Political Science 101

Why Should We Care about Political Science?

The electorate should have a basic understanding of political science because we live in a political world. In a mixed market economy like the USA, public policy provides the framework and the boundaries by which most of the free market operates.

What is Political Science?

Political Science is the study of public policy. It is the study of how governments behave and that effect on society. For example, what happens when a new president is elected? Clearly it is a “soft” science in that it simply observes and analyzes a topic whose outcomes are very difficult to measure objectively. By its nature it is subjective as opposed to the objectivity of say economics.

Relationship To Economics

Political Science is related to economics – that is where it gets its initial context. In a mixed market, public policy cannot be properly analyzed without first considering the economic foundation on which it lies. It is critical to understand the economic impact of any particular public policy because that will have an effect on its outcome – whether it is successful or whether it is adopted.

Self Interest Theory Revisited

Recall that self-interest is foundational in economic theory. But to be self-interested does not mean self-centered. We can actually satisfy our self-interest by caring for others. Really? Now that’s crazy talk! When do we ever see that? We begin to see altruistic behavior when our immediate needs are cared for. In other words we can become more altruistic as a society when our own needs are met first. This becomes even more prevalent if we are confident that such self-provision will continue into the future. This has been the magic success of capitalism in a democratic republic. To a certain extent, by meeting the basic needs of the electorate (and then some), capitalism has provided a platform on which to build great societies. Unfortunately, altruism will not happen entirely on it’s own. If we leave capitalism completely unbridled, then we can expect excesses. So even when we have the capacity to help others, we may not have the sustained will to do so. We have to force ourselves to be altruistic because the benefits are long run. Therefore, in a mixed market successful public policy must first be based on a free market to ensure the basic needs of the electorate are met. From there it can be expanded or controlled provided there are resources remaining to accommodate common, non-essential or inefficient preferences.

Qualitative Layer Over a Quantitative Outcome

This begs the question – what are the basic needs of a society? This is a qualitative question (having to do with quality as opposed to quantity). Recall that Economics is a quantitative social science (having to do with quantity). Political Science is a qualitative social science. Properly applied in a mixed market economy, public policy is intended to be a layer placed upon an economic model. In a planned market (like that of say Cuba), the political science is the market and it is doomed to fail, and so political science is everything. In a mixed market (like the USA), we have the opportunity to allow the free market to reign, but to provide minor adjustments when it goes too far. So these two social sciences are best used in tandem. It may be that even though the economic equilibrium points to a social policy that is more efficient from a quantitative perspective, we may choose anyway to go with a less “efficient” political outcome that is more desirable from a qualitative social perspective. But the idea is that we should not do this blindly because economic laws will tend to win the day regardless of how we mess with them. For to enact public policies that completely ignore or “fly in the face of” economic reality is to adopt policies that are at least impractical and certainly unsustainable. In other words, even if we enact laws that outlaw certain economic behavior, that behavior will still occur in many cases in the form of a black market (see prohibition). This will tend to undermine the public policy to some extent.

It is up to the society itself to define the basic needs. So let’s start the process with an economic model.

Mixed Markets and Laissez-faire Economics

Laissez-faire Economics has been given a bad rap. Many interpret it to be a “hands-off” economy with no government intervention. It is often spoken of as a “free market” economy as opposed to a mixed market economy. The term “Laissez-faire” is a French term meaning, “let do” or “allow to do”. It is an economy where events are allowed to take their own course with minimal government intervention (i.e., public policy).

Ideally we’d like to believe that such an economy would satisfy all our needs and no public policy would be required. So let’s try that and see where it would lead with no intervention – a so-called
free market. First, in a capitalistic society, those with the capital would determine what was supplied. They would respond to public demand and they would produce enough goods at a high enough price to make a profit. Even if only one party controlled all the capital, it is doubtful they could supply all that was demanded. They could maximize their profits if they allowed others to help them. They would likely enter into agreements with those without capital, offering them incentives to produce for them. Eventually others would gain capital through their own profits and competition would set in. This would lower prices to an economic equilibrium and all is moving along rather smoothly.

So far, so good. But there will be those in society that cannot compete because they are disabled, too young, too old, sick too often, etc. and most importantly cannot afford to care for themselves.
What about the incapable? They could rely on the benevolence of those that are well off, but this is likely to fail because most people react in their short term self interest; they would be ignored. In other words, this isn’t much different that the feudal days when kings and warlords controlled the society and the peasants begged for provision. Although we could live again in such a society, we make a qualitative decision not to.

And then there is the problem of corruption. Those with capital would seek to maximize their market share and to do so would bribe, cheat, lie and collude to gain influence. Where there were politicians, they would be bribed. The same outcome would occur with judges, police, and basically any one in legal authority over them. This is human nature; it is to be expected and planned for in a mixed market economy. This is why, even in a Laissez-faire economy it is recognized that some mount of intervention is required (it said minimal intervention, not no intervention).

So really, there’s nothing wrong with a Laissez-faire economy depending on how “Laissez-faire” is defined. After all, a Laissez-faire economy is, by definition, a mixed market economy, not a free market economy. So we can feel good about applying Laissez-faire public policies in America. Knowing how inefficient and typically incompetent government is, this is the only real choice we have.

Common Interests

Public policy can / should be used to provide guidance and / or services where the free market provides inefficient outcomes. One example is say in transportation. In a completely free market, anyone could build a road anywhere they wanted to (or not). Clearly it is in the public interest to build as many roads that are necessary, but not useless roads. The same can be said for railroads and airports. National Defense is another obvious candidate – we can’t allow just anyone to create an army. So it is pretty obvious which areas need public intervention in the otherwise free market.

Some Markets May Require Intervention if Social Needs are not Met

Some markets have the interesting characteristic of an inelastic elasticity of demand. In other words, the demand is less sensitive to changes in price than with most items. Health Care is a great example. Most people would pay almost anything to prolong their life. That is why health care is very expensive. The market responds to this demand and prices are very high. This will lead to the situation we find in the USA whereby the majority of the population will simply not be able to afford health care at all of any kind. This is the quantitative outcome of a free market. Now we ask ourselves, “Is this the outcome we desire as a society?” If so, fine. But if not, we may want to apply public policy that somehow pools resources so that more of the electorate can benefit. We can choose to artificially lower costs to the public by subsidizing healthcare providers. To do this, we would need to raise taxes to pay the difference in the costs. On the other hand, prices would be lowered to the extent that a large purchaser of healthcare services (say the government) could actually increase the elasticity of demand. Further, if we take a more holistic approach to healthcare by paying for preventive care, we can lower costs in the long run. It must be understood that these are decisions that would never be made in a free market.

Excess Intervention

On the other hand, government should not intervene in markets where it is unnecessary, inefficient or incompetent. For example, what is the benefit of providing a Securities and Exchange Commission that is powerless in enforcing their regulations or is corrupt by market influence? Perhaps a better approach would be to not regulate the stock market at all, but rather to not allow any government or public funds to be invested in what is really legalized gambling (i.e., the stock market).

Where Do You Stand On The Issues, Sir?

So we have a formula for making public policy but what about those that actually make the policy? Are they truly public servants? As a society, we really need to move toward issues-based politics as opposed to personality-based politics. However a politician’s stance on an issue does not guarantee that they have the ability to enact successful public policy. We’ve seen this for years – politicians “standing for” certain issues, but then seeing no change in public policy that benefits a majority of the people. Worse, politicians have used divisive fringe issues for years to drive a wedge between the electorate while they pursue the political agenda of the multinationals and special interests that financed their election campaigns. In a democracy, a politician is to represent all the people, not just those who agree with or have supported him or her.

Why Are Foreign Governments Allowed Influence on Public Policy AT ALL?

Following on the earlier theme of market corruption, what about government corruption? Politicians know that divisive issues will probably never get resolved, but if they can get the electorate to focus on them, they can be used as a smokescreen while sinister laws can be passed and developed in caucuses that actually support foreign nations (e.g. the US Senate India Caucus)! This gets into the notion of whether our public “servants” actually serve the American public or if they instead serve their own career and even foreign nations above the USA. Of course we must formulate policy on global issues through foreign affairs committees, but why in the world are our politicians pandering to the interests of foreign governments? Is that their purpose or is it to serve us instead?

It’s All About (Broken) Trust

So we see that “poli sci” is really where half the action is (the other half being the free markets). Successful and sustainable public policy takes into account and works with an economic model. The idea is that we want the free market to do as much as it can to provide social well-being and then take over from there to “fine tune” the result into a society we can all live in peacefully. Unfortunately it is difficult to pay attention to all the public policies being acted on every day while trying to support a family or get through school or whatever. In the past, Americans have trusted their politicians to represent them. Unfortunately we can no longer afford this luxury because government has demonstrated rather thoroughly that it is perfectly willing to completely ignore the will of the people.