Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Not many complimentary things are said about politicians. When a problem arises, people say, “Government ought to do something.” They seem to have forgotten politicians run the government.

Many think things can be changed by electing different politicians. But I ask: Given the incentives politicians face, why should we expect one politician to differ significantly from another? We should focus less on personalities and more on rules.

The kind of rules we should have are the kind that we would make if our worst enemy were in charge. My mother created a mini-version of such a rule. Sometimes she would ask either me or my sister to evenly divide the last piece of cake or pie to share between us. More times than not, an argument ensued about the fairness of the division. Those arguments ended with Mom’s rule: Whoever cuts the cake lets the other take the first piece. As if by magic or divine intervention, fairness emerged and arguments ended. No matter who did the cutting, there was an even division.

By creating and enforcing neutral rules, we minimize conflict. Consider one area of ruthless competition — sports. In Super Bowl XL, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks had a lot on the line. Specifically, there’s the $73,000 payment per man, contract enrichment and other benefits to the winners. Despite a bitterly fought contest and all that was at stake, the game ended peacefully and winners and losers were civil to one another.

How is it that players with conflicting interests and reasons for winning can play a game, agree with the outcome and walk away as good sports? It’s a minor miracle of sorts. That “miracle” is that it is far easier to reach agreement about the game’s rules than the game’s outcome. The rules are known and durable, and the referee’s only job is their evenhanded enforcement. Even football teams with losing records would find their long-run interests lie in known, durable and evenhand rules. They can more adequately devise a winning strategy because predictability is enhanced.

Suppose the game rules were flexible and referees played a role in determining the game’s outcome. In other words, imagine the referees were more interested in what they saw as justice than enforcing neutral rules. What might one predict about team behavior? Instead of trying to raise team productivity, owners would allocate resources to influence-peddling in the form of lobbying or bribing the referees.

In the case of last year’s Super Bowl, the referees might have argued that since the Pittsburgh Steelers won four previous Super Bowl championships, justice demands the game be rigged in favor of the Seattle Seahawks, who have never won a Super Bowl. It’s easy to imagine all the conflict that would arise — team owners bringing lawsuits for what they see as biased referee decisions, and games ending in rancor and fights. There would be a reduction in the skill and fitness of all players and a lower overall quality of the sport. After all, if the outcome is determined by how well the team influences the referees, why spend resources recruiting and training superior players? It’s better to use those resources for lobbying and bribes.

We have a set of rules that are known, neutral and intended to be durable. Those rules were created by our founders and embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Those rules have been weakened by a Congress of both parties that picks winners and losers in the game of life. The U.S. Supreme Court, intended to be a neutral referee, has forsaken that role and become a participant. All of this means we can expect a future of bitterly fought elections and enhanced conflict.

Walter E. Williams is nationally syndicated columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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