Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneThe Wire and Public Choice
Posted at 11:12 pm on April 1, 2010, by John W. Payne

N.B. I wrote this post a few weeks ago for my personal blog before I changed the site to a new server, and it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  I happened to really like this one, so I went through the trouble of retrieving it and thought it was worth sharing here.

I finished season two of The Wire last night (yes, I know I’m way behind on this one), and I thought there was a particularly interesting point about why governments fail running through the whole season.  While the show is essentially an in-depth study of how different institutions fail, I think this one might warrant a little drawing out.  (This post will not really have spoilers as such, but if you haven’t seen it, you likely won’t get it, so it might be time to stop reading now.)

The whole reason for the detail’s existence in season two is because Major Valchek is angry that Frank Sobotka and his union gives a more substantial gift to the church they both attend than the police union.  It is nothing more than a personal vendetta, which just happens to uncover a massive criminal conspiracy.  Furthermore, if Valchek had his way, the worst of the conspiracy would have remained hidden just so he could pursue one of the least guilty members of it.

Public choice economics holds that one of the major problems with government is that politicians and government employees do not cease to be self-interested once they become part of the government.  They do not pursue some mythical “common good” but their own profit, and Valchek is the perfect illustration of that.  To use one of his phrases, Valchek “couldn’t give a hairy-ass fuck” about some ideal like law or justice.  For him, being a police officer is about rising within the organization as far as possible and abusing his power to get what he wants in the outside world.  There are many “natural police” who do care about doing the right thing, but they are always crushed by the organization, while the Valcheks and Burrells rise to the top.  And so it is with every governmental organization.  Political decisions are almost never made with an eye to the costs and benefits of the whole society but merely the costs and benefits to the politician or bureaucrat.

Contrast this with the gangs in the show.  While there is a great deal of personal animosity between some groups (e.g. the Barksdale and Proposition Joe), it can almost always be set aside if it becomes necessary for the sake of business.  At the end of the season the Greek says “Business.  Always business,” and it’s a perfect statement for the mentality of almost all the gangsters on the show.  They do some truly awful things to keep their business functioning–usually because of the black market nature of their businesses–but it is rarely for any personal reason.  Their organizations exist for one reason: to sell a product that people want.  If they lose sight of that, they will cease to exist.

However, the police and other government organizations only theoretically exist to enforce laws and mete out justice.  In reality they have as many different missions as there are personalities involved.  What benefits one division of police, almost inevitably hurts another, so the organization can never be organized because no one can agree on its goals.  The police can only muddle forward, fighting each other almost as much as they fight crime, while even if the gangs are feuding, the shit makes it to the street.


Filed under: Drug Policy, Economic Theory, Market Efficiency
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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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