House of Cards is a fictional political drama TV series on Netflix about a Democratic congressman, Frank Underwood, who ruthlessly and extremely unethically rises to power. I enjoy watching it and it’s very addicting for most people. It portrays the US government politicians as dishonest, self-interested, corrupt beings who constantly lust after power. And, the show portrays Democrats as being this way as well as Republicans, which is refreshing. Basically, the show focuses on the nastiness of “how the sausage is made” behind the scenes. You would think that libertarians would applaud such a show because we generally see politicians in this negative view. After all, we are sick of people who childishly think that most politicians are heroic, noble, servants who seek justice and the good of the people. So, I am happy that the show at least does reveal some of the really ugly nature of government. That’s a plus. But, it also sends some incorrect messages about government in general, messages that are actually too positive.
Is the sausage good? No.
In the story, the politicians still produce laws or make other government decisions that most audience viewers would consider good and beneficial to the public. For example, they pass major education reform, some bridge gets built, and they start a major jobs program funded by govt money usually reserved for natural disaster relief. I tend to think that the writers of the show want to send the following subtle message: “Even though the politicians are nasty, two-faced liars, they still get the job done and produce reasonably good results and laws that benefit the public.” In other words, even though you don’t want to see how the sausage is made because the process is nasty, at least the end product (the finished sausage) is pretty good. This is incorrect. It gives the government far too much credit.
The reality is that the nasty and unethical process of government also produces bad laws and bad results that do harm to people and decreases the quality of life. Not only is the process of making sausage nasty, but the end product sausage is also no good. I won’t go into detail describing why or how the resulting laws are “bad” in real life because that’s already described throughout the rest of the blog.
Self-interest in democratic elections:
What’s interesting is that the TV show’s underlying message actually matches some of the theory behind democratic processes. Some proponents of democracy theorize that democracy effectively benefits the public even if the politicians are only interested in themselves (and not noble-minded servants) because the politicians still need to get elected by the public majority. So, even though a politician may be two-faced with selfish motivations, he would still govern well or pass good laws that benefit the public because he needs the approval of the voters to stay in power. The public checks the politicians, so the theory goes. What’s more interesting is that this reasoning almost resembles the correct and well-established observation in free market economics originally described by Adam Smith that all of the self-interested buyers and sellers only seek to satisfy their own interests, yet they unknowingly do a lot of good for all humanity. So, if self-interest can lead to good results in a free market, can’t it also be true that self-interest in democratic politics can lead to good government results?
No. That democratic theory, along with House of Cards’ portrayal of government, is incorrect and quite different from free market economics. In democratic politics, politicians and the majority of people can satisfy their self-interest by stealing and forcing others to do things through violence or the threat thereof. And, the positive view of that democratic theory can only work if the majority of average citizens are extremely wise, intelligent, foreseeing, unselfish, and if they have all the detailed information and data of the world to fully understand how everything works so that they can properly elect the right leaders to manage it from above. This is obviously never going to happen. Another problem is that, as government grows bigger and more complex, it’s practically impossible for the average citizen to understand even what the government does, let alone keep a watchful eye on all of its activities. Most people are too busy with their day-to-day lives and don’t have the time or knowledge to evaluate all of the thousands, or millions, of government actions that take place. Almost always, average voters are simply not effective in checking against destructive big government power through the means of simple majority vote elections, and that leads to negative results for the public.
However, in a free market (which includes the unstated property rights protection limitation), self-interested people have to voluntarily cooperate and exchange good things for good things in order to satisfy their wants, and they can’t steal. Both parties involved benefit from a free market trade. So, even though they don’t intend to, the traders actually create benefits for all humanity (as discussed in Utopia and Blaming Greed and Myth on Trading).
The bad guy scenario is insufficient:
Lastly, House of Cards incorrectly portrays government as just full of a bunch of evil bad guy politicians who only selfishly care about themselves instead of the public. Even though this can be true for many, many other politicians actually do care about the public and want to devote their lives to “doing good and justice”. I don’t know what fraction are such do-gooders, maybe a quarter, maybe a half? Regardless, House of Cards still subtly sends a wrong message about politics in general. If the government is full of a bunch of evil bad guys, then it may seem like the solution is to just elect the right people, the good guys who care about the people. It gives false hope to people who think that we can better our government by electing good-hearted “non-corrupt” people. Since Frank Underwood (the main character) is so wretchedly evil, we might sooth our worries by thinking to ourselves, “If I ever saw a politician like that, I would be able to spot him and I wouldn’t vote for him. Then, others like me would reveal the truth to people and we would make sure he wasn’t elected. Problem solved, troubles averted.”
Nope. Firstly, we all know that many such “bad guy” figures do still get elected in the real world (hmm…usually we consider them to be in the other party, or some other nation, not one’s own). More importantly, however, many of our problems don’t come from evil-ish corrupt bad guy politicians, they instead come from good-hearted politicians and ourselves. As I’ve described elsewhere through out this whole blog, many policies that have good intentions actually create harmful effects. A classic example is the minimum wage law, which actually hurts the poor and unskilled the most (see here). Another example is the war on drugs, where many people and the politicians they elect actually think that they are doing good and helping humanity by outlawing drugs (see here). There are countless other examples, like Medicare, Social Security, inflationary monetary policy, commerce regulations, international trade restrictions, laws against homosexuals, and so many unnecessary wars.
The point is, we often need to look in the mirror when we want to blame someone for the problems we have. Through democracy, many of us ordinary citizens get to force our terrible ideas onto other people. So, we elect people who share the same terrible ideas. These politicians probably think that their ideas are great and will help people, so their heart is sort of in the right place. It’s just that their ideas are wrong, almost always because they don’t understand economics. And, in some cases the majority of voters simply vote to get free goodies from the government. Of course, such goodies are never actually free, but we don’t like the tough truth. The vast majority of the citizenry deserves just as much blame as the politicians we elect.
So, if we want to improve our society and government, we cannot imagine that we simply must make sure that we avoid voting for the obvious evil selfish bad guy. Be equally wary, if not more so, of the politician who cares so much about ordinary people that he’s willing to pass any law that appears to do so on it’s surface (see here), including laws that violate people’s rights of free trade. Also, be wary of the politician who cares so much about some moral rules that they are willing to violate other moral rules (initiating aggressive force and violence through governmental law) in order to obtain their vision of a perfect, orderly society (see here for C.S. Lewis’s excellent observation). Instead, we need to move toward a system that allows each individual person to make their own choices about how they live and what they do with their rightful property, as long as they don’t violate others’ rights, regardless of what a majority thinks.