All democratic politics, regardless of the issue, is governed more by emotion than reason. Sure, there are economic rationales and political theories behind decisions, but most often major political actions are made based on gut emotional reactions and appeals. The recent growth in behavioral economics is a positive trend, but that approach has, for the most part, evaded the way we think about politics.
We have anecdotal evidence of some approaches that have worked in the past, but politics is not science and there’s no effective way to implement economic theories in a democratic polity. Every action comes down to a choice between standing by your emotional gut reaction or compromising for the sake of doing something.
Democratic polities prefer doing something over doing nothing, so there is always a strong incentive for both sides to compromise. And the greatest emotional incentive any politician has is to win re-election — and there’s no surer way to win someone’s favor than to do something that directly benefits a voter. And so, in the U.S., we have a system where the government pathologically spends too much and taxes too little. How much of an immediate and long-term problem this is, again, is open to interpretation, none of it based on verifiable fact, but for the most part on gut feelings and emotions.
For these reasons, I thinker like Montaigne is valuable even when analyzing the contemporary political economy. It doesn’t matter that he’s discussing politics in an Age of Kings, because his approach to politics is largely psychological — and what he has to say about rulers in the 16th century remains valid for Presidents, Governors, Congressmen and legislators today.
Start with what Montaigne thinks of Kings who spend lavishly on the public as a way of winning public opinion:
It is a sort of lack of confidence in monarchs, a sign of not being sure of their position, to strive to make themselves respected and glorious through excessive expenditure. It would be pardonable abroad but among his subjects, where he is the sovereign power, the highest degree of honor to which he can attain is derived from the position he holds. Similarly it seems to me that it is superfluous for a gentleman to take a lot of trouble over how he dresses when at home: his house, his servants, his cuisine are enough to vouch for him there.
Kings, of course, could remain in power without majority support of the governed … democratically-elected officials aren’t so lucky. That lack of confidence that Montaigne mention is endemic to their position. Montaigne isn’t actually writing about political spending in this quote, he’s talking more about lavish dress to promote the power of the monarchy. But the same also applies to governments, especially local ones, that choose to spend tax dollars on baseball stadiums and basketball arenas instead of infrastructure improvements that would actually enrich the community:
Such funds would seem to me to be more regal, useful, sensible and durable if spent on ports, harbors, fortifications and walls, on splendid buildings, on churches, hospitals and colleges, and on repairing roads and highways.
The central problem with modern democracy is that it’s become a contest to win the hearts of voters by spending other people’s money … which in turn ends up being the taxpayer’s money … which therefore encourages governments to keep taxes as low as possible without cutting back on the spending. When an economy is growing rapidly, this isn’t a problem … but when the economy slows, government has now lost the ability to “prime the pump” with spending or tax cuts. This leads to austerity at precisely the time that it causes the most harm. Montaigne contends that all of this is done in the name of generosity:
It is all too easy to stamp ideas of generosity on a man who has the means of fulfilling them with other people’s money. And since generosity is measured not against the gift but the means of the giver, in such powerful hands it always proves useless. To be generous, they discover, they have to be prodigal. So it is not highly honored compared to the other kingly virtues: it is, said Dionysius the Tyrant, the only virtue to be fully compatible with tyranny itself. I would rather teach a king this line from one ancient ploughman: that is, ‘If you want a good crop, you must broadcast your seed not pour it from your sack.
My old boss, former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, calls this the “necessities versus niceties” conflict … all of those unsexy things that are necessary for a government to do to help promote a wealthier society — modern infrastructure, good schools, public health and safety and a reasonable safety net — fall under the axe first. And as Montaigne notes, when you help people in good times, you prevent yourself from providing truly needed help in bad times:
Liberality without moderation is a feeble means of acquiring good-will, since it offends more people than it seduces. The more people you have helped by it, the fewer you can help in the future… Is there a greater folly than doing something you like in such a way that you can do it no longer?
You might think that Montaigne is making a case for a purely minimal government, and for the most part he is, but beyond infrastructure and safety net, he also sees one other useful purpose for public money — creating works of cultural wonder. There’s a need to cultures to make investments in their own grandeur, mostly for the sake of posterity:
If anything can justify such excesses, it is the cases where the amazement was caused not by the expense but by the originality and ingenuity. Even in vanities such as these we can discover how those times abounded in more fertile minds than ours …. How puny and stunted is the knowledge of the most inquisitive men. A hundred times more is lost for us than what comes to our knowledge, not only of individual events (which sometimes are turned by Fortune into weighty exempla) but of the circumstances of great polities and nations. When our artillery and printing were invented we clamored about miracles: yet at the other end of the world in China men had been enjoying them over a thousand years earlier. If what we saw of the world were as great as the amount we now cannot see, it is to be believed that we would perceive an endless multiplication and succession of forms. Where Nature is concerned, nothing is unique or rare: but where our knowledge is concerned much certainly is, which constitutes a most pitiful foundation for our scientific laws, offering us a very false idea of everything.
Montaigne turns the discussion to how cultures interrelate, and uses the opening of the New World as an example of an opportunity lost:
What a renewal that would have been, what a restoration of the fabric of this world, if the first examples of our behavior which were set before that new world had summoned those peoples to be amazed by our virtue and to imitate it, and had created between them and us a brotherly fellowship and understanding. How easy it would have been to have worked profitably with folk whose souls were so unspoiled and so hungry to learn, having for the most part been given such a beautiful start by Nature. We, on the contrary, took advantage of their ignorance and lack of experience to pervert them more easily towards treachery, debauchery and cupidity, toward every kind of cruelty and inhumanity, by the example and model of our own manners. Whoever else has ever rated trade and commerce at such a price? So many cities razed to the ground, so many nations wiped out, so many millions of individuals put to the sword, and the most beautiful and the richest part of the world shattered, on behalf of the pearls-and-pepper business! Tradesmen’s victories! At least ambition and political strife never led men against men to such acts of horrifying enmity and to such pitiable disasters.
That’s a very strong statement against fighting wars of commerce — can there be anything less humane that destroying a civilization just to protect our own “quality of life?” Wouldn’t our genuine quality of life be improved by learning from these civilizations and by emulating their best aspects? Montaigne’s prudence in government spending fits into this as well — if cultures become so attached to their own bourgeois trappings that they demand ever greater largesse, isn’t it inevitable that they will seek out foreign enemies to continue this ill-earned enrichment. Learning to make sacrifices at home is the first step towards creating a more modest, respectful foreign policy. And we must also learn to be more humble about our achievements:
Neither Greece nor Rome nor Egypt can compare any of their constructions, for difficulty or utility or nobility, with the highway to be seen in Peru, built by their kings from the city of Quito to the city of Cuzco – three hundred leagues, that is – dead-straight, level, twenty-five yards wide, paved, furnished on either side with a revetment of high, beautiful walls along which there flow on the inside two streams which never run dry, bordered by those beautiful trees which they call molly. Whenever they came across mountains and cliffs they cut through them and flattened them, filling in whole valleys with chalk and stone. At the end of each day’s march there are beauteous palaces furnished with victuals and clothing and weapons, both for troops and travelers who have to pass that way.