preferable to the constitutional status quo,” Barnett writes.